Accurate Grading with a Standards-Based Mindset (WEBINAR)

On Monday, December 16, 2013 I conducted a webinar entitled Accurate Grading with a Standards-Based Mindset. The archived copy of the webinar can be viewed here. (It’s just under 80 min, including questions at the end.)

Please note: This webinar was presented by Pearson Education. When you click on the link above you will first be asked to provide contact information before the webinar will play. While it says “the author has requested the information” please know that it is Pearson (not me) who requires this…just wanted you to know.

Below is a brief blog post that encapsulates (but by no means covers) the essence of the webinar:

While the standards-based grading movement is in full swing, not every school, district, or state is in exactly the same place. The difference is attributable to a variety of factors including the level of the school within which a standards-based approach to grading is being implemented. Elementary school standards-based report cards often look very different from middle or even high school standards-based report cards; that’s not a bad thing as the application of standards-based reporting at each level needs to be suitable for that level. The point is that schools and districts across the country are at various places along the standards-based grading continuum. While some have implemented fully, others are still exploring.

Despite this variation, the common link for all along the standards-based grading continuum is how we think about grading; what I call the standards-based mindset. This mindset represents the heavy lifting of the grading conversation. Once we shift how we think about grading, the implementation of standards-based reporting is easy, or at least easier, since the way we think about grades, how we organize evidence, and what is most heavily emphasized is different. We become more thoughtful about ensuring that a student’s grade represents their full level of proficiency and not just the average of where they were and where they are now.

Adults are rarely mean averaged and certainly, it is irrelevant to an adult that they used to not know how to do something. Yet for a student, these two factors are dominant in their school experience. A student’s grade (at least traditionally) is almost always a function of the mean average and a failed quiz or assignment early in the learning almost always counts against them; remember, every 40 needs an 80 just to get a 60.

The standards-based mindset shifts this conversation to a more accurate way of reporting a student’s level of proficiency. Like any idea, there are always detractors who’ll try to hijack the conversation by suggesting that standards-based grading is about lowering standards, making it easier for students, and letting them off-the-hook; none of that is true. Standards-based grading is about accurately reporting a student’s true level of proficiency. As students learn and grow through the curriculum they should be given full credit for their achievement. When they don’t receive full credit we are sending the not so subtle message that you should have learned faster!

A standards-based mindset is separate from how we report grades. With a standards-based mindset you can still report traditional grades, it’s just that how you determine grades is significantly different. Teachers with a standards-based mindset eliminate the influence of non-learning factors from their gradebooks. Whether it’s extra credit or late penalties, a standards-based mindset is about accurately reporting a student’s level of proficiency. Another misrule about standards-based grading is that meeting deadlines, completing work, etc. are not important; they are, however, they’re different. A student isn’t less proficient in math because the work was handed in two days late. Attributes, habits, and college/career skills are important and with a standards-based approach they remain important, but separate.

The standards-based mindset is about emphasizing the most recent evidence of learning by allowing students to receive full credit for their accomplishments. Reassessment is not about hitting the reset button or developing a do-over generation; it’s about recognizing that students have surpassed their previous levels of proficiency and giving students the opportunity to demonstrate those higher levels…and then giving them full credit for their learning. Students are still held accountable – for the learning – and not punished when they fall short of expectations. We don’t need to use the gradebook to teach students to be responsible; when we do it leads to grades that are inaccurate.

Standards-based grading and reporting is about levels of proficiency, accurate information, and a reorganization of evidence. Before we can fully implement standards-based reporting we need to develop a new way of thinking about grading; we need a standards-based mindset. Whether you still report traditional letter grades derived from predetermined percentage scales or are somewhere in the midst of developing a standards-based way of reporting, the standards-based mindset is the necessary first step toward more thoughtful and meaningful ways of reporting. With a standards-based mindset, if a student used to be a 40, but now is an 80, she should get an 80, not a 60!

Points over Practice?

This post is written as a precursor to my session on homework at next week’s Pearson-ATI Summer Conference

practiceYou’d think by now we’d have the whole homework thing figured out. Should it be assigned? What is the purpose of homework? How much is too much? How much is too little? Should it be graded? Is it formative? What if my students don’t do it? What if only half of my students do it? Why do we continue to act surprised by the fact that some students don’t master the intended learning the first time they practice it? These (and so many other questions) fuel a continual debate over where the actual sweet spot of our homework routines is.

Is homework the means or the end? In other words, does homework present students with an opportunity to further advance their proficiency with regards to specific curricular standards or is it an event all unto itself? While some might be tempted to answer both, it is challenging to come up the middle on the means vs end discussion.

As a means, homework tends to be about practice. Inherent in this practice paradigm is the elimination of points and their contribution to an overall grade. In other words, as practice, homework is formative. As an end, homework is just the opposite; it tends to be an event that independently contributes (even in a small way) to a report grade. While subsequent new evidence of learning may emerge, homework as an end remains a contributor to what could eventually be an inaccurate grade. And that is the bigger point. Whatever we report about student learning – and however we determine the substance of what we report – must be as accurate as possible. Previous evidence (homework) that no longer reflects a student’s current level of proficiency has the potential to misinform parents and others. When homework counts, we are emphasizing points over practice.

“…but it only counts for a small percentage of a student’s final grade,” some might argue, “so it doesn’t really matter.” I suppose on one level that might be true, however, consider a scenario where someone steals a five dollars from you and then asks you to dismiss it since they didn’t steal a lot of money. Now, I do understand that making the connection between stealing and counting homework is a stretch, but my point is that if learning (and the accurate reporting of a student’s achievement) is our priority, then emphasizing points clearly misses the mark. It’s not how much the inclusion of homework impacts the student’s final grade; it’s that it does in the first-place.

Still, others may proclaim (and wholeheartedly believe) that, “…if I don’t grade it, they won’t do it.” Again, while that might be the paradigm in a classroom, we have to ask ourselves who is responsible for creating that paradigm. We must recognize that students don’t enter school in Kindergarten with a point accumulation mindset; the K student never asks her teacher if the painting is for points! So where do they learn that? Somewhere in their experience points (and grades) become a priority for the adults…so they become a priority for students. Parents and students also contribute to this mindset, but we have to acknowledge our role as well. Also, if the only thing motivating students to complete any assignment is the promise of points then we really have to consider whether the assignment is truly worth completing in the first place. Again, is homework a means or an end?

I am looking forward to sharing more on the topic of homework, practice, and assessment at Pearson-ATI’s 20th Annual Summer Conference next week (July 8-10, 2013) in Portland, OR. The session on homework entitled Practice without Points will explore the biggest hurdles that prevent some teachers from eliminating the points attached to practice work, the reasons we assign homework and how those reasons fit within a balanced assessment system, and how teachers can thoughtfully respond to the trends they see between initial homework results and subsequent assessment data. You can read more on why I believe homework should be for practice and used formatively (here) rather than being used as part of a summative reporting process.

I will also be leading a session on Effective Leadership in Assessment specifically suited for those responsible for taking assessment literacy to scale and a session entitled Infused Assessment that takes participants back to the core fundamentals of formative assessment by infusing it into already existing instructional practices rather than creating  summative-events-that-don’t-count. 

If you’re unable to attend the conference, please take some time to follow the hashtag #ATIcon on Twitter.

How curious are your students?

Image courtesy of Master isolated images at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

In her recent article The Case for Curiosity (Educational Leadership, February 2013), Susan Engel asserts that “curiosity is essential to learning, but in scarce supply in most schools.” One of the major points of the article is that students should be encouraged to ask as many questions as possible. While this might first appear to be a rather pedestrian outcome, we should reflect on whether our instructional choices foster curiosity within our students. Engel wants us to make questioning a goal:

Think of question asking as the goal of an educational activity, rather than a happy by-product. Develop activities that invite or require students to figure out what they want to know and then seek answers.

Unfortunately, sometimes questions are seen as, at-best, an accidental outcome; at worst, they are a disruption to the teacher’s flow. Like most things, curiosity within our students will only be nurtured and developed through purposeful thought & action. What would the outcome be if we examined each lesson through the lens of curiosity? That is, what if we asked ourselves how curious will my students become as a result of this lesson? 

There is no question that this is easier said then done. Undoubtedly the pressures to cover content, meet outcomes and standards, and prepare students for year-end exams leaves many of us wondering about where we might find the time. That said, why do we always try to leave time for questions or squeeze a few questions in at the end. Why don’t we start with questions?

Why don’t we ask our students what they’re curious about? Would it change anything for you if your students told you what they wondered about the solar system, the industrial revolution, statistics, or poetry? Would your students develop a deeper level of engagement if you paused for one moment, right in the middle of a lesson, and asked the students what they’re thinking. When we pause and ask, are there any questions, we’re usually are met with silence; follow that with now, what are you thinking and you’re likely to be surprised at how much is on their minds.

Your move to emphasizing curiosity doesn’t have to be epic. Just begin by keeping curiosity at the forefront of your mind as you develop your usual lesson sequences. Eventually, it will become a natural routine; then a habit.

Fostering curiosity will take some time; time for you to shift your focus and time for the students to develop new, habitual ways of reflection. However, by shifting our instructional mindset to one that makes nurturing curiosity a priority, the same content you’ve taught for years can be transformed into the means that drives an unprecedented level of motivation and engagement.

3 Steps to Aligning your School-Wide Discipline Practices

This post is a continuation from my previous post: 5 Guiding Principles for Effective School-Wide Discipline

3-threeStudents thrive in predictable environments and with predictable routines. Now don’t misunderstand, predictability doesn’t mean boring and within the context of this post, it has nothing to do with a monotonous learning environment. You can, in fact, be predictable and consistent with the opportunities you provide students to explore, create, inquire, collaborate, think, and challenge. An unpredictable experience where things seem to come out of nowhere creates an excessive amount of anxiety which is counter-productive. The focus of this post is about creating alignment with adult responses to student behaviour, the exploration of working model, and the 3 simple, universal steps any school can use to create their plans.

Here is a working model (SW Discipline Planthat you may wish to have in front of you as you read this post.

Before outlining the three steps it is important to understand a few key points:

  1. Teach what is expected. Before holding students accountable for their behaviour we need to ensure that they are clear on what is expected of them. In the same way we would identify success criteria for academic success, we must identify what the social norms are for students in school. What does respect look like, sound like, and feel like? How do students handle adversity? The more specific and intentional we can be the more likely it is for most students to follow suit.
  2. This is working model, not the model. My goal is not to have every school use the exact same plan; it is to make sure that schools create some alignment and predictability with how the adults respond to negative behaviours. Your plan might look a little different; that’s okay.
  3. Each school’s discipline plan is best-served when anchored on the 3 universal principles outlined below, however, each school’s discipline plan must be contextualized; it must fit the routines and social norms of the school as well as being age appropriate. The model attached is a high school example; middle school and elementary models can/should be different.
  4. Creating a school-wide approach to student discipline will not be sufficient for students with more complex behavioural challenges. A general rule to follow in terms of behavioural support is that anything that works for most is likely to be insufficient for the few. Aligned responses create a foundation but are in no way a match for the intensity and complexity of some students’ behavioural support needs.

So with that, let’s explore the 3 steps to creating alignment with a school-wide approach to student discipline:

STEP 1: Decide on the number of behavioural levels. The fundamental question here is whether or not all negative behaviours are the same; we know that they’re not. Speaking out of turn is quite different from physically assaulting someone, so with that, we need to figure out how many different levels there are. In every school where I’ve been a part of creating a school-wide discipline plan we’ve settle on three; one school identified minors, middles, and majors, while the example provided simply identifies levels 1, 2, and 3. I am familiar with schools who’ve settle on two (minors and majors) and school’s who’ve have settled on four (minors, middles, majors, illegals). There is no formula; it’s up to you and your colleagues to decide how many levels there are.

STEP 2: Define each level. Once you’ve determined the number of levels, the next step is to define them. Using the working example provided you can see how each of the levels is defined:

  • Level 1 behaviours are handled by the attending staff member. Chronic level 1 behaviours could result in a referral to the school administration.

The first point is the phrase attending staff member. Every adult – I mean every adult – has to take some responsibility for intervening when negative student behaviours occur, especially if they occur right in front of them. If you see it there is an expectations that you will intervene. Of course, subtle differences within that expectation are possible when it comes to secretaries and/or custodians. This has nothing to do with their capacity to work with students (the majority I’ve worked with are exceptional); it has more to do with developing reasonable expectations for what they can/should be dealing with during the course of a day. Finding balance will be important.

The second point is here is the word could. There is no predetermined sequence that results in a referral to the office. That doesn’t mean some level 1 behaviours don’t get referred; they do. However, it’s up to the staff member to determine when something is chronic and if it requires administrative support. The definition of chronic will be explored in my next post which will outline how this plan is implemented with a staff.

  • Level 2 behaviours are handled by the attending staff member. Chronic level 2 behaviours will result in a referral to the school administration.

The key word here is will. What distinguishes a level 2 from a level 1 is that if a level 2 behaviour persists then it is referred to administration. It’s still up to the teacher to determine if/when something is chronic, however, there is an expectation that when it is that extra support is available.

  • Level 3 behaviours will result in an immediate referral to the school administration

We blended level 3 and illegals into the same category as the end result (a referral) is the same. These are the behaviours that are the full responsibility of the school’s administration. That’s not say that all staff aren’t involved in some way; certainly staff aren’t ignoring fights and other serious incidents. The point is that their sole responsibility is to report it if they see it.

STEP 3: Categorize every behaviour. The final step for you and your team is to decide which behaviours belong in which level. We brainstormed a list of all of the potential negative behaviours we might experience throughout the course of a school year. We then looked for any overlap and blended those together. In the end you have a list of behaviours that you begin to examine and categorize through the answering of a couple of questions.

  1. If the student acted that way, would you immediately refer that student to the school administration? If YES, it’s a level 3. If NO, then it’s a level 1 or 2.
  2. If the student acted that way consistently throughout the year, could you see a scenario where you would never refer that student to the school administration, even if you felt the behaviour was chronic? If YES, it’s a level 1. If NO, it’s a level 2 because a chronic behaviour will always result in a referral.

Admittedly, the line between level 1 and level 2 behaviours is fine. No plan should be so rigid that thoughtful reconsideration is not possible; you might decide a certain behaviour is a level 1, however, as the plan unfolds you might realize it’s actually a level 2. If so, move it…it’s that simple.

As well, any school-wide discipline plan is never implemented in as clinical a manner as it appears. What brings any plan to life are the productive and thoughtful conversations between teachers, students, parents, and administration. Remember guideline #5 from my previous post:

  • Respect the uniqueness of each student, each incident, and each set of circumstances.

There are no automatic responses to students; their uniqueness deserves a level of thought that reaches far beyond a prescriptive course of action. That said, the benefit of adults being aligned with their responses to negative behaviours creates a consistency that students can come to predict. No two teachers will handle negative behaviours in exactly the same way which makes uniformity an unrealistic (even misguided) goal. What are those responses? How do you define chronic? What happens when a student who demonstrates a first-time level 1 behaviour is sent to the office? These questions (an others) will the topic of the next post in this series.

I know this topic is not sexy and doesn’t inspire with futuristic unknowns or the sizzle of technological innovation. It is, however, a core fundamental to creating the kind of teaching and learning environment that allows students and teachers to get to he sexy, innovative stuff. Alignment won’t just happen; it takes thought, purpose, and action. Creating that alignment within your school-wide discipline plan is as easy as 1, 2, 3.

5 Guiding Principles for Effective School-Wide Discipline

freedigitalphotos.net
freedigitalphotos.net

Something I have come to know is that effective schools take a thoughtful approach to student discipline. Admittedly, there are some who believe student behaviour will take care of itself; that we’re all just one formative assessment, one differentiated opportunity, or one project-based experience away from neutralizing any behavioural issues with our students. I will concede that pedagogy can make a difference in the overall level of engagement which would, for most students, likely result in a reduction of negative behaviours. In fact, it’s not really a concession since I agree that a holistic approach is usually most effective; that we need both an engaging learning experience for our students AND a purposeful effort to create the optimum conditions within which students can thrive.

That said, the purpose of this post is to explore the guiding principles behind an effective school discipline plan. In future posts I will explore what those plans can actually look like and how (more importantly) they can be implemented with high fidelity.

As Rob Horner (University of Oregon) has said:

Effective schools strive toward becoming a community that establishes a common vision (goals & objectives), a common language (procedures & processes), and a common set of experiences (routines & outcomes).

It’s the last one – a common set of experiences – that is the primary focus here. Foundational to a proactive, productive, and consistent approach to student behaviour is being clear on which behaviours are classroom managed and which behaviors are office managed. Without that clarity, a common experience for the adults working in any school is potentially at risk. How do teachers access support? When do they access support?  What behavioural issue do they handle? Who is supposed to make first contact with parents? When should a student be referred to administration? These are just some of the (many) questions answered with a systemic approach that clarifies roles and responsibilities.

Again, I’ll explore a working model that I have experienced a lot of success with in a future post. Regardless of the model (system) your school creates, there are a few universal guidelines that can assist any school in beginning the process of aligning the collective adult-responses to inappropriate student behaviour. Again, these principles are universal; how they play out in your school is contextual.

1) Every school-wide discipline plan is designed to be an instrument of support and inclusion, not removal and isolation. To be clear, a proactive, systemic approach to student discipline has nothing to do with inventing new and creative ways to suspend and/or expel students. Be clear that discipline and punishment are two very different constructs. A systemic approach to discipline is about teaching, guiding, and supporting; it’s about recognizing which social skills students are lacking and being able to address them through an instructional approach, not a punitive one. It’s what Ross Greene refers to as lagging skills. (My friend and colleague Darcy Mullin (@darcymullin) blogged about lagging skills here.

2) Be clear about expected behaviours and what success can/should look like. If we’re going to expect students to behave appropriately then we should be clear about what that means. Not only should students know what is expected, but they should know the contextual differences between appropriate behaviours, even within the same setting. How students behave during an assembly built around a formal ceremony/service is quite different from one involving an interactive musical theatre group. Behaviour is always contextual and we need to be clear – crystal clear – about what, how, when, where, and (most importantly), why?

3) Be reasonable, consistent, and fair when responding to inappropriate behaviours. Two important points here. First, the policy that should override all other policies is the policy of reasonableness. All of our rules should pass the reasonable test; is it a reasonable expectation for our students? As well, how we respond to inappropriate behaviours should also be reasonable. The second point is that fair is not equal. Fair means being fair given a student’s individual circumstance and level of behavioural competence. Using equal as a starting point requires no thought; being fair allows us to respond to the student while considering the overall context.

4) Pre-correct for anticipated behavioural errors. If there is one strategy that is most effective while being the easiest to implement it’s the pre-correction. Many of us have been pre-correcting students for years but have never thought to identify it by name. We do this before assemblies, before fire drills, before field trips, before science labs, etc. We identify potential sources of tension for students (either as individuals or whole groups) and remind them of how to respond appropriately. When the source of tension does arise, the student is more likely to appreciate the fact that you were able to anticipate it for them and will more likely respond as you had suggested. Even more effective would be to have the students participate in the process of identifying more prosocial ways of responding to aversive situations.

5) Respect the uniqueness of each student, each incident, and each set of circumstances. This principle speaks to the notion that there are no automatic responses to any behavioural error. While your responses may end up being similar (or the same) as previous incidents, no steps are skipped and no detail is overlooked. I learned a long time ago that the more you agonize over a decision before you make it, the less likely it is that you’ll live to regret the decision once it’s made. While you’re not likely to treat every behavioural error as a major crisis, the idea is to simply consider the situation and, without comparing it to anything else, determine the most appropriate response. Precedence can play a role, however, the point is to  respond to the student, not just the behaviour.

Having said all of that, we also know that there are students who require more intensive and/or individualized approaches to improving their behaviour. While a school-wide discipline plan is necessary, we must know that it won’t be an effective process for all students. Fundamental to success with students who demonstrate negative behaviours is to make sure the intensity of the interventions matches the intensity of the presenting behavioural challenge; for some students, the general school-wide approach simply doesn’t match the necessary level of intensity.

By following these 5 universal guidelines, schools are more likely to create a more positive, productive, and proactive school culture. Having a plan for the adults to align their responses to behavioural errors creates predictability for students. While no two adults will ever be the same, we can anticipate more consistency and purpose from teacher to teacher. Student discipline is about teaching and for teachers, it’s about being thoughtful. After-all, as the saying goes, undisciplined discipline is not discipline!

Everything is assessment

If there is one bias that I have developed when it comes to assessment for learning it is this: As much as possible, we should not have to stop teaching in order to conduct our formative assessments.  In other words, if I were to walk into a classroom and observe, the lines between the moments of assessment, instruction, and feedback would be blurred; the chosen strategies would seamlessly lead students and teachers through a continuous assessment-instruction-feedback loop. While there are always exceptions to any rule, we should, as much as possible, strive to infuse our assessment for learning practices into our instructional strategies.

With that, formative assessment is actually easier to infuse than some might think. So many of the strategies that teachers have been using for years can – quite effortlessly – be used for formative assessment purposes. In fact, when I’m asked to provide/discuss some effective formative assessment strategies with teachers I’m often met with the fairly typical response of, “Oh, I already do that.” 

Now, I’m not doubting their responses.  The truth is that many teachers are already doing or using the strategy I describe, at least at first glance. Upon further review, however, I’ve come to realize that while many are using the strategies I outline, the strategies fall short of serving as an assessment for learning.

Everything teachers do – every strategy, activity, or process – is an assessment in waiting. Every activity students participate in – every project, assignment, or task – has information that can be used for formative purposes if we follow two simple guidelines.

TargetFirst, every activity must be linked to the intended learning. Activities are just activities unless there is a direct link between the activity and the intended learning; that’s what turns a task into a target. Even better is expressing this link in student-friendly language so that students may have intimate access to what they are expected to learn from the activity. This link is what’s often missing in far too many classrooms. Think about how often you begin a lesson by describing to students what they are going to do as opposed to what they are going to learn? The link to learning will establish far greater relevance for students and assist in their understanding of why – especially with knowledge targets – what there doing today is important and relevant for tomorrow (and beyond).

fork_in_the_road_signSecond, the results of every activity must have the potential to illicit an instructional response from the teacher. One of the core fundamentals behind formative assessment is that the collective results are used to decide what comes next in the learning. Now I use the word potential because the results of your activities (assessments) may indicate that what you had previously planned to do tomorrow is, in fact, the most appropriate decision. You’re not always going to change course, but for an activity to serve a formative assessment purpose it must have the potential to influence what you plan to do next. As long as you are willing to consider some instructional adjustments based on the results of the activity then it becomes an assessment for learning. As well, the more we can involve students in the process of self-assessment and personalized adjustments the more they become meaningful decision-makers in their own learning.

Whether it’s a class discussion, an A/B partner talk exercise, an Exit Slip, a 4 Corners Activity, a Jigsaw, or the use of exemplars, we can infuse our assessment/feedback practices into our instructional routines. When we link an activity to the intended learning and allow the results of the activity to potentially influence our instructional decisions, it moves from being just an activity to an assessment. Everything is an assessment in waiting if we use these two guideline to enhance what we’re already doing.