Assessments and Grades

Today our district had a professional development day for all high school and middle school. The focus was on developing Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Basically, a PLC is a group of professionals who work together to get better at what they do. In this case, it’s a group of teachers, who are, ideally teaching the same subject and meeting to develop tests in common so they can compare their results and help each other teach better.

It sounds simple but it’s actually kind of a lot of work, at least at first. But, there’s a lot of research to show that once a PLC gets going, it can make a big difference in student achievement. And, I think it gets easier as you go along. So, you would think that everyone would be all for it.

If you do, then you don’t know teachers.

Now, I’m going to say that the vast majority of teachers, in my experience, want to do a good job and help students learn; at least 75 percent, I would say. There is, like in every profession, a percentage of people that are happy just doing what it takes to get by. Then, there’s a small percentage that are burnt, jaded, and, sick of it all but they can’t quit because it’s the only thing they know, they’re older and not likely to find a new job that can support them at this point in life, and/or they need the benefits or pension or both. Say what you like, but every profession has people like this, too. Now, if you take all of that and figure that, even for people that want to improve or do what’s right for students, there are those who have been hurt by the system.

The education system can be brutal to educators at times. First, you have administrators who go to a conference over the summer and come back with a “new thing” that is going to totally make the teachers all better. And, they make a big deal of it and implement it half way and months later wonder what’s wrong and why it’s not working. Then, that gets dumped sometime around Winter Break and we go back to what we were doing. Or, that administrator keeps after it, but the “new thing” actually isn’t good or useful and then they move on and we go back to what we were doing.

Then, you have politicians passing laws that are supposed to improve education. But, they don’t. Fads come and go. Teachers that have been around a while know this and they know they can wait it out because teachers almost always last longer than administrators, especially those bad enough to introduce bad policies since those administrators also are bad at managing teachers.

Therefore, there is a fair contingent of teachers that view PLCs as a “new thing” to wait out. I am not one of those. I like the PLC model and am wholeheartedly embracing it. I got to meet with one member of my PLC today and we had a substantial, professional conversation about grading that was enervating and exciting.

Speaking of enervating, our district also unveiled a new grading policy. I like it. But, as you can expect, there was a fair degree of wailing and gnashing of teeth among some. I think they are misunderstanding it, personally, but maybe not. Basically, we are supposed to base the majority of the grade on Summative Assessments. These are tests that are supposed to measure the totality of what a student has learned at any given time on a subject. This is different from a Formative Assessment that is supposed to measure how a student is doing in terms of learning what you’re teaching. Formative assessments can be as simple as a pop quiz or even just saying, “Thumbs up if you understand this.”

Anyway, here’s my take. The policy asks us to do a couple things. One is that they want us grade specifically on standards and less on stuff like homework or formative assessments. There was outcry over the percentages mentioned, saying that a minimum of 70% of the grade should be on portfolios, summative assessments, essays, and so on and a maximum of 30% can be from homework and other similar. But, to me, I read that and say, “Hey, I don’t have to grade homework at all!” That is, I can use it to give feedback to the kids and get an idea for how they’re progressing, but I shouldn’t include it in the academic grade.

Some teachers got upset because the new policy mandates that we give students multiple chances to demonstrate mastery of the standards. In other words, you have to let kids take tests over if they want to try for a better grade. The policy also says we have to accept late work.

I have no problem with this. None.

Some teachers will say we need to teach kids responsibility… but that’s not one of the state Standards. My grades should not be based on the amount of work a kid does, nor how hard they work. The grade should be strictly based on how they have progressed toward mastery of the standards. Here’s how I’m planning to grade. I am happy to hear comments on it. Honestly.

All students begin the class with an “F” in each standard, essentially. This sounds harsh, but bear with me a second. See, an “F” to me means that the student has not demonstrated mastery of the standard. Now, as they go through the class, they will turn in work that shows their progress. I will grade that and put those grades in the book. But, I’m not putting grades for assignments in my book. I used to have a grade book with student names running down one side and the assignments across the top. No more. I’m putting Standards only in the grade book. So, when a student turns in work that addresses a standard, I record the grade for their progress. Students can retake assessments to improve their grade. Students will also have a choice of how to prove their mastery. In other words, if they can come up with a reasonable piece of work that would prove they have attained the skills identified by the standard, I will accept it. That being said, I realize some kids won’t come up with reasonable pieces, so each standard will have a suggested activity or assignment associated with it that they can do to allow me to measure their progress.

If a student does poorly on a standard, ie. gets a “D” or “F”, either because the work was poor or because it was nonexistent, then those students will get calls home, or maybe emails to parents, and will receive a notice to attend after-school retention. It’s like detention but it’s not, it’s retention. It’s not punishment, per se, but a way for me to make sure I can reteach them. First time would be 20 minutes, second time 30 minutes and so on.

If possible, I will check during class time to see if I can help them then. I need to make sure kids don’t just blow off the work in class since they can do it over for a better grade. Some will game the system so I have to make it annoying or even painful to do so without just giving them zeroes. I am steadfastly against giving zeroes because they are not fair. They destroy grades. I will just have to pester them until they do the work. Also, I will cut it off at the quarters. That is, I will not accept retesting or late work after the quarter is over. The new policy says we can make reasonable judgments like that.

Overall, I really like the new district grading policy. And, I like the PLCs. I just wish all of the district’s ideas were this good. Too bad they don’t think that having 38 million dollars in the bank justifies spending 5 million to bring back the counselors.

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2 thoughts on “Assessments and Grades”

  1. Good points, Glenn. At my elementary site we have been working in PLCs for years- long before that started getting bandied about in the District in the last year or so. We have found it to be tremendously successful. There's no more I-just-prefer-to-work-on-my-own. Also at the elementary level, our report cards are standards based anyway. So while I do traditionally grade weekly assessments,etc., all students who weren't demonstrating mastery of a particular standard get reassessed by the end of the trimester. It's a lot of work with 17 LA standards, 14 math, and now 30 students. But this system doesn't penalize students who did poorly on initial assessments! If you retaught the material, gave feedback, the student practiced…now that poor grade is meaningless and it's like it never existed. Students love knowing that it's OKAY if they don't “get it” the first or second time we work on a concept. It doesn't lower their overall grade unless by the end of grading they still are not independently demonstrating mastery. I think you will find that some students are grateful and freed from the constructs of the old system. And some will procrastinate and end up doing poorly due to lack of practice. However, after a quarter or two they'll get the hang of this new system. Teens deserve more credit than we often give them!
    As a parent, frankly I am THRILLED. My daughter had a lower than desired grade (C) in her math class last year due to a bad grade on the district assessment. The teacher allowed her to make up quizzes/tests except of course the benchmark, which was 25% of her grade. Did she do well otherwise? Yes. Did she do very well on her CST? Yes. Unfortunately one bad test lowered her overall grade to a level that didn't reflect her mastery. I'm sure her teacher found it almost as frustrating as we did. I hope that the new system in place will put an end to this kind of frustration!

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  2. Thanks for the comment, Christine. It sounds like you think I'm going in the right direction, so that's reassuring. I think I will need to really stay focused on the kids and make sure they are doing the work. Teens will try to take advantage a lot more than any elementry will, I think.

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