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!

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.

…and don’t be afraid to follow

teambuildingLeadership does matter. As I wrote in my last post, it is important for leaders to not be fearful of leading. We can talk all we want about quiet leadership or leading by example, however, if you don’t have people’s attention they might miss your lead or example altogetherOne of the reasons you’re in your position of leadership is because of your experience and expertise. It would absurd to not use that experience and expertise to the benefit of your school or organization.

That said, leadership is not about always being the leader either; sometimes it’s just as important to follow. Sometimes you are the expert and sometimes you’re not; sometimes it is important to allow others with more expertise to take the lead or at least build the capacity of others so that they may eventually do so.

So what stops us from doing this? So many of us understand and can talk about the importance of shared leadership, so why don’t more of us do it? What gets in the way of leaders being able to step back and allow an implementation process to unfold without having to be the center of attention? For me, it’s all about ego.

First, let me say that there is always some level of ego involved with any leadership role. Every effective leader has a fundamental belief in their ability to make a positive difference within the context in which they are leading. I see a healthy level of ego more as confidence, which can be defined as the sweet spot between arrogance and despair (Rosabeth Moss Kanter). It’s in the arrogance or despair where our ego loses balance and negatively affects our ability to follow. Although most of us think of ego as a kind of inflated sense of self-importance, ego also drives the leader at the opposite end of the continuum. Let’s look at each separately.

The ego of arrogance is the leader that believes that nothing can be accomplished without them, or at least without their input. The leader whose ego is out of balance in this direction believes they are the smartest person in the room and that their experience is more credible and relevant than anyone else’s. They are the leader who is not afraid to lead on steroids. Not only are they not afraid to lead, they have to lead and take credit (or at least partial credit) for everything.

The ego of despair is the leader who leads from a desperate feeling of insecurity and believes that nothing should be accomplished without their input. This leader believes that they must continually prove why they have been put in a position of leadership; they see all successes and failures as a direct reflection of their ability as a leader.  This is why these seemingly polar opposite positions of ego are more similar than we might think. Insecurity leads to control-based leadership where the leader works to make sure they are the smartest person in the room (again, other overlap between the two extremes). This characteristic is much more difficult to spot since it often appears as arrogance.

The arrogant and desperate leader has difficulty following; the confident leader doesn’t. The confident leader knows they are the leader but has no burning desire to continually prove it. The confident leader has just enough arrogance to believe they can make a positive difference, but just enough despair to admit they don’t know, to seek the input and guidance from others, and allow some to emerge as leaders themselves.

Implement THAT! (Part 5) – …like Driving at Night

While having an implementation plan is important, and planning for rapid results builds the necessary confidence toward our desired outcome, the execution of the plan needs to be ongoing and allow for adjustments at every turn.  Too often, as leaders, we try to race ahead too quickly; as people are just getting comfortable and confident with the first steps of implementation we proclaim that steps 2 and 3 are long overdue.

The analogy that I’ve heard, used, and have seen work for others when it comes to the pacing of any implementation effort is that it’s a lot like driving at night.

When I get in my vehicle and decide to drive somewhere I have my destination in mind; I know where I want to go (our desired outcome) but I typically (day or night) can’t actually see my destination.  Driving around with no desired destination might take us back to our childhood and the ritual of the “Sunday Drive”, however, when it comes to getting somewhere or getting something done you have to know where you are going.

When you drive at night, despite knowing exactly where you want to go and what route you want to take (your plan) your headlights will only shine about 100-150 feet in front of your vehicle.  As the driver, the only thing within your immediate influence is the next 100 feet.  When you drive that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge in front of you.  Even if you have a long drive ahead of you (even if you have a 3-5 year plan) the only way you will reach your desired destination is through a series of mini 100 foot journeys.

While it is true that every so often you’ll hear a road report or see flashing lights ahead that will provide you with ample time to adjust your route, avoid any delays, and get you back on track, what’s more likely is that issues will only become apparent once they come within the 100-150 foot range of your headlights (which is why your plan was written with a short pencil) which means you have adjust on the fly.

When we become impatient we try to rush the natural evolution of a new paradigm and push too hard which will more likely lead to others’ frustration.  The difference between where we are and where we want to be can be vast and leaders are well served if they are mindful that the journey is as important as the destination, especially when it comes to long-term sustainability. After all, if we are at ‘A’, we can’t get to ‘D’ without passing through ‘B’ and ‘C’ first.

Whether it comes to using social media for ongoing professional learning, project-based learning, standards-based grading, no letter grades, authentic assessment, or any other new practice, there is a process that is unavoidable; no matter how fast or slow you drive you will still have to physically pass through each little town before you arrive in the big city!

When you focus on the next 100 feet you’ll know what to do, how to support, and what challenges are in your immediate view that need to be addressed. Once you go that 100 feet, the next 100 feet will emerge and you’ll once again know exactly what your team needs, what you need to do, and what challenges need to be overcome in order reach your ultimate destination.

Implement THAT! (Part 4) – Plan for Rapid Results

With the implementation of anything, getting off to a “good start” is essential.  While we know it takes time for most implementation efforts to go to scale and become the new routine, having some early success can be a major factor in determining whether you (or your team) stick with the new practice. It’s no different from a new fitness routine. We want to experience some results quickly to determine whether our going to the gym and changing our eating habits is going to lead to our eventual desired result.

In her book Confidence, Rosabeth Moss Kanter identifies the need for people to be successful before they believe they can be successful.  While that might sound counterintuitive, she writes that true confidence is more than just a mindset:

Positive expectations by leaders make people want to rise to the occasion, but people need proof that there is some reality to the expectations. Pep talks without convincing content are devoid of credibility. People see right through them. “Irrational exuberance” based on nothing but fantasy and hype don’t last long. That’s why winning – or its close approximation – is often necessary before people believe they can win. (pg. 40)

Winning in our case is more about the eventual acceptance of a new paradigm or routine within our schools or classrooms.  The confidence to successfully implement anything is what Kanter calls grounded optimism – optimism that is based in some evidence of success.

Planning for rapid results is most helpful when you’re working with people who are capable of implementing the new idea but not necessarily willing; they are reluctant to make major changes since it is likely that they have had success with the previous paradigm. Planning for rapid results is made easier when it is guided by the following question:

What is the least I can do to bring about the greatest effect?

By focusing on the little things that make a big impact, those reluctant to change will be permitted to make a minimal effort while experiencing a much larger effect on their day-to-day work.

I can recall working in a school a number of years ago that was very purposeful about improving the school climate and the quality of the adult-student relationships (as well as student-student). We had spent an entire professional development day working on our plan.  We had developed both short- and long-term goals, however, we knew we wanted to see some immediate changes so we focused on the question of rapid results.  As it was a Friday, we asked ourselves, “What can we do on Monday that might have an immediate impact on our school’s culture?”

What we came up with was an agreement that all teachers would be in their classrooms (lights on and doors open) at least 10 minutes before the start of the day to greet students as they arrived (some teachers were already doing this). As well, the school administration would greet students as they entered the school (we were already doing that, but not consistently) and counselors would “check-in” with their “top 10.”  Ten minutes…that’s all that was required.  The results for our school were dramatic.  Within a week we noticed a significant shift in the “tone” of our school.

For those that weren’t sure that we should be devoting that much energy to “school climate”, the rapid results of our efforts convinced them that our efforts were worth it. After all, if big results came from little effort, imagine what big effort would yield.

It is absolutely not rocket science. While rapid results are definitely not enough to sustain a major shift, they do provide a glimpse as to what is possible with any purposeful effort.  Sometimes people need proof that the change is going to produce an improved situation, and while some people use the desire for perfect proof as an excuse for inactivity, it is fair that people see how the change might eventually makes things better before they commit themselves.

To paraphrase the Kanter quote above, having some success is often a precursor to the belief that one can be successful.

Implement THAT! (Part 3) – Plan with a ‘Short Pencil’

Every implementation effort needs a plan.  Without a plan we are left to meander our way through any implementation without any sense of our desired outcome, actions, purpose, or process. However, there is such a thing as  over planning by being too prescriptive and/or trying to look too far into the future. We don’t really know what our needs will be in 2 years, 5 years, or 10 years; none of us can predict the future. The future is really an illusion constructed from our past experience, our current context, the latest research trends, as well as our bias for where we’d like to see education go. Having a plan matters, but from my experience, the most effective implementation plans are the ones written with a ‘short pencil.’

We need to plan in pencil because we must have the ability to adjust our plans as we go.  We might find that we are exceeding our expectations in terms of timelines, acceptance, and successes with the new idea, practice, or process we are implementing.  However, we might also find that our initial plan was inaccurate; that what we thought was going to happen and how we thought it might unfold was slightly flawed or just dead-wrong. Planning in pencil allows us the chance to ‘quickly’ erase-and-adjust as the implementation plan unfolds. Planning in pen makes the adjustments either too messy or too much work.

The pencil should be short in order to avoid planning too much or too far into the future. Having a long-term detailed plan looks visionary and might satisfy some of the political pressures (small ‘p’) leaders face, however, most of us know that the size of our plans is inversely proportional to the success of the implementation. A short pencil forces us to be efficient with our words and to plan more for our immediate actions. A short pencil will allow you to identify your vision or desired outcome (after all, your plan will need a title) but the details, the specific actions, and the monitoring should focus more on the immediate and short-term future.

Once our vision or desired outcomes have been identified, planning with a short pencil will focus our attention more on what is within our immediate influence and will make any adjustments, additions, deletions, or re-routing far easier. Yes, you need to know where you are going, however, successful implementation comes when the plan focuses more on immediate actions and results.