Monday, March 10, 2014

3 Keys for Standards-Based Grading in a Letter Grades World

Anyone looking to move to standards-based grading while still working under a more traditional model has wrestled with the idea of how to convert their new standards-based grades to traditional ones based on 100-point scales. Having lived through this, here are three things I found to be key to success.

1) Be Arbitrary

There's no way around it, when trying to convert standards-based grades to a 0-100 scale there is no good way to make it work. At some point you will have to make an arbitrary decision about how you convert to a traditional grade. Rather than lose sleep over how you are going to convert, just acknowledge that there is no good way to go about it and make a decision you can live with. This may actually help you win more support to transition to a standards-based system, but more on that in a minute.

If your school uses a 10-point range for each letter grade, here is how I would convert a 4-point proficiency grade to a 100-point scale :

4-100, 3-95, 2-75, 1-60

In this case, a student who exceeds the standard (4) would get the highest grade possible, but you will have a hard time giving a student who did everything they were expected to do and "meeting the standard" (3) anything less than an "A" unless your school typically award "A's" to only outstanding work. The lower scores are harder to convert and probably depend more on your school's grading philosophy. A "C" makes sense to me for a "2", but I could also see this being lower (notice that we completely leave out the option of a "B" here). If a "1" represents a student who did the work but it did not even partially meet the standard, a grade around the failing mark makes sense, but you may also just wish to call it "incomplete." The old adage, "A, B, and 'you're not done'" fits nicely with the standards-based philosophy.

2) Be Clear

You're going to need to be clear in a couple of ways. First, you need to make sure your students know what standards they are working on as they work in class and take assessments. By being explicit about this you will help them start to associate their score with becoming proficient and not with some other measure.

You will also want to be clear in your communication to students and their parents about what your system is and how it translates to their grade in what we often call "the old world." This is the time where you can win over public support, because if your parents understand what you are doing and see the good it does for their children, they will help to push your school out of that old world of letter grades and in to a standards-based system.

3) Have An Alternative Reporting System

If you are one of the first people in your school to make the move to standards-based grades, odds are you school will not yet have a system in place to report out student progress (and when they do, it will always be ready for you and parents "next month"). This means that you will need to come up with an alternative system in place of or in augmentation to a traditional report card.

This system could be as simple as logs students keep themselves to online spreadsheets that can be shared with each individual student and their guardians so everyone has real time access to their progress. Regardless, there are two things you should make sure to do. First, keep your labels simple enough that everyone can understand me but detailed enough so everyone knows what the student is showing proficiency at. Second, make sure there is a space for narrative feedback, as this will always be more meaningful than a number and will help alleviate confusion.

Those are my tips, what else do you think is key when converting standards-based grades in a traditional system?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Winning in School

As I sit here in the frozen northeast laid up with a badly  sprained ankle, I got to thinking about my last post. In that post, I concluded with the thought that when you try to change the paradigm of school. students who "won" at the old systems would naturally resist any changes. This got me thinking about the concept of winning in our schools.

Even if we don't realize it, much of the current structure of many American schools is designed to guarantee winners and losers. Class rank is probably the easiest example of this, and I'm sure if you think back to your own schooling you can recall an example of how class rank caused friction in your graduating class.

Our culture's obsession with free-market economics has deemed competition to be necessary for a successful society. However, much of the research compiled by Daniel Pink in his book "Drive" suggests that outside of menial tasks, competition (and rewards) lowers achievement. This means that regardless of what we perceive colleges and scholarship committees want, we need to ditch this kind of competition in our schools. Too often we ignore the answer to the question: "Is this best for our students?" and instead lean on the status quo or other less relevant factors.

One thing I like about our move to a standards-based system is that much of our work was based on what is best for students. Gone is the thought that only some students should achieve and that grades should be based on a bell-shaped curve that assumes a percent of the class should fail. Now, the belief and expectation is that every student can achieve high standards. It isn't perfect (nothing is), but I still believe we're on the right track.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Playing School

Today I was reading a post Reed Gillespie wrote last year that does a nice job addressing concerns of allowing students to do redos and retakes, and this part stuck out to me:

"Anecdotally, only rarely did I have any of my high-achievers complain about my retest policy—No, it wasn’t because they didn’t voice their concerns to me. I heard plenty of complaints about my projects, my lectures, my expectations, etc.  Those who did complain most likely were used to an educational system that distinguished between the elite and non-elite." (Emphasis mine)

I have to echo his comments here. The students in the past few years who have complained the most about our switch to a standards-based system are the ones who had become good at "playing school." This new system required them to not just sit back on their socio-economic advantages or good behavior, but to actually master content through a process of constant revision. As one of my colleagues pointed out a few times, they had paid dues into a system that no longer existed, and this sometimes caused friction. 

I am happy to report that with students today who have had more time in our new system (even if it's just a year or two), these occurrences are happening less and less. The lesson to be learned here is that any switch in the way we go about education will at first be met with resistance by those who were "winning" in the old system.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Multiple Learning Goals at Once

Over the last few weeks, students in my class have been working on two vastly different goals. One group was learning about war, and another was doing an integrated unit with the novel, Out of the Dust. This is the first time large groups of students have worked on such different goals in my room, and it has not been going as I had hoped.

It seems like every time I need to do some intensive instruction with one group, I'm interrupted by off-task behavior of the other group. There are some exceptions for a few well-motivated students, but in general both groups are getting less work done than I would expect. Class also doesn't have a cohesiveness to it like when students are all working on goals related to similar subject matter. It is not something I am leaning towards repeating.

My initial thought is that the negative results could just be the natural reaction of trying to have such completely different things going on in my room at once. I want it it to work, so I'm racking my brain for better practices and alternate reasons for my challenges. January has been a very rough month for continuity, and that is my strongest alternate theory. 

I guess my question for you is, how do you manage having students working on massively different goals at the same time?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

The Lost Promise of Our Work

Even as someone who most would call a supporter of customized learning, there has always been a part of me that knew something was wrong, but I could never find the right way to put it. Recently, I was able to put it in to words.

My problem with the current direction of the cohort is that we are trying to be customized and standardized. As a result, we customize when kids learn and how they learn (to some extent) but not what they learn. I think when many of us hear the term customized learning, it is the "what" that we immediately jump to.

It is easy in the echo chamber that can be the internet to just stop there, and pick a side of the battle lines. However, I wouldn't be a very good example to my students if I didn't offer some potential solutions.

One such option is to build choices within your content standards. For example, students in my room might be tackling the world history standard: "Understands a variety of reasons people have gone to war." With the vastness that is world history, there are plenty of options for students to meet their interests while still learning the content necessary to meet the standard. However, I do feel like this is akin to a dress code that allows students to wear any clothes they want, so long as they are khaki pants and blue button-up shirts.

The second option, which I think bares the most consideration, actually involves adding more standards. Our current curriculum is the amount of knowledge we want all learners to have upon graduation (and it may be asking too much of them, but time will tell on that one). That makes them a least common denominator. It is therefor necessary that we have other things we want to encourage students to do in addition to the "bare minimum." After all, our current curriculum in most schools doesn't stop at the graduation requirements.

I would propose that our graduation or promotion requirements require students to meet a certain number of standards in each content area, but with more flexibility in regards to which standards they complete. For example, a student may only complete 3 of 5 war standards in middle school if they complete an extra two standards in another social studies topic that is more interesting to them. I would also propose the creation of a number of inquiry-based units in each subject area to further customize a student's education. Think of what your average college degree program looks like, but with standards replacing required and elective courses and independent studies. Students have earned a promotion/degree when they have met their handful of required standards, plus a set number of standards of their choosing in each content area. 

This compromise preserves the increased "rigor" that the proponents of the standards argue is inherent in their higher-taxonomy levels, while also allowing for more student choice and real customization of what they learn. It will require more work to build out standards and more tough decisions on what is required and what is not, but I think it is the missing piece to this puzzle.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Vision or Model?

I've started taking courses for my Master's Degree this week, and I'm hoping it helps breath some new life in to this blog. The seminar I am in right now is on school reform, and the first book we are reading is "Tinkering Toward Utopia" by David Tyack & Larry Cuban. One quote about the way to go about school reform struck me:
“Instead of being ready-made plans, reform policies could be stated as principles, general aims, to be modified in the light of experience, and embodied in practices that vary by school or even by classroom."
 This seems to be the way we are going about customized learning in my district. A vision has been established and some professional development has been provided to the staff (though we could always use more). From there, we have been expected to figure out how it best looks in our individual classrooms and schools.

My question for you is do you agree with the authors, or do you agree with many of my current colleagues who believe that this asking too much of us as a staff? Should we be given a vision or a model?

I'd opt for the former simply because I want control over what happens in my classroom and I don't want to move towards anything being canned. Changing the status quo will always result in some uneasiness, and perhaps that's even more true when you force the status quo to change itself.

Friday, November 23, 2012

But My Kid Won't Get in to College!

One of the comments we often here from parents who are concerned about our switch to customized learning is that with a new grading system/report card/transcript, that America's best colleges somehow won't be able to figure out if they should accept their student. (Of course you should ignore that colleges don't look at middle school transcripts and that we are often talking about Ivy-league schools with some of the best and brightest admissions folks around.) Is there some truth to this?

First of all, let's focus on the positive: these parents care about their kids future. They want their students to have what's best, and I would take concerns over our new way of learning over parents who just don't care. I love talking with parents who are concerned about their kids futures.

With that being said, these concerns really are unfounded. First, take a look at the following transcripts:
Sample 1         Sample 2       Sample 3 
What you should notice here is that they are all different! Do most high schools use a similar system? Of course. But each one is nuanced to fit the needs of that particular community, and for over 100 years America's colleges and universities have been able to sort through them all. Additionally, a standards-based transcript would be full of  more data for them to make decisions with. Lastly, there are some college groups that even believe the transcript is the worst piece of data they get about students. 

You should also note that those in the cohort are not even the first schools in Maine to cross this bridge. Schools like Mountain Valley High School have been using a 1-4 grading system for a while now (about 10 years, if my memory serves me right), and you don't hear anything about it holding their students back in the college admissions process. This student certainly wasn't disadvantaged by the system.

Lastly, if you don't believe me, listen to the admissions counselors themselves. This report, created by the old MSAD 15 (now RSU 2) went straight to a number of college admissions offices to ask them about the change. What they found was that even though this transcript would be unique, all the schools would need to do is provide an explanation of how to read the transcript so that the admissions office can avoid equating the standards-based grades to a traditional GPA.

"You students will not be disadvantaged based on this system. The key is to define the system and the student on the transcript so that the critical information is clear." -Tufts University

1/14/14: Edited for a minor spelling error. Better late than never I suppose!