April 2010 Grading Roundup

12 April 2010

This month's cavalcade of grading comes early this month. Let's see what's caught in the net, shall we?
The Chronicle of Higher Education has an article on Outsourced Grading. There is now an option for professors to use "expert assessors" in India to provide constructive feedback on student papers. The outsourcing has grown from a frustration on the part of professors that students aren't doing high quality writing, but teachers do not have the time to provide feedback to large numbers (e.g. 1000) students. Even teaching assistants are not enough. For those who are using the service, there is an opportunity for teachers to review (and adjust comments), but I somehow doubt that anyone who does not have enough time to read 1000 papers is not going to have time to read comments on 1000 papers. You'd have to take a sample and call it a day. In the meantime, if the purpose of doing this is to provide support for student improvement, then the professor would need to do two things: teach students how to use the feedback and change his/her instruction to help.
My favourite quote from the article is at the end:
"People need to get past thinking that grading must be done by the people who are teaching," says Mr. Rajam, who is director of assurance of learning at George Washington University's School of Business. "Sometimes people get so caught up in the mousetrap that they forget about the mouse."
Really, I'm shaking my head in disbelief. Dude, if anyone is forgetting about the mouse, er "student," it's you. I can understand that it is unreasonable for one person to score 1000 papers at a time and provide appropriate feedback---but it is also ridiculous to assume that professors who are "freed from grading papers [so they] can spend more time teaching and doing research" is going to benefit students.

In other college news, Loyola Law school in Los Angeles has been retroactively changing grades (back to 2007) in order to alter their scale and make their graduates more competitive. It's not a major shift, but intriguing with continuing conversations about "grade inflation" that a college would choose to boost its students' transcripts (as opposed to look at what goes into the grades or supporting students to meet expectations). You can read more at the LA Times.

Speaking of grade inflation, have a look at this graph from I Love Charts:

No explanation as to its origins. Not sure how meaningful the information is. If I'm reading this correctly, then the average change in GPA is about .5 grade point (13%) spread out over 40 years. Is this a significant difference? Not going to pull out my stats here, but someone else is welcome to whip out a chi-squared analysis. I also wonder about the change in college populations over that time frame. Draw your own conclusions here---just wanted to offer it up for consideration.

Finally, Science News has a story on how Homework Makes the Grade. Surprise, surprise: Physics students who actually do the homework/practice score higher than students who just copy homework from others.

Students at MIT and other universities commonly complete homework using an online system, giving Pritchard and his colleagues a wealth of data to analyze. The team tracked homework for four terms of introductory, calculus-based physics, a requirement for all MIT undergraduates. Since all of the students’ entries were time-stamped, Pritchard and his colleagues knew how quickly the problems were completed once the question appeared on the screen.

In the team’s analysis, three clusters emerged: One group of students solved the problems about 10 minutes after the problem first popped up, another answered a day or two later, and a third typically answered correctly in about a minute. Because the online system presents problems one at a time, it precludes working out all of the answers ahead of time and entering them all at once.

“Our first reaction was “Wow, we must have some geniuses at MIT’,” Pritchard says. The team soon realized that the answers in this quick-solving group were entered faster than the time it takes students to read the question, raising suspicions that these students had a cheat sheet of copied answers.

Equating speedy answers with copying, the team concluded that about 10 percent of the students copied more than half of their homework, about 40 percent copied 10 to 50 percent of their homework, and about half the students copied less than 10 percent of their homework. By the end of the semester, students who copied 50 percent or more homework earned almost two letter grades below students who didn’t copy very much, the team found. Heavy copiers were also three times more likely to fail the course.

Other patterns emerged from the data as well. Students who copied were much more likely to put off the majority of their homework until the last minute. And copying rates increased dramatically after the first midterm.

In the study, the heaviest copiers were male, and although most of the students in the classes were freshmen and had yet to declare a major, subsequent analyses turned up an interesting trend: “Copying homework is a leading indicator of becoming a business major,” Pritchard says.

As I've written here many times, as long as grades are valued over learning, you will have cheating. This does not mean that homework is evil. It doesn't mean that students don't need practice. What it does mean is that we as teachers need to make it clear to students why we're assigning the work.

That's all the grading news fit to print for the month of April. There appears to be a dearth of K-12 information at the moment, probably because it's testing season. I expect another fit of discussion as the year draws to a close in May.

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March 2010 Grading Roundup

28 March 2010

This has been a busy month for me in terms of grading practices---three presentations for very different groups and lots of email inquiries for resources. I think my favourite message was "I'm now going to start a grading revolution in my school and eventually district!" You go, girl!

In other news...

Education Week is reporting that DC's "Money for Grades" program needs more money. I'd love to go into detail, but the info comes from an Associated Press story, and you know how possessive they are about their content ("This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.") Let me just pull these bits from the piece: Last year, the district paid out nearly $2M...and they are on track to need 20% more in funds for this year. What the article fails to mention is whether or not anything is happening in terms of student learning. Quite the pricey experiment DC schools and Harvard are running.

Speaking of Harvard, an academic there has looked into the "fairness" of grade weighting for honors and AP courses. Many schools---like the one I used to teach at---assigned extra grade points for AP coursework. We only used it to determine class ranking because there were years where the valedictorian was a kid who'd taken 3 periods of PE and being a TA for a teacher and ended up with a 4.0...while a kid busting their hump with a full load of challenging coursework didn't end up on top. However, some schools do figure extra points into the overall GPA. This has an impact on how colleges look at transcripts.

To encourage high school students to tackle tougher academic classes, many schools assign bonus points to grades in Advanced Placement or honors courses. But schools’ policies on whether students should receive a grade-point boost and by how much are all over the map.

My local public school district, for instance, used to add an extra third of a grade-point to students’ AP course grades while the private high school on the other side of town would bump up students’ grades by a full letter grade.

Since students from both schools would be applying to many of the same colleges, and essentially competing with one another, it didn’t seem fair to me that the private school kids should get such a generous grade boost.

That’s why I was heartened to come across a new study by a Harvard University researcher that takes a more systematic look at the practice of high school grade-weighting.

For his study, Philip Sadler asked college students in 113 introductory-level physics, biology, and chemistry classes across the country about the level of science classes they took in high school and the grades they received in them. He then compared those numbers with the grades those students were getting in their college science classes in the same subject.

He found that for every increasing level of rigor in high school science, students’ college course grades rose by an average of 2.4 points on a 100- point scale, where an A is 95 points and a B is worth 85 points and so on. In other words, the college grade for the former AP chemistry student would be expected to be 2.4 points higher than that of the typical student who took honors chemistry in high school. And the honors students’ college grade, in turn, would be 2.4 points higher than that of the student who took regular chemistry.

Translating those numbers, and some other calculations, to a typical high school 1-to-4-point grade scale, Sadler estimates that students taking an honors science class in high school ought to get an extra half a point for their trouble, and that a B in an AP science course ought to be counted as an A for the purpose of high school grade-point averages.

There is more to discover with the whole article, including the issue of accessibility to AP. A student who goes to a small school will not have access to the same amount of AP classes, so the transcript will not be as flush. However, I would hope that admissions officers would recognize this and adjust accordingly. Isn't this why a college application consists of more than a transcript?

That's all the grading news that fit to blog about this month. I have one presentation scheduled in April and a quiet calendar after that. I am working on various pieces of paperwork to be able to begin earning something from these presentations and other opportunities. Not sure that it will amount to much---but with pay cuts, furloughs, freezes, and other bad budget news looming, I need to try to make the most of what I have (part of which is in my head and slide deck).

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The Ups and Downs of Grades

31 January 2010

I'm never quite sure what is meant by the term "grade inflation." Does it reference a student who gets a grade that is higher than what has been earned/deserved (however that is defined)? Or are we talking something larger in scale---that out of any given student population there should always be a normal distribution of grades and any distribution which has a positive skew means that some sort of grade-related shenanigans are occurring?

Arkansas is judging grade inflation as a mismatch between a grade on a transcript and a score on a standardized test (via Memphis Daily News):
The Arkansas Department of Education says 58 public high schools inflated Algebra I and geometry grades last year.

The action means graduates of those schools face additional requirements to qualify for the new Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship. The scholarship is funded by the lottery and could be worth up to $5,000 a year.

Graduates of the 58 schools will have to earn more than the minimum 2.5 grade point average or earn more than the minimum 19 on the ACT college entrance exam.

The inflation report compares the grades of students who made an A or B in Algebra I and geometry in the 2008-09 school year — but scored at below-proficient levels on state exams.
There are two points of interest here for me. First of all, the state exam represents what a student knows on a given day about only a sample standards selected for that test---not what a student understands about Algebra or Geometry on the whole. However, I can also see the other side of the argument here. If a "well-taught hard-working" student has been provided a standards-based education, then the sample score should reflect the overall score. If you have a teacher who starts on page one of the textbook and just keeps working forward, regardless of relevance to learning targets (or instructional adjustments), then you're definitely going to have a mismatch between the scores.

The assumption, of course, is that the test score is not only accurate, but will always be lower than the grade. Otherwise, there is no "grade inflation." I have to think that there are going to be students for whom the reverse is true---the blow the top off the state test and earn a D or F in their math class. This happens when factors like late work or missing work or non-academic factors get rolled into the grade. You end up with a kid who knows the standards, but the grading scale only counts that as part of the score.

I don't believe in grade inflation, the Tooth Fairy, or the Easter Bunny. I do believe that there are inaccurate grades and Arkansas would do well to address that issue as opposed to punishing kids because schools/teachers need help with grading practices.

Even more mythical---or so I thought---was grade deflation. Until now, I can't recall a single news article that I've seen which describes such an issue. (via New York Times)
When Princeton University set out six years ago to corral galloping grade inflation by putting a lid on A’s, many in academia lauded it for taking a stand on a national problem and predicted that others would follow.
Galloping grade inflation! Jumpin' Jehosaphat! It's a national problem...or not.

But the idea never took hold beyond Princeton’s walls, and so its bold vision is now running into fierce resistance from the school’s Type-A-plus student body.

With the job market not what it once was, even for Ivy Leaguers, Princetonians are complaining that the campaign against bulked-up G.P.A.’s may be coming at their expense.

It is no secret that grades are currency. They buy things---from cheaper car insurance rates to athletic eligibility, scholarships, and college entrance to a final ticket to the working world. Princeton students and families have paid a lot of money for that Golden Diploma Ticket. You can argue all you like about whether or not being able to fork over tuition is enough to entitle someone to a sheepskin, but the school isn't playing fair, either:

In September, the student government sent a letter to the faculty questioning whether professors were being overzealous in applying the policy. And last month, The Daily Princetonian denounced the policy in an editorial, saying it had “too many harmful consequences that outweigh the good intentions behind the system.”

The undergraduate student body president, Connor Diemand-Yauman, a senior from Chesterland, Ohio, said: “I had complaints from students who said that their professors handed back exams and told them, ‘I wanted to give 10 of you A’s, but because of the policy, I could only give five A’s.’ When students hear that, an alarm goes off.”

Nancy Weiss Malkiel, dean of the undergraduate college at Princeton, said the policy was not meant to establish such grade quotas, but to set a goal: Over time and across all academic departments, no more than 35 percent of grades in undergraduate courses would be A-plus, A or A-minus.

I realize that college is not a standards-based environment. However, if a student completes the requirements of a course at a top level, shouldn't s/he receive an A? How does one justify a cutoff of one-third of the population?

It would appear that schools at every level need to take some time to really think about what a grade does and should represent. Until then, artificial terms such as "grade inflation" don't help the discussion---and they certainly don't support students.

Update: Looks like grade inflation isn't just for kids. NYC plans to change the way it "grades" public schools so that not so many will have A's and B's. You can read more in this NYT article.

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Makin' a List...Checkin' It Twice

08 January 2010

In my recent search to build a better rubric, I have run across the idea of using a checklist several times. Assessment gurus offered a checklist as an alternative to using a rubric. I wasn't convinced that this was a viable option for me in my current situation. It felt too binary (present/absent)---and if that was going to be the case, why not just give a test made of objective items?

And then I was pointed to an article on National Public Radio (NPR) this week about The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. Although the book is written by a surgeon about the world of medicine, I am wondering what the applications might be for education.

"Our great struggle in medicine these days is not just with ignorance and uncertainty," Gawande says. "It's also with complexity: how much you have to make sure you have in your head and think about. There are a thousand ways things can go wrong."

At the heart of Gawande's idea is the notion that doctors are human, and that their profession is like any other.

"We miss stuff. We are inconsistent and unreliable because of the complexity of care," he says. So Gawande imported his basic idea from other fields that deal in complex systems.

"I got a chance to visit Boeing and see how they make things work, and over and over again they fall back on checklists," Gawande says. "The pilot's checklist is a crucial component, not just for how you handle takeoff and landing in normal circumstances, but even how you handle a crisis emergency when you only have a couple of minutes to make a critical decision."

This isn't the route medicine has traveled when dealing with complex, demanding situations.

"In surgery the way we handle this is we say, 'You need eight, nine, 10 years of training, you get experience under your belt, and then you go with the instinct and expertise that you've developed over time. You go with your knowledge.' "

Might this be true for the classroom, too? The closest thing to a checklist I have ever seen in education was really more like a flow chart. We had it at an elementary school and used it for developing reading groups for students. If a kid scored X on the latest DIBELS test and the teacher had observed Y, then the kid was placed into Z group and given a particular curriculum. For kids who were behind, the flowchart guided a teacher toward which intervention materials should help eliminate the deficiency. For kids who were at or above standard, there were suggestions as to how to move them forward.

Teachers are diagnosticians, of a sort. We are expected to determine each child's abilities and then tailor our curriculum, instruction, and assessment to meet students' personal needs. Might a checklist of some sort help us along? I understand that every child is unique and that we aren't making widgets---but teachers are juggling either 25 kids engaged in several content areas of learning at elementary or 150+ kids at secondary in one more content areas. It isn't reasonable to assume that we can be an expert on every student in every subject area. Perhaps a checklist might provide some guidance?

Here is a sample one for surgeons from the World Health Organization (click to embiggen):


What would be included in a version for education? Who are the stakeholders? Would time for other classroom pursuits be freed up if checklists were available? I don't believe that there will ever be a checklist for instruction---just like we don't see a step-by-step sort of thing in the list shown above. This is more of a pre/post idea. The "during" is still quite flexible.

At the other end of the spectrum is the assessment piece, which is where I originally started. I'm still not 100% convinced that a checklist is appropriate for the kind of assessment and evaluation I want to build, but I am no longer going to rule it out. Perhaps by giving teachers another way to identify what a student can and cannot do in terms of using technology (and some ideas about interventions), a large-scale assessment might gain additional functions. This alone makes checklists worth a second look.

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All's Fair in Lovin' Science

01 December 2009

If you have a moment, stop by the science fair in Compton, California---where the scientists display their projects and students are the judges.

I'm intrigued with this idea. Not only does it provide research scientists with a different audience for their real world information, it also gives students some ideas about what they do and don't like about presenting science. Seems to me that this could be a great kickoff to the student science fair season.

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Grading Roundup: November 2009

21 November 2009

Shall we see what the interwebs dragged in this month in terms of stories about grading practices in schools?

My personal favorite is a story about a Teacher Who Broke the Law by Posting Top Test Scores (via Teacher Magazine). I have seen any number of teachers post grades (with or without student names). I remember finding out grades on exams in college by looking at bulletin boards and finding my ID number. I had a teacher tell me in the past year about his great idea to put every student's name on a card and then order the cards on the wall showing the rank from top to bottom in terms of grades. He thought it was "motivational." In part, he was right---but it all depends on what you want to motivate students to do: value grades or value learning. There's nothing wrong with individuals knowing their own scores and considering what it says about personal performance. Once you make a public classroom notice, you've changed goals and outcomes for kids---not to mention violating their privacy and opening yourself up for a lawsuit. Find other ways to communicate with students that doesn't involve public posting of everyone's scores.

Meanwhile, Education Week is reporting on a lawsuit filed by five Texas school districts concerning the state education commissioner's interpretation of grading scales. The law requires that the scale for A - F have equal intervals, i.e. if a score of 90 - 100 represents an A...then 50 - 60 must represent an F.

Five Houston-area school districts filed a lawsuit against the state education commissioner over his interpretation of a new law prohibiting minimum grading policies, a lawyer said Thursday.

Commissioner Robert Scott told districts last month that the law applied to grades on assignments as well as six-week or nine-week grading periods.

The schools — Fort Bend, Aldine, Klein, Alief, Anahuac and Clear Creek — assert in the lawsuit filed Wednesday that the law only specifically applies to assignments and should not be applied to grading periods or semesters. The lawsuit, filed in Travis County, seeks to have the minimum-grade ban only apply to single assignments.

"Even though the language of the bill does not address in any way minimum grading policies for report cards or grading periods, that is the way the commissioner is interpreting it," said attorney David Feldman, who is representing the school districts.

"Well over half of the school districts in the state have minimum failing grade policies," Feldman said Thursday.

A spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency did not immediately return a call to The Associated Press seeking comment.

"It is a sad state of affairs when school districts are willing to go to court for the right to force their teachers to assign fraudulent grades," said Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who sponsored the new law earlier this year. Administrators "are willing to waste precious education resources on a misguided lawsuit to continue these policies, which undermine the authority of our teachers and reward minimum effort from students."

Fraudulent grades? I think not. I will be watching this one to see how it plays out. I am all for the use of professional judgment when assigning transcript grades, but I think there are going to be some major issues with parents if one grading scale (50 - 100) is applied to individual assignments and a different scale is used for end of term.

There are a couple of interesting posts from the edusphere worth a click. Jim---blogging over at 5/17---shared an idea about having students track their own progress using GoogleDocs. OKP wonders if she is becoming Softer or Smooshed? as her perspective and policies on late work evolve with her career.

That's all the news fit to print for grading this month. If you've seen an article or post to share, please do so in the comments.

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Dinosaurs in Our Midst

11 October 2009

I've been thinking a lot about a recent WaPo article on a district's choice to disband its Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

From a high mark of 12 million in the 1960s, national PTA membership has dropped to a little more than 5 million. Although school enrollments have ballooned, the PTA lost a million members in the past decade alone. Through the years, Washington's inner suburbs have been high-profile exceptions to the general decline. More than 90 percent of the schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties have PTAs, for instance, compared with about 25 percent nationally.

But even here, there are worrisome signs for the future of the PTA.

"I think it's time we join the nation," Catherine Potter, Woodson High PTSA's past president, told the assembled parents and a few jersey-clad students last week. She argued that the national group is too bureaucratic and less relevant in the Internet age, when parents have access to education-related news from Richmond or Washington and can get involved politically in other ways.

While I'm not so sure that "the rest of the nation is jumping off a bridge, so we should, too" argument is the best reasons for disbandment, I do think one of the key pieces here is the "Internet age."

In an era of email, Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts for schools, blog-savvy parents with an axe to grind, and any other number of options, is a brick and mortar organization (like the PTA) still relevant? I believe so. Schools are still places where people meet and learn---virtual support isn't going to be enough when it comes to doing the best we can for all kids (not just the ones whose parents have a special interest wheel to squeak). That being said, organizations like the PTA are only as relevant as they choose to be.

PTA leaders say they are struggling to communicate their message to a new generation of parents.

"The question is, 'What have you done for me lately?' " said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "And we need to do a better job telling them" that the PTA is involved in issues they care about...

Nehrbass, of the Virginia PTA, said it's getting harder to convince parents that it matters to be involved in issues affecting more than their children or their school.

Working alone, for instance, parents can raise money for a computer their school cannot afford because of budget cuts, she said. Working together, they can fill a boardroom to fight for more education funding.

To reverse the decline in membership, the national PTA is trying to redraw the face of children's advocacy. It's reaching out to fathers and training minority leaders to organize growing numbers of immigrant parents. It is also appealing to younger parents through social networking sites.

The elementary school I was a part of two years ago had a terrible time trying to sustain its PTA. Whether it was the dues (a "luxury" for a family living in poverty), the meetings (when parents were working two jobs and/or relying on public transportation and/or had no one to watch the children), or just an aversion to being in a school, I don't know. I do know that those students, more than any, needed a group advocating for them. There needed to be something different with the structure and purpose.

If the PTA is going to evade a dinosaur-like ending to its existence, it is going to have to adapt to the changing form of the American family, as well as the shifting landscape of how people organize and communicate.

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Once and Future Learning

02 October 2009

There's been a lot of rumbling at the state and federal levels about "continuity of learning," should the H1N1 virus (or other disaster) prevent schools from operating normally. Both the ASCD blog and Education Week have recently focused some screen time to these topics.

From ASCD:
ASCD Executive Director Gene Carter emphasizes that in addition to prevention and monitoring efforts, schools must consider how they plan to support continuous learning, both for individual students who are home for extended periods of time with the flu and for the whole student body if the virus spreads widely and forces school closures.

“Some estimates indicate H1N1 could infect half the U.S. population this fall and winter, which translates into considerable classroom disruption and absenteeism,” Carter writes. “Students in the same class could end up in wildly different places in the curriculum. Meanwhile, entire classes could fall behind if their teachers are out sick for several days.”

He suggests educators form professional learning communities to help them work together to assess knowledge and skills when students return to school and develop plans for instructional next steps.

If the swine flu plays out in these numbers, then there is no doubt about the disruption to the educational process. I wonder if it is more disruptive to try to keep schools open than to shut down during the peak of infection. This does not mean that staff and students would conveniently all be ill and well simultaneously, but considering the every student/class in a different place of learning at any given moment...why not slow things down for everyone instead? How is a sick teacher supposed to plan for students who may or may not be there themselves?

This is where the e-learning ramp up could play a role, as Education Week suggests. Suppose a teacher posts assignments to their website/Moodle site or e-mails students with lessons. Will this work?

To a point. We are going to have to assume that every child has internet access at home (all with the same bandwidth) and time to use it. This is not guaranteed in a one-computer household with many members. We also have to assume a "one size fits all" lesson---at this time, I suspect that few teachers are going to offer accommodations for ELL, SPED, etc. We are also going to have to assume that every teacher is equally savvy about the tools available for these kinds of lessons and how to use them.

All in all, I don't think that we're ready to offer an alternative learning environment in case of a pandemic...and we're not going to be ready by winter.

I do think that e-learning will be a typical part of future classrooms...a blended model of brick-and-mortar and virtual learning. At that point, it will be a simpler extension and expectation to go all virtual all the time for short periods. If we are truly going to be prepared for a widespread flu epidemic this winter, we need to look at some realistic discussions about what continuity of learning looks like in 2009-2010.

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Accept No Substitutions

30 September 2009

When I was in the classroom, lab days always had some extra baggage in the form of what to do about absent students. Most materials were not things that could or should be sent home as make-up work...many, especially in the realm of biology, did not keep well. A trail of students, each making up the lab separately was a drain on resources and time. I can't claim that I ever developed a solution I was entirely happy with. There's just nothing like the real thing, baby.

It looks like the College Board might agree with that observation. From Education Week's report on Simulated vs. Hands-on Lab Experiments:

In recent years, the College Board, which authorizes AP classes and offers college-level material to high school students, has been trying to determine whether simulated labs in some science courses can take the place of real-world experiments. It’s a debate that online science providers and hands-on teachers are grappling with as well.

In the coming years, some students taking online Advanced Placement science courses may have to leave their computers and head to an actual classroom as the College Board moves toward a model likely to require more hands-on laboratory experiences for those who take AP courses online.

“Some experiences can be set up online so they can manage and manipulate the data, but some skills we really want them to do in the real world to get college credit,” says Trevor Packer, a vice president of the New York City-based College Board...

Zipporah Miller, the associate executive director of professional programs and conferences for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association, says virtual experiments alone can’t equal real-world labs. “The simulation should be used only as a reinforcement,” she says. “If they go through the simulation, they may get the right answer on an AP exam, but they may not have the experience to apply that knowledge in the real world.”

Some virtual AP providers argue that simulations are being used by everyone from medical students to the military and can suffice...
I suppose that one could reasonably argue that simulations are not student-driven inquiry experiences---they're cookbooky. But then, so are the Dirty Dozen of AP Bio (the 12 labs required by the College Board). What is the role of simulations in the k-12 science classroom, then? What kind of experience is "good enough" to be called a lab? Are we equating seat time with learning---again? Are there attributes of physically manipulating glassware, chemicals, etc. that form the only pathway to conceptual understanding? Should we accept no substitutes?

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Road to Nowhere

27 September 2009

When I visit schools to talk about grading practices, the number one issue/roadblock that teachers tell me about is their online gradebooks. There are a variety of factors that concern teachers (not all of these occur in every school/district):
  • Their school or district requires them to post grades a certain number of times/week.
  • The school or district decides the grading categories and/or comments.
  • The software only computes and displays averages.
  • The software automatically uses zeros for missing assignments.
I'm ambivalent about the use of online gradebooks as communication tools. I understand the intent of enabling families to have a better idea about student progress---hoping to eliminate the "Surprise! Your student isn't passing the class!" bombshell. The basic problem really is the limitations of the software. Teachers are automatically locked into one---and only one---representation of a grade. Some have told me that they can go in and override the final score, but this is a laborious process (and not realistic to manage each time a new score is entered). With the sheer volume of students at secondary and subject areas at elementary, most teachers are unhappy with having to jump through hoop after hoop. And they fear the repercussions from parents who have watched a student's grade like the stock market, only to not see a match between online gradebook and paper report card. In other words, teachers think that these tools are making grades less fair to students.

Are you listening school administrators? Please don't pigeon hole your teachers and handicap your students in order to CYA with some software.

Moving on...

Education Week's Digital Directions is also outlining some other risks for districts to consider. The biggest one has to do with security:
Along with the benefits, potential problems are associated with online gradebooks, and security of confidential data is may be the biggest one. Some of the information contained in a gradebook system is likely to be protected under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, a federal law that outlines what student information schools must keep private. So a technical glitch in the system that opens such information to the public could mean big trouble for schools.
Not to mention hacking or other unwanted manipulations. Beyond that, however, are the costs: hardware, human resources, training for teachers, site licenses, upgrades, and more.
Nearly everyone agrees, though, that the key to using a successful gradebook system is training, and that costs money, too. Roberts of the Washington County schools in Utah learned that the hard way....

Roberts estimates that PowerSchool costs the district $130,000 a year for the product, plus additional costs for maintenance of the 14 servers that handle the database and applications. He has two employees who do nothing but maintain the PowerSchool system.

If you're out shopping for a new online gradebook system, the article provides a nice list of options (although I don't know how many you can sample). At the end of the day, however, schools and districts need to be think carefully about whether or not the benefits to such a system outweigh all of the costs. Until there are some significant improvements to the software, I would recommend staying with the systems currently in place. We already know what happens when good intentions are used as pavers.

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September Roundup

23 September 2009

Seems like it's been awhile since I rounded up some grading articles for this space. It may only be September, but the topic has already been grabbing a few headlines (and comments).

Up first, a brief article from Teacher Magazine about grade changes:
A new survey finds one in five Chicago public high school teachers say they have changed student grades in the past school year.

The survey of teachers was conducted in June and July by the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Sun-Times. The results were released Sunday in the newspaper.

Thirty-one percent of high school teachers also say in the survey they felt pressured to alter grades. Teachers say the pressure comes from principals, parents and school employees.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Ron Huberman says prevention will come from new annual grade audits. Huberman told the newspaper he takes the survey "very seriously" and changing grades is unacceptable.

Survey questions were distributed to 7,938 teachers with an 18 percent response.

Not a large response rate, but I think the timing probably had a lot to do with that. In any case, the results are still interesting. As for me, I don't know that I ever felt pressure while in the classroom---but I do remember other teachers either being squeezed (especially at graduation time) or worse, returning in the fall to discover that a counselor had changed a student's grade over the summer. Yes, I've had pleading calls from parents and emails from students. If that counts as pressure, so be it. Looking back, there have been times when I should have been more considerate and entertained a change...but that certainly doesn't mean that hounding teachers or bullying them into changing grades is okay. I hope readers will jump in with their own experiences. What does pressure look like to you?

Over at the WaPo, there's some discussion about the rampant subjectivity of grading. Um...duh. (and perhaps one of the reasons for the pressure noted above) Oddly enough, the "fixes" they report as being suggested by Douglas Reeves are standards-based grading practices. As much as a proponent as I am of standards-based grading practices, I will be the first to say that they do not eliminate subjectivity. I actually think that they increase subjectivity because a teacher is concentrating on evaluating every student fairly...not equally. What these practices will do (as outlined in the article), is exorcise the mishmash of learning and non-academic behaviors.

John Spencer has noted that the standards-based grading at his school sucks. The full post is below:

Our school is shifting from traditional grades to standards-based grading. With this comes a major paradigm shift. We no longer assess a student's work ethic (it's impossible to lose points by not turning work in) but only pure academic achievement.

At first glance, the standards-based grading represents a new philosophy of grading. Shouldn't we assess whether students master a standard? Should we check for growth? How could we possibly be against this process? When I first heard about this, I envisioned student-created reflective portfolios combining their qualitative and quantitative feedback. I imagined projects connected to strands and performance objectives. To me, it seemed like a step in the right direction. All too often students work for the sake of extrinsic motivation. Finally, we were stepping away from arbitrary grades and packets with check marks.

Instead, we use only multiple choice exams. One exam accounts for sixty percent of the final grade. I find this odd, because on our lesson plan format they want to see: connects to prior knowledge, differentiated instruction, metacognition, cooperative learning, higher-order thinking and a host of other "best practices."

While I agree with the list of best practices, it seems strange that ultimately we assess students with none of the best practices: one modality, individually, non-differentiated (entirely standardized), isolated, based upon rote memorization.
I think it's important here to note that assessment and evaluation (grading) are not the same thing. I find this to be a common misconception among teachers when I'm out and about giving presentations. Multiple-choice assessments are not inherently evil and can give excellent information for teachers to evaluate in a standards-based grading system. Grading isn't about the tool, it's about what you do with it. However, I can understand why he is unhappy with the tools. Perhaps he can use his new grading scale to develop more meaningful scores for students.

Finally, Lana stopped by nearly a month ago and left a comment for me on an old post. I've decided to put it here as opposed to post it where she left it. "I can't stand standards based grading. I spend over 30 hours a week trying to complete my gradebook. Trying to figure out how each assigments [sic] fits each standard is impossible. I'm quitting teaching because of this system after 19 years." I'm not completely sure what to do with this...and Lana never returned here, so I think she was looking for place to vent as opposed to get help. It's difficult to say whether this is happening in a district where some sort of change was mandated and no professional development or support was provided...or perhaps Lana has no understanding of how to meaningfully connect standards with her lessons. I find the "30 hour" remark on the hyperbolic side. The teachers I've talked to who have implemented this system spend 1/3 - 1/2 the time grading that they used to with no changes to the amount of time inputting information into a gradebook. I'm going to guess there's some really bad implementation going on here and hope Lana gets some help for whatever is really holding her back.

Be careful out there.

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Getting a Boost

05 September 2009

Is it just me, or is STEM shaping up to be the Acronym of the Year for 2009 - 2010 schools? If it's new to you, it represents "Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math," both as individual pursuits and collectively. (Maybe it should be "S, T, E and/or M.") There continues to be some voices of concern about the lack of U.S. graduates in these areas, although other evidence suggests that the country is doing just fine. We can't compete with the sheer number of graduates from China and India due to population number differences as it is. However, student interests should be fostered, no matter where they might occur.

Two tools have recently emerged to guide schools in their efforts to identify and support STEM students.

Via Education Week (Science Panel Seeks Ways to Fan Innovation), it appears that the National Science Board has been focusing on "how can schools produce more mathematics and science students with a distinct and harder-to-define skill: the ability to innovate and become future innovators in American business, science, medicine, and other areas..." noting that policymakers have "become increasingly keen in recent years on providing new and different academic challenges for elite students...Members of the expert committee said their final report will likely have to address several questions. What are the characteristics of an innovator—ability, interest, determination, curiosity, or all of those traits? What separates innovative ability from other, related skills, such as creativity? And can math and science classroom instruction and assessment in the United States realistically be revamped to nurture innovation among students?"

Should be an interesting report to keep an eye out for.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report on an open-source (but not free) tool from the Gates Foundation that "will simulate how schools can draw students to STEM fields most effectively--a trend that would bolster the science and engineering workforce...The program can test more than 200 variables that could better inform policy makers about how programs should be funded. The model measures graduation and dropout rates, gender gaps in STEM fields, teacher and STEM industry salaries, and educator attrition rates, among other factors. 'Whether it's the answer, I don't know," said Sternheim, director of the STEM Educational Institute for 20 years. "But it could be a piece of the answer. It might even make a real difference.'"

That quote doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in me, but there are some guinea pigs in Ohio, Arizona, and California who will use the software first. If it "might even make a real difference," we should know in a few years...although by then, we could well be looking for some real way to give STEM students a boost.

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Technology Literacy

01 September 2009

I was recently ruminating about the constriction of internet filters on teaching and learning in most classrooms. I wonder how this thinly-veiled censorship will impact students' ability to perform on the upcoming Technology Literacy NAEP. To be sure, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is neither high-stakes (i.e. not tied to graduation or a school's/district's Adequate Yearly Progress) nor a part of most classrooms; however, it is one-way to get a comparative snapshot of learning across the 50 states.

An article in the last edition of Education Week by Sean Cavanagh (reg. req'd.) revealed that the first draft of the standards for the national assessment of technology literacy has been made available. The draft represents a "framework for the national assessment of technological literacy, the first to gauge students’ understanding of and skill in using a range of tools."

The computer-based National Assessment of Educational Progress in technological literacy, scheduled to be administered to a representative sample of the nation’s 4th, 8th, and 12th graders for the first time in 2012, will evaluate students’ understanding of technology tools and their design, the ways they can be used to gather information and communicate ideas, and their impact on society...

When it is made final, the framework will guide the design of the assessment. The draft defines technological literacy as the “general understanding of technology coupled with a capability to use, manage, and assess the technologies that are most relevant in one’s life, such as the information and communication technologies that are particularly salient in the world today.”

The committee embraced a broad definition of technology that ranges from automobiles to computers, including many of the tools that are used in daily life.

Students may be tested on their knowledge of the kinds of tools that are available and how they are used, along with their ability to apply technological concepts to solve problems. They may be given tasks that demonstrate their ability to use various technology platforms to communicate information or collect and analyze data, evaluate information, and suggest a technology solution to a given problem.

While the assessment is meant to gauge a broad range of skills that are considered essential to technological literacy, the test design may be limited in its ability to measure some areas, the draft states, such as the habits of mind and critical-thinking skills that are considered essential to a deeper understanding and use of technology.

“This is an important development, I can say that without reservations because technological literacy is such a critical element of being a successful 21st - century citizen,” said Valerie Greenhill, the director of strategic initiatives for the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a Tucson, Ariz.-based advocacy group. “The progression being made in the technology community away from the notion of just technology competence, such as how to use a computer, to … developing that literacy with the use of technology in daily life and in core academic subjects as well is incredibly important. To the extent that the NAEP is developing a framework that guides the development of these competencies is a welcome move.”

A number of states have implemented tests of technology or information literacy, and most have adopted the national K-12 standards in the field produced by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE).

The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB) committee that has been devising the framework has reviewed state technology standards, studies on assessing technology skills, and the guidelines and recommendations of ISTE and other organizations.

“We want students to understand that technology is not just computers,” said Senta Raizen, the director of the National Center for Improving Science Education, who co-chaired the framework committee. The center is based at WestEd, a research organization in San Francisco.

The goal, Ms. Raizen said at a meeting earlier this month where the draft was unveiled, is to understand “the human design world, where do things come from, where does our technology come from.”

She and others involved in the project say the material represented in the framework could be covered in science class, but also in subjects across the curriculum, such as mathematics, history, social studies, and language arts.

“We’ve seen movement for reading across the curriculum, writing across the curriculum,” Mr. Friedman said. “Well, technology across the curriculum makes as much sense as those do.”

Indeed. I have only given the draft a cursory review, but things look to be on the right track. I worry about the ability to assess many of the targets outside of the classroom---however, that does not make for poor targets. The ideas are general enough that they truly could be embedded with nearly any curriculum. And, most importantly (to me), they include the concept that technology is not just stuff. On the flipside, do teachers need another set of standards to think about? (No.) Will schools embrace technology standards? (Unlikely at the current time, given the focus on literacy/math and placement of filters.) But perhaps these are good "ammo" for those trying to beat down the filters and/or justify cell phones in their classrooms or any other of the myriad battles being fought betwixt those in the trenches and policy-makers outside. It's a start.

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Just Practicing

31 August 2009

With school starting up again, the subject of homework has re-emerged in a variety of venues. Some teacher-bloggers are posting about how to weight homework in their grading scale. Time Magazine has an article about how homework is Maybe Not So Onerous After All, while Teacher Magazine refers to homework as The Necessary Evil. When it comes to homework, there is no dearth of opinions to be found. Including mine, natch.

When it comes to whether or not homework should be assigned, I believe it is okay to do so...with the following parameters:
  • The task must be meaningfully connected to the learning target. This is not to say that popsicle stick projects, poems, dances, and other expressions can't be purposeful in terms of student understanding (and differentiation is a great instructional tool). The guidelines just need to be clear. (Along this vein, have a look at some hilarious student projects.)
  • Homework should be used to practice a skill or reinforce content that students have already worked with. If you teach something new and then expect kids to go home and be successful on their own, you're setting yourself up for disappointment (and probably some pissed off parents).
  • If a student already has shown you that they can meet the standard, they don't need the homework. Don't sweat the idea that some kids will have to do the assignment and some will not. You're focusing on what is equal---not is what is fair for each student.
Beyond these things, I believe that homework is a form of formative assessment and should not be scored. Should students get feedback? Absolutely. Should the task be reviewed and discussed in class so that students have the correct information? Definitely. If you assign some homework and a kid doesn't do it, should they be penalized? Yes, but not with a grade. Address the behavior and still require that they do the work.

Perhaps the term "homework" just needs to go away. I prefer to think of it simply as "practice." Just as athletes hit the gym and field before a performance (as do those who play an instrument), kids also can use various amounts of practice before they are expected to have some facility with information. This practice need not happen at home...need not involve a worksheet (or glue, glitter, craft paper, and sticks)...and doesn't have to take hours of time. We don't need a 10-minute/grade level rule. We don't need to think of homework as evil incarnate. We only have to remember that kids are just practicing.

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Crowdsourcing Grades

03 August 2009

Let me just say up front that I am not feeling the love toward the idea presented in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Ed: Crowdsourcing Grades.

'Crowdsourcing,' the notion of using the wisdom of the crowd for sites like Wikipedia, could be making its way into academe as a grading method that holds students more accountable.

A professor at Duke University plans to test just that this fall, when she leaves the evaluation of class assignments up to her students, using crowdsourcing to make students responsible for grading each other.

Learning is more than earning an A says Cathy N. Davidson, the professor, who recently returned to teach English and interdisciplinary studies after eight years in administration. But students don't always see it that way. Vying for an A by trying to figure out what a professor wants or through the least amount of work has made the traditional grading scale superficial, she says.

"You've got this real mismatch between the kind of participatory learning that’s happening online and outside of the classroom, and the top-down, hierarchical learning and rigid assessment schemes that we’re using in the classroom from grades K through 12 and all the way up to graduate school," Ms. Davidson says. "In school systems today, we’re putting more and more emphasis on quantitative assessment in an era when, out of the classroom, students are learning through an entirely different way of collaboration, customizing, and interacting."

Ms. Davidson will pilot the grading approach to this fall in her class "This Is Your Brain on the Internet," which combines neuroscience and technology. Fifteen students, in rotating teams of two, are assigned to lead each class session, calling on a list of texts, Web sites and other materials Ms. Davidson provides to facilitate discussion and give assignments. Those students are also responsible for reading each student's "assignment," which is posted on his or her blog, and evaluating whether that work is satisfactory. If the work is deemed unsatisfactory, a student has the opportunity to redo it.
I understand what she's getting at concerning students "gaming" the system. However, I am having a hard time with this particular solution to the issue. I don't see where students can't play this field just as easily. I do my project with my partner...give everyone in the class I like an "A" on their blog post...and call it good. What do I care if anyone actually learned anything? There are no goals for learning for me to judge (assuming I have the expertise as a novice to do this for the course), so I'll still continue to make the least amount of effort to maximize my grade.

Her incoming students aren't aware of her plans for the semester -- but Sunday's post, in which she explained how she would grade and also included a copy of the syllabus, already had 1,300 hits by Monday, with comments both supporting and doubting her method.

Some came from those who had tried the method and failed, as one educator from Buffalo wrote, because groups of students blindly and consistently marked up or down other students’ work "in order to increase their own grade in the class favorably, and hurt others' grades." Others, like a professor from New York University, saw success in a crowdsource grading approach for a large, interdisciplinary undergraduate courses.

Still others defended the traditional grading system. One professor, though hesitant to call the American grading system an "absolute good," said allowing students to start at an A, or earn an A by merely completing assignments, was equating "doing fine" -- which would earn a 'C' in his own classes -- to "doing excellent," which should earn an A.

"We ought to take the idea of excellence very, very seriously," he wrote.

Still, Ms. Davidson says she's optimistic about how the grading system will affect her classes and the way her students learn.

"Education is way behind just about everything else in dealing with these [media and technology] changes," she said. It's important to teach students how to be responsible contributors to evaluations and assessment. Students are contributing and assessing each other on the Internet anyway, so why not make that a part of learning?"
I disagree about the "assessing each other on the Internet anyway." Value judgments---sure. Meaningful evaluation---not seeing it. In a class where this sort of crowdsourcing for grades is used, wouldn't it be valuable to have some sort of common ideas about what quality work is and how to know if someone can hit the learning targets? Or will grades (or "excellence") simply become a popularity contest?

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Working It Out

22 July 2009

In my last post, I suggested that we in education might need to revisit our concept of "seat time." Sitting in a designated spot for a pre-determined number of hours per week does not guarantee quality work (for either students or adults).

But what about homework?

In a serendipitous confluence of events, ASCD sent me a new book (Rethinking Homework, by Cathy Vatterott) at the same time two articles about classroom work showed up in my RSS feeds. Seems like many are thinking about student products this summer.

Personally, I'm kind of a moderate regarding homework. I'm not at this end of the spectrum (as reported by Teacher Magazine's "How Much Homework Is Too Much?"):

"I don't believe that there's any use for it," said Harris, of Federal Way, Wash. "I think that's a complete waste of childhood."

...but I'm not here either:

One standard that many school districts are turning to is the "10-minute rule" created by Duke University psychology professor Harris Cooper. The rule, endorsed by the National PTA and the National Education Association, says kids should get 10 minutes of homework a night per grade. A first grader would have 10 minutes of homework each night; a fifth grader 50 minutes.

I've long argued for an expanded definition of "homework," because I don't think it has to include student products (such as worksheets) and I don't think there is a magical standardized amount that applies to every student. Rereading notes taken in the classroom should count...so should time talking to parents about what was learned during class. Some students need more practice with ideas---others are ready for different things. Is there some way we can get away from "one size fits all" when it comes to homework?

And then, I'm not sure I want to go quite so far as what the New York Times is terming "credit recovery." Okay, so nearly every school district I know has some sort of similar program, but these particular examples were rather eyecatching:
A year after reports showed that New York City high schools were offering failing students a chance to earn credit simply by completing worksheets or attending weeklong cram sessions, educators say the system of making up schoolwork is still abused, and the state is seeking to crack down on it.

At William H. Maxwell Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn, for instance, a nearly illiterate student racked up many of his credits through after-school remediation programs. He was promoted to 12th grade still unable to write full sentences or read a line of text, his teachers said.

At Mathematics, Science Research and Technology Magnet High School in Queens, several students were awarded credit last school year for clicking through questions on a computer screen until they got the right answer, teachers said.
In other words, just the act of doing the work is enough to earn credit---there is no expectation of actual learning. But New York is running into the some issues along the way in terms of regulation. Sure, you can impose several layers of regulations and oversight, but it won't keep some from finding ways to game the system and there are always going to be exceptions to every rule. Those are just issues at the surface. They never really address the real question: What does it mean to learn something?

Can we, as a system, work out a way to get past a reductionist view of learning as a number of hours and worksheets into something more meaningful for each student?

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Seat Time

19 July 2009

I've been thinking a lot about "seat time" recently---and whether or not it equates to anything meaningful. Mind you, most of my thoughts have been related to my personal situation with determining whether or not to take the new job. The leadership philosophy that goes along with my current job kinda boils down to seat time. The idea is that the absolute most productive way to get the job done is for me to spend 40 hours/week in one chair at a particular location. I just can't quite buy this. Maybe it's because I'm more of a "learner-centered" educator...maybe it's because I think that accountability should be a higher bar than butts in seats. I may very well be off the mark---I can't deny that in the classroom, students who are habitually missing from class often struggle to meet the standards. But I'm not talking about being absent from a job---just sitting in a different location during the work day. I'm looking for a "blended model" of in person and on-line working environment. From what I've been reading, it would appear that many students are, too---and those who find this situation are successful.

The U.S. Department of Education has released a study finding that good teaching is further enhanced with technology.
A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified over 1,000 empirical studies of online learning. Of these, 46 met the high bar for quality that was required for the studies to be included in the analysis. The meta analysis showed that “blended” instruction – combining elements of online and face-to-face instruction – had a larger advantage relative to purely face to face instruction or instruction conducted wholly online. The analysis also showed that the instruction conducted wholly on line was more effective in improving student achievement than the purely face to face instruction. In addition, the report noted that the blended conditions often included additional learning time and instructional elements not received by students in control conditions...

Few rigorous research studies have been published on the effectiveness of online learning for K-12 students. The systematic search found just five experimental or controlled quasi-experimental studies comparing the learning effects of online versus face-to-face instruction for K-12 students. For this reason, caution is required in generalizing the study’s findings to the K-12 population because the results are for the most part based on studies in other settings, such as in medical, career, military training, and higher education.

“Studies of earlier generations of distance and online learning courses have concluded that they are usually as effective as classroom-based instruction,” said Marshall “Mike” Smith, a Senior Counselor to the secretary. “The studies of more recent online instruction included in this meta-analysis found that, on average, online learning, at the post-secondary level, is not just as good as but more effective than conventional face-to-face instruction...”

One of the things I like about this report is that it makes the case that technology is not just stuff. It's not about the Interactive White Boards. This is not about using cell phones and/or "clickers" in the classroom. It's not about how many handhelds you have. It's about extending the classroom in space and time through on-line options. Hardware is awesome---but it cannot necessarily have the universal applications that a blog, wiki, or cloud computing can have.

Meanwhile, over at eSchool News, there is a report that students want more on-line options. (See? I'm not the only one who wants to work from home now and then.)

Despite a growing interest in online learning among students, the availability of online classes in K-12 schools and districts hasn't kept pace with the demand, according to a new report from Project Tomorrow and Blackboard Inc.

According to the report, more than 40 percent of sixth through 12th graders have researched or demonstrated interest in taking a course online, but only 10 percent have actually taken an online course through their school. Meanwhile, 7 percent of middle school students and 4 percent of high school students instead have pursued opportunities outside their school to take online courses--underscoring the disconnect between the supply and demand for online learning in today's schools...

The report suggests that K-12 students want to pursue online learning to gain more control of their own learning experience, have access to more courses, and work at their own pace. But middle and high school students continue to have different priorities for taking online classes, the report says: Older students were most likely to desire online classes to earn college credit, while younger students would pursue online learning to get extra help in a subject.

There is a lot of talk about "personalizing instruction" these days. I don't know that on-line options are the best for every grade and/or subject, but I do think that this is one way to reach some students.
When asked why learning through an online class might make school more interesting, 47 percent of nine through 12th graders, 39 percent of six through eighth graders, and one in four third through fifth graders said they want to learn online to "be in control of my learning." Students don't expect courses to be easier online, but they do expect the online format to make it easier for them to succeed, because they can review materials when they want and are more comfortable asking teachers for help.
Being in control of one's own learning (or work) doesn't seem like such a terrible idea, does it? If we are after lifelong learning and independent workers, it would seem that we need to broaden our definition of seat time.

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Evolutionary Effort

03 July 2009

From the Education Week article on Effort, Engagement, and Student Learning:

Schools that often emphasize fun, student-centered classroom activities in instruction, and evolutionary processes over many generations have helped shape humans’ interest in those engaging social activities.

Yet for students to tackle new and difficult, or “evolutionarily novel” material in reading, math, and other subjects, schools need to emphasize effort and persistence.

That’s the argument put forward by David C. Geary, a professor of psychological sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, in a study. It was published in the October edition of the journal Educational Psychologist but publicized this month by the university’s press office. It focuses on the connection between evolution, culture, and the role of schools, which the author describes as “evolutionary educational psychology.”

The process of evolution, Mr. Geary says in the study, has resulted in students being able to acquire certain types of new knowledge and skills, such as language acquisition, in a relatively “effortless” manner through processes that are engaging. Schools have arranged lessons to suit those desires.

Yet evolution has not provided the necessary scaffolding to help students with challenging content, such as algebra and reading, Mr. Geary argues. Only determined effort in classrooms will help students meet that demand, he says.

This makes me wonder about the whole "Why are we learning this?" question from students. For "effortless" activities, perhaps students don't have a need to prompt teachers with this query. When it comes to Newtonian physics, then they do (except, perhaps, for those few students who are gunning to learn it).

I'm not entirely sure what to do with this information---I just find it interesting. For me, it leads to deeper questions about what should be included with a curriculum and the purpose of education. Do students need "evolutionary novel" material? Why? And, if so, what's the best way to teach it---because from what I'm gleaning, constructivist methods aren't going to cut it.

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Turn on, Tune in, Don't Drop Out

02 July 2009

The other day, I was shopping for some garden needs at Home Depot. An enthusiastic young man helped me pile bag after bag of mulch onto a cart---and even loaded them into my car. I chatted with him, asking if he was done with school for the year. "I don't go to school anymore." Hmmm...I thought. He seemed high school age. He went on to explain that he had dropped out because his mother had become very ill and he needed to support her. He wants to get his GED someday and perhaps an AA from the local community college...but in the meantime, it seems rather sad that this boy didn't feel like he had any options when he had to make the choice of family vs. finishing high school.

Usually, dropping out of school is not a single event, as this young man described. Typically speaking, students who leave school before graduation disengage over a long period of time. Not showing up to school one day is just the final act. It is estimated that one in four students in Washington state doesn't reach the finish line---and I would expect our rates are fairly average. This creates quite a burden on the rest of us, whether or not we realize it. From my dissertation:
Students who drop out of school not only affect their own lives, but also have a societal impact. As a group, dropouts earn lower incomes and experience higher rates of unemployment (McIntosh, Flannery, Sugai, Braun, & Cochrane, 2008). For the more than 1.2 million students who did not graduate in 2008, this represents a loss of over $300 billion in lifetime earnings (Deyé, 2008). In addition, dropouts have a higher rate of substance abuse issues and health problems, costing Americans over $17 billion during their lifetimes. There is also a greater than average cost for crime prevention and prosecution in those geographic areas which have a concentrated population of dropouts (McIntosh, et al., 2008). In looking at the benefits to society by increasing graduation rates, it is estimated that more than $300 billion could be added to the American economy if by 2020 students of color graduated at the same rate as their white peers and there is a potential $8 billion reduction in crime spending if the percentage of males graduating high school increased by a mere five percent (Deyé, 2008). Finally, Murray and Naranjo (2008) point out that there are societal costs to the dropout issue which are difficult to quantify: “negative effects to the knowledge base, creative contributions, scientific progress, and democratic processes” (p. 146). Although educators tend to frame the dropout issue in terms of high school, these problems begin much earlier. The act of dropping out is a culmination of many factors and it is important to begin the examination of these issues, including student motivation, during early adolescence (McIntosh, et al., 2008). The ability of society to solve the issue of dropouts is critical to effecting change on many fronts.
I was thinking about this again after reading an article from a recent edition of Education Week (reg. req'd) on Preventing High School Dropouts Can Start in 4th Grade:

Risk factors for dropping out include low academic achievement, mental health problems, truancy, poverty and teen pregnancy.

But here's a shocker from Lynne Strathman, director of Lydia Urban Academy in Rockford, Ill., a small faith-based alternative program for dropouts.

Strathman says the one thing that she consistently finds is that "the last time these students felt successful was the fourth grade."

That's right: Fourth grade. Which means parents and teachers may be ignoring years of red flags.

Here are a few of the issues related to teenage dropouts:

  • Adult responsibilities, from work to child-rearing. Among girls who have babies at age 17 or younger, 60 percent drop out of high school, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy. Udell said boys who become fathers are at higher risk too.
  • Truancy, learning disabilities and mental health problems. Strathman said kids who can't succeed academically often become truants because school is "so frustrating to them. They're labeled that they're lazy, but they don't know how to function in school because of a learning disability or a mental health issue." Low achievement leads to behavioral problems: "They felt like failures, and they made themselves get kicked out."John Stack, administrator of the Life Skills Center of Akron, Ohio, an alternative school for kids ages 16-22, said it's not unusual for dropouts to enroll in his school "at a fourth-grade reading level. We're trying to get people to understand that if these kids go from a fourth-grade level to a seventh-grade level, that's progress."Only 64 percent of Hispanic students graduate in four years, with lack of English fluency and inadequate early schooling in other countries among the factors.But kids from affluent, educated families drop out of school too. Reamer said that in those cases, truant or defiant teens may be academically capable, but often come from "a family where there's a lot of chaos, where parents may be divorcing, or where there may be alcoholism or mental illness. I don't suggest we have to tolerate or excuse the behavior. But it requires quick, constructive intervention and skilled professional help."
  • Boredom. Nearly half the dropouts in a 2006 survey by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said they left school because it was boring and irrelevant.
  • Lack of extracurricular activities. Stacy Hansen, drama director of Valley High School in West Des Moines, Iowa, says kids who aren't engaged outside of class risk becoming "disconnected to the high school community." A club or activity "creates an immediate family, a place where they belong and they can just be safe, a place where they're known by their first name and they can connect, whether it's arts or athletics or mock trial or dance, or outside of school, a church group or tae kwon do," she said.

While I admit that this list is fairly reductionist, I have to think that the things listed here are a good start and do not represent insurmountable issues by schools. At the very least, the costs to implement them have to be far less than what taxpayers spend to deal with dropouts later.

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Speaking of Unjust Rewards

30 June 2009

A few days ago, I posted about the continuing saga of paying middle school students for "good" scores on standardized tests. Here's another take on the issue:

For as long as students have had to take state assessment tests, middle school students have been bombing on them.

Even students who scored well in elementary school and those who go on to ace the high school Regents exams tend to get caught in the middle school slump.

Locally, a growing number of school administrators think they have come up with a solution: bribery.

Some schools base final exam grades on students’ scores on the state assessments. Others exempt students who score a 3 or 4 on a state test—on a scale of 1 to 4—from having to take the final exam in a subject.

For students at Hamburg Middle School, that means not having to come to school on exam day.

“Telling an eighth-grader you get an extra day off is a pretty good motivator,” said Gregg J. Davis, assistant superintendent of information services in the Hamburg School District.

“I’ve seen the scores go up, so there’s a lot of positives in that. Three years ago, I think our eighth-grade scores were in the 60s. Now they’re in the 80s,” he said of the percentage of students scoring at proficiency. “That’s a pretty good leap.”

Other schools offer equally glowing reports about their students’ improvements.

But some experts say the results don’t justify using student scores in a way the state never intended.

“The state assessments were designed to gauge student progress toward the [state learning] standards, not as individual student achievement measures,” said Ann K. Lupo, an assessment consultant to the state Education Department who teaches at Buffalo State College.

“The assessments are being debased if used in this fashion, contrary to their intent. The English language arts test is given in January, and the math test is in March — not at the end of the year, on purpose, to discourage using them as finals."...

Local school officials acknowledge that they’re using the state tests in a way that was never intended.

But by the time students reach eighth grade, the educators say, they’ve realized that there’s not much of a consequence for them if they get a low score on the state assessments. Generally, the worst that happens is that students with low scores are assigned extra help in whatever subjects they’re struggling with.

For schools, teachers and administrators, though, low scores can mean much more. If enough students do poorly on a test, a school can find itself on one of the state’s warning lists, a designation that can haunt a school for years.

Educators complain that the media have contributed to the situation by publishing scores released by the state Education Department and comparing schools, based on the percentage of students who pass each test.

“A lot of the fiddling around with how to use scores, and creating incentives for students to do well, is pure politics,” Lupo said. “Districts are very, very concerned not only about student performance, but how they will be perceived when the scores hit the paper.”...

“While giving them a break from not taking a final is a feel-good thing, I don’t know that it gets to the crux of the issue — how do I help you improve your knowledge base and your skills?” he said. “As a district, we don’t believe grades motivate students. We have to find other ways to motivate students.”

I don't believe that standardized tests are evil; however, I do think that their results can be used in unreasonable ways. For me, the the "unreasonable" part here is that the adults are admitting that they are using the carrot of a day off/no final as a way to boost public perception of the school via test scores. It's not about student learning at all. And we can pass the buck up the food chain---perhaps it's really the government's fault via NCLB, etc...but at the end of the day, the school administrators are making a choice that they don't have to make. I'm not willing to absolve them of using children.

Standardized tests should not be looked at as being all that (and a bag of chips), but I also think that school administrators are diminishing the usefulness of information for students and parents. If a student doesn't do well on the state assessment...then they get another test---where is the built in support and interventions? How does "Because you failed it the first time, we're going to let you fail it again." help families understand what is happening in terms of learning?

This kind of testing is not going to go away. I will not be surprised if NCLB is renamed (and retooled), but standardized tests are here to stay. We just need to find a way to repurpose them.

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Poverty and Motivation to Learn

26 June 2009

One of the things I'll be looking at in my dissertation is the motivational aspects of middle school students who qualify for the federal free/reduced lunch program. Within the research literature, there are some well-documented studies that examine ethnicity (spoiler: it doesn't have an impact), gender (see previous spoiler), and student age (spoiler: motivation to learn decreases with age).

What do I think I'll find when we look throw a measure of poverty into the mix? Honestly, I'm not sure. If ethnicity and gender are any indicators, then I should find nothing. Judging by some recent news, however, I think the public at large is under the assumption that students of poverty are oriented toward motivational behaviors at school based on rewards and punishments (as opposed to learning for the sake of learning). There is indication that paying for grades does lead to increased scores on high-stakes tests.
An overwhelming number of schools participating in a controversial program that pays kids for good grades saw huge boosts -- up to nearly 40 percentage points higher -- in reading and math scores this year, a Post analysis found.

About two-thirds of the 59 high-poverty schools in the Sparks program -- which pays seventh-graders up to $500 and fourth-graders as much as $250 for their performance on a total of 10 assessments -- improved their scores since last year's state tests by margins above the citywide average.

The gains at some schools approached 40 percentage points.

For example, at PS 188 on the Lower East Side, 76 percent of fourth-graders met or exceeded state benchmarks in English -- 39.6 percentage points higher than last year, when the kids were in third grade.

At MS 343 in The Bronx, 94 percent of seventh-graders met or surpassed state standards in math this year -- 37.3 points higher than last year, when the students were sixth-graders.

In all, of the 61 fourth and seventh grades involved in the pupil-pay program, only 16 improved less than the citywide average gain in math since last year, while 21 did so in reading.

Principals at the highest-scoring schools cautioned that the Sparks program was just one of many factors in the test-score jumps.

But many reported seeing indisputable academic benefits -- including more motivation, better focus and an increase in healthy competition for good grades among students.

"It's an ego booster in terms of self-worth," said Rose Marie Mills, principal at MS 343 in Mott Haven, where nearly 90 percent of students qualify for federal poverty aid.

"When they get the checks, there's that competitiveness -- 'Oh, I'm going to get more money than you next time' -- so it's something that excites them."

More than 8,000 kids have collectively earned $1.25 million since September in the second year of the privately funded pilot program.

The higher the kids score on tests, the more they get paid: up to a maximum of $50 per test for seventh-graders and up to $25 for fourth-graders.

The initiative, created by Harvard University economist Roland Fryer, is run out of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Educational Innovation Laboratory (EdLabs), which is conducting similar cash-for-kids trials in Chicago and Washington, DC.

Critics argue that paying kids corrupts the notion of learning for education's sake alone.

But supporters of student incentives say immediate rewards are necessary to help some kids connect the dots between school and future income -- and the students agree.

Alize Cancel, a 13-year-old at IS 286, spent some of the $180 she has earned this year on school supplies and shoes.

"It's all we talk about. Every day we ask our teachers, 'Did we pass? When do we get paid?' " she said. "It made me study more because I was getting paid."

Ouch.

The students that I will be studying for my dissertation do not receive external rewards/punishments (at least not through the school system)...so I have to wonder if the personal motivational levels they bring to the school show that would engage more if money was dangled in front. I hope that isn't the case---Pollyanna here would like to think that learning is its own reward, no matter your background.

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Design in Mind

28 April 2009


Some of you may have seen the above picture before. It's been floating around for a bit. It is a shot of some of the offices at Pixar Studios. Below is a shot from the Google Offices.


No doubt all of us have been in buildings that feel creative and energizing---places that inspire. I can think of very few of these which have been schools. No matter what you do to your classroom, there is not much getting away from the fact that we are working in an institutional setting. Ceiling levels are low...hard surfaces abound...and white walls are the order of the day.

I know the dismay I have each morning walking into the cubicle farm---and how differently I'd feel if the rabbit warren walls were developed into something more Pixar-like. It's a drag to have exist in a windowless space with nothing from the natural world to look at.

But what about our young minds? What is the impact to these designs on our students?

A recent article in Scientific American explores the relationship between living and working spaces and the mind. The article details the impact of ceiling height on creativity, the restorative effects of being able to look at a natural setting, the impact of lighting on circadian rhythms, and more. What would happen if we were intentional about using this sort of information when designing schools? Is it more motivating to adults and kids alike to think about coming to learn in a setting built to inspire?

There is something about having a personal connection to a particular place. Maybe that is the problem with most office areas: cubicles are all alike. Same height...same materials...same footprint. Those who work in them can add unique contributions, but there is no sense of individuality or the value of thought. Be the machine. Be on the "team." I would like to think that schools aren't training grounds for this, but until the buildings change, I'm not sure that we aren't closing minds within these concrete boxes.

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