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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Do the Right Thing

12 March 2010

I listened to lots of stories at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference. Some were shared by presenters. Some were shared by neighbor attendees. A few were things I picked up while eavesdropping at meals or walking behind people in the halls of the convention center. With 10,000 attendees, there are no opportunities for anyone to be lonely or private. (I was even treated to someone's deep meaningful cell phone conversation about the Common Core Standards while in the bathroom.) And really, that is the point of a conference---to be able to get together with others who have a similar interest and share ideas.

What I noticed most at this conference was the number of stories about teachers and administrators working their asses off to do the right thing---or, at least, the expected thing. While it is not a surprise to hear about the number of hours required to plan, prepare, instruct, assess, and/or remediate, what was a surprise was the lengths some people were going to. I am sure that the results can only be beneficial for kids, but I would not reach the same conclusion for the adults involved.

In fact, one of my big take-aways from the event was a collective sense of desperation about assessment, grading, and data. The educators present cared deeply for students and for doing the very best that they could for kids---but I had the impression that no one thought that they had the “right” answer or were doing things well. I find that hard to believe. I find it distressing that there is no “good enough” in these situations. I understand that no child should be left behind. I applaud the efforts that go into ensuring every student has the opportunity to learn. But what is missing from the whole equation is a way to honor progress. I talked with a teacher from Alaska whose Title I school has been in AYP for five years now. She mentioned the huge gains the school has made in that time…and yet in the eyes of the state and feds, it’s not good enough. It is apparently not even worth recognizing. I find that appalling.

Thomas Guskey and others have called for similar measures on report cards for individual students. That there is more that happens in a grading period than just the final mark---there is progress and growth along the way. A gifted student who is already above the standard should still be able to show progress. The same is true for a struggling student who may have made great gains, but is still not at standard by the end of the grading period. There are examples for every student in between---and yet almost no examples of reporting for students or schools for this factor. I hurt for them all.

I’m never sure what to do about things like this other than to just keep talking about them and hope that at some point, the people in the positions to do something will choose to do the right thing.

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Reporting Out

10 March 2010

As I sat in a session on progress monitoring at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference, I started to wonder about a few new things in terms of report cards. The presenters were describing ways in which they used three different forms of data about students. One was the traditional form of scores on papers. The others are traditional in the sense that they represent data that is readily available in the classroom, it’s just rarely used for reporting: observations of and conversations with students. In my various bits of work with teachers and grading, these forms of data collection and use are the ones that make teachers uncomfortable because they rely completely on professional judgment. However, as the presenters at the session were quick to point out, when we visit a doctor, observation and conversation is the most common form of data gathering to make conclusions about our health. Certainly lab tests and vital stats inform the opinions, but we don’t think twice about physicians being unprofessional because they rely on their eyes and ears to reach a summary. Such forms should be no less valid in the classroom. I agree with this and think the key for most teachers is in finding and using data collection tools (running records or charts, for example) that are simple and meaningful to use.

But this brought me to another thought about report cards: Are letter grades “dumbed down” versions of reporting? Teachers have a rich opportunity in the classroom to gather all different forms of data---which we then expect to be crunched into a single representation. I’m not sure that even a standards-based report card would solve this, because summary progress on each target is still reduced into a symbol for that item. Do we use a single letter or number for a class on a report card because we don’t think families need or would use more meaningful information? Is the symbol good enough to represent all of the learning and evidence?

The presenters did not have to wrestle with this in their school. On the report cards, they were expected to report on three aspects: what were the learning targets for the grading period, a description of student progress toward those targets, and the plan for upcoming improvement/extension for the student. Because of the qualitative data collected throughout the reporting period, the end of term descriptions were a snap to write. I am sure this idea sends a shiver down the back of many a secondary teacher---but remember that these presenters were elementary teachers having to track and write summaries for each of 30 students in every subject (reading, math, writing, science, social studies…). The number of boxes to fill in is very similar.

I have to wonder how other stakeholders (e.g. college admissions) would view this sort of reporting. If the Carnegie unit goes away at some point (and it should in a standards-based system), what will colleges do with “transcripts” that are full descriptions of student strengths and needs as opposed to a simple list? Can they handle the truth?

Doing away with grades is not a new idea. I can think of plenty of people I’ve chatted with over the last few years who have told me about schooling where grades aren’t used and things move along just fine. I do think that an emphasis on qualitative data and more descriptive communications at secondary would shake a lot of trees. Maybe it’s time we did.

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The Big Show

07 March 2010

About this time last year, I tossed my hat in the ASCD Conference ring. It was not the first time that I had applied to present, but this was the first time my presentation was accepted. And since finding out that last July that I had made the cut, I have looked forward to today. Whether or not it's true, I have always looked at ASCD as The Big Show. This is the premier conference in education. It's where the experts come out to play. While I do not consider myself an expert, I do believe that I have things to share and can do it in a meaningful way. I like working with teachers.

The shot above was from my vantage point about 10 minutes before the official start of my session. And just like NSTA last year, they had to close the doors and declare the room full prior to my scheduled start time. We had at least 200 people in a room that had been scheduled for 160 (and I had prepared only 150 copies of my handout). This was far and away the largest group I have ever presented to and it was such an adrenaline rush that two hours later, I still have some butterflies and shakes. They were an amazing crowd to be with: fantastic energy.

I took my new powerpoint out for a test drive. I liked its look and flow, but I also tried to squeeze in too much for the 90 minutes. I had to rush a bit at the end. I think the other part of that was simply the size of the crowd. Getting 200 people to start and stop their conversations takes time, especially when the discussion is so rich. I will have to rethink things a bit if I have another opportunity like this.

Overall, feedback was positive. I had several people talk to me after the presentation to thank me and tell me how much they liked the session. ASCD has limited (as in 10) evaluations for each session and I was provided with a copy of each as I left. I scored all 3's and 4's and all but one "Yes" in terms of interest in learning more and attending a PD Institute on the topic. In terms of written comments, the most common theme was that they thought I had great technology skills. I used PollEverywhere and showed them my Delicious site and grading wiki. This was also the first time I put my blog and twitter handle next to my real name. It's a transition point for me.

Someone wrote that this was "one of the best presentations I have attended so far---articulate, knowledgeable, even-handed, informative." No negative comments, but a wish for "more examples on standards-based report cards and information on whether they improve student achievement." Point well taken, I think. It is something else I need to work on. I had one person ask me if there were any more evaluations because this was one session that she really wanted to give ASCD feedback about (in a good way). It was a very sweet thought.

On a personal note, I was delighted to have some friends in the room. One was someone I used to work with when I was in the Assessment division. She was a great help with handouts today and helped me celebrate afterward. There was also a science coach I worked with last year (total surprise to see him at the conference). I also met Joe Wood, whose blog I have enjoyed for awhile and have gotten to know a bit through Twitter and Facebook.

I feel like I can relax now (once the adrenaline rush wears off). Tomorrow is the final day of the conference. I am looking forward to the chance to continue to learn with others before folding up my tent and heading home.

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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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Enough Is Enough

16 January 2010

Regulars here at Ye Olde Blog know that I have posted many times about classroom grading practices. Regardless of which philosophy you ascribe to, at the end of the term, a teacher must make a decision about whether or not a student has learned (and to what extent). How much evidence is enough "to convict a student of learning," as Rick Stiggins would say? Is it by the number of assignments completed? Quality of work? Length of time information is retained? The answer is not as cut-and-dried as we might like. I have wondered if there is an answer at all.

I was pondering this particular conundrum again on Friday evening during a ScienceOnline 2010 keynote by Michael Specter, author of Denialism. The largest bone of contention amongst the crowd (and with Specter) was around how many expert opinions are "enough" to determine what the truth of the scientific matter is. For example---Is the H1N1 vaccine safe? How many doctors, virologists, physiologists, epidemic researchers, etc. must one talk to before accepting that the answer is "Yes."? Is just a doctor enough? Do you need three who agree? How much expertise is necessary for an opinion to be considered?

The struggle for some in the crowd appeared to be around defining the exact quantity of expert opinions in agreement that should be required. Others cared more about making sure the "right" experts were used. I can empathize with that sort of mental wrestling. It is similar to the questions I get from teachers at grading workshops: How many assignments should there be for each standard? Should I have three summative assessments...or five? I can never really answer their questions any more than Specter could provide a definitive answer last night about how much scientific expertise is enough. It isn't that I don't want to answer teachers or frustrate them. These questions just do not fall into black and white sorts of categories.

The danger, of course, in not thinking about guidelines and trying to get to the answer is that there continues to be wide variation in what is acceptable. Just as for one teacher, three tests and an essay is enough to say whether or not a student should receive credit for a course while other teachers need 8 tests and 5 essays, some people will accept one opinion about vaccines and others want four. Unfortunately, many of those who accept a single opinion often choose one that is not based on evidence. As Specter pointed out last night, "185,000 people died from measles last year...just no one Jenny McCarthy knew."

At some point, we all have to come to terms with balancing quantity and quality of information. While I doubt that the mothers of the 185K measles victims would share McCarthy's opinion about vaccines, it does not mean that those mothers have any more medical expertise than she. We have to make a decision about how to weigh both validity and reliability of the information we have access to, whether we are teachers looking at our gradebooks, or citizens and scientists evaluating information that impacts our health and environment. How do we determine when "enough is enough"?

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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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Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part II

16 November 2009

In a previous post, I suggested a couple of ways to take a gradebook and make it more visual. I've also been considering ways to share student performance with a larger audience.

There are lots of examples of Dashboards (like the one at the right) for business. The one shown comes from Excel Dashboard Reports. The idea behind using a dashboard is that it communicates a large volume of information in a compact area. Sparklines are used as a way to condense the data. Anyone using the report who might need further information could then dig more deeply into individual data sets.

I have yet to run across a Dashboard designed for the school setting, but my hunch is that they are being used somewhere. Perhaps those using them are not teachers, but rather administrative staff. Or maybe some options are already built in with commercial programs, but they are too laborious to use for teachers. At some point, however, I expect that we may see something like what is pictured at the left (although much better). To give myself something to play with, I pulled some gender and ethnicity data, as well as some summaries of class performance. The pie chart and stacked bar chart at the top are fairly easy reads. The bullet charts at the bottom have this information: a black bar representing current progress, a red line showing where the standard is, and three shaded areas of grey to denote the ranges of performance. Again, a nice snapshot for teachers, summarizing hundreds of data points into one easy to read space. As with the gradebook examples discussed previously, these sorts of things might show information, but they don't tell you the next step. We need different tools for that.

Grant Wiggins has written about the idea that report cards should be more like baseball cards, providing various statistics about student performance. I like this in concept. I think we can even take it a step further with the use of data visualizations (click to embiggen graphic shown below).

At the top I have some of the basic information for a report card: names, places, dates. But below, I've added information beyond some basic numbers. There are some bullet graphs showing current progress toward a standard. I added some Sparklines representing all of the scores in the data set. And finally, for those standards for which there was some student progress, it is reflected in a modified bullet graph. This graph allows stakeholders to see the growth student is making---an element that is missing from most report cards. Again, I've left out a lot of information from this report card that we could add or manipulate. For example, attendance and comments about non-academic behaviors are not included. Future iterations may have that information. In the meantime, I think this is a good start. And with Excel, once the template is built, it can be automatically updated for any and every student. It may be that there are some commercial versions of these graphic report cards available for schools and I just haven't seen them yet. If your school is using something like this, drop me a line.

I'll be interested to watch and see what sorts of tools become adapted for use within school settings. I have three upcoming presentations with different education audiences to talk about data visualization. Perhaps I'll have some interesting things to report back in the coming months.


Data Visualization for the Classroom: Part I

13 November 2009

One of my professional goals from last year was to delve deeper into the realm of "data visualization" and think about applications to schools. There are any number of websites devoted to great visualizations of social and economic information (as well as plenty of "Infoporn"/eye candy), but I'm not seeing much in the way of transitions to practical applications for schools. And I think we could use them.

I'm still playing with some ideas for an upcoming presentation, but here is some of my thinking so far...

Consider the graphic to be a piece of a gradebook. I haven't labeled the assignments, just input some numbers representing where students scored (on a 4-point scale) for a given standard. I used boldfaced type for summative assessments---others are formative.

Fuchs and Fuchs (1986) conducted a meta-analysis of feedback types given to students and determined that graphic representations (putting information into pictures---not just words/numbers) increased student achievement by 26%. So, what can we do with the batch of numbers shown above? For one, we can apply some conditional formatting and make a "traffic signal" visual:

It's not bad. It certainly gives me a better idea about whether or not the class is "getting it," depending on the assignment. But we can also take things a step further, and eliminate the numbers altogether:

The graphs above come from a Sparklines add-in for Excel. It is a free, open-source (Thank you, Fabrice!) tool that provides you with multiple options for charts/graphs that are one cell in size. (Note: Microsquash just applied for a patent for their own version, but it is nowhere near what others have developed...and, let's face it, there is nothing proprietary about their ideas in this matter.) But back to the snapshot above, I had Excel generate a simple line graph for each student (with the red line representing "At Standard/Level 3") and the bar chart at the bottom summarizing the data for the entire class.

So far, so good. When I look at this with my teacher eyes, I see so much more of a story appearing about each student. It is no longer a sea of numbers. Now, these fancy-dancy charts won't help me know what to do next (e.g. If students are still below standard, what should the intervention be?), but it may be a better start for identifying issues.

I have a few other tricks up my sleeve that I'm working on and will share in the coming days. What would you like your gradebook to be able to do and show you?


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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One Transcript to Rule Them All

25 September 2009

I don't mean to brag, but I might be the only one in the state who is worried about Section 9, Part 1 of Washington's ESSB 5889:
The superintendent of public instruction, in consultation with the higher education coordinating board, the state board for community and technical colleges, and the workforce training and education coordinating board, shall develop for use by all public school districts a standardized high school transcript. The superintendent shall establish clear definitions for the terms "credits" and "hours" so that school programs operating on the quarter, semester, or trimester system can be compared.
Don't get me wrong, I understand the need for some sort of transcript document that can clearly communicate to any stakeholder who may be using it; but, I'm concerned about the potential for schools and districts to get locked into a single representation of grades.

Reader hschinske commented on my previous post that "There's a big fight going on in Seattle about starting to let kids graduate with under a 2.0 (with a D average!!!!eleventy!!). All kinds of talk about standards slipping, what kind of message does this send, etc. -- when to me it's really just notation and not that big a deal. You really have no idea what goes into those grades *anyway*."

I couldn't agree more. As most transcripts stand now, every possible measurement about a kid that a teacher chooses to collect during a specific period of time gets mashed into one symbol. Such a symbol is the veritable mystery meat of the academic world. I'm guessing that colleges and employers don't ask many questions about what's in them...they just have to swallow. (Also---how many times in your life did you actually need to show your high school transcript?)

From my perspective, however, there is an increasing number of districts who are interested in both standards-based grading and reporting at the secondary level. But once the legislative requirement above is fulfilled, the die is cast. I would not argue to move everyone to standards-based reporting (at least not within the next two years)---I would just like the door to be left open. I am hopeful that in meeting the task set out by the government, the groups mentioned will focus more on the credits and hours ideas...and not so much about the symbolic representations (or, gulp, a grading scale). Maybe I won't be the only one in the state worried about the prospect of the one size fits all transcript.


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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Does This Look Normal to You?

20 August 2009

I had a variety of run-ins with grading issues this week. I couldn't help bumping up against them as I worked with a couple of different groups of teachers on their preparations for the upcoming year. (And booked a gig for working with 60(!) more of them in October.) You might not know it, but I get a consistent trickle of comments on posts here or e-mails that pose various questions from educators and parents about grading. All are good and worthwhile comments. I admit that some make me cringe a bit on the inside when I think about the possible impact on kids, but the reactions are honest and the discussions engaging.

In general, the tone of most of the grading issues put in front of me runs akin to asking a doctor "Does this look normal to you?" Teachers want to know what I think about their grading scale...their plans for reporting grades to parents...the letter they will send home to parents...the policy that will be handed to students. Is it okay to use a zero if there is only a 4-point scale? Will it be all right if I convert "incompletes" in my gradebook to F's two weeks after the semester ends? Is there any reason not to average the last two or three grades earned on any target? Should this be oozing? (Okay, I don't get asked that one.)

Changing long-held practices (classroom or other) is difficult. We all need some encouragement along the way that the angst-ridden steps we take really are the path we should be on. More than that, we need assurance that we really are doing something different...and that different will be the new normal. I had a teacher ask this week why we would bother saying we are moving to standards-based grading when the old grading scale remains in place. I couldn't disagree with him, as reporting practices also need an overhaul, but in the meantime, we came to an agreement that a first step is changing what the grading symbols represent. That is, an "A" represents progress toward learning targets (not learning + extra credit for bringing in Kleenex for the classroom - points off for late work...).

So keep your questions and comments coming. There will be no Kum-ba-yah, but I will hold your hand from time to time, if you like. And not to worry. It's all perfectly normal.


Mighty Oaks

14 August 2009

Late last winter, I spent time with a few high school science teachers, talking about grading practices. I have to say that out of all of the presentations I've done in the last year, this one was the worst. I just didn't connect well with the group.

And then...

In May, a few of them invited me to spend time with them on a Saturday morning. They had been planning ahead for the upcoming year---revisiting curriculum and thinking about grading. I was delighted and impressed by the work they'd been doing.

And then...

One of them invited me to her classroom next week as she gets her record-keeping set up for the nearly here school year. Of course, I said "Yes!"

It seems odd (but delightful) that out of this not-so-hot PD experience I delivered, there are some hearty seedlings. I am learning that mighty oaks grow from all sorts of acorns.

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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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Everybody's Doin' It

28 June 2009

Recently, a friend was telling me about some cheating that occurred in her classroom on the final exam. The cheating was pervasive (she was out of the classroom that day) and left her with quite the conundrum. As you might imagine, some colleagues told her to just give everyone implicated a zero---end of discussion. My friend was not so sure about that course of action. Shouldn't she at least try to find out what happened first? And why?

Seems like "cheating" has been on the minds of many recently. Did you see the story in the Associated Press about the mom who changed her daughter's grades? (Mom worked as a school secretary and had access to passwords.) Or perhaps the one from Common Sense Media about the use of technology as a means to enable cheating by teens? My favourite recent piece has been one on Behavioral Economics based on some research by Dan Ariely "...about why people think it's okay to cheat a little bit."

He decided to conduct a series of experiments to understand cheating. He gave test subjects a math quiz with 20 problems and promised to give a dollar for each correct answer. The problems weren't hard to solve, but Ariely imposed a five-minute time limit, making it impossible for anyone to complete the test. After five minutes, Ariely collected the test from the volunteers, scored them, and paid them for their correct answers. On average, volunters solved four questions correctly.

Next, he tempted people to cheat. He told a new group of test takers to score their own tests and tell Ariely how many questions they got correct. These volunteers reported, on average, that they solved seven questions. The interesting thing about this, says Ariely, was that the higher average wasn't because a few people cheated a lot; rather, it was because a lot of people cheated a little. Equally interesting was the fact that the amount of cheating didn't change when the reward for a correct question increased or decreased; nor did it change when the chances of being caught cheating increased or decreased.

I'm skipping over some of the details here, but what Ariely concluded was that people have a kind of "personal fudge factor" that allows them to gain the benefits of low-level cheating without damaging their self-esteem. "On one hand, we all want to look in the mirror and feel good about ourselves, so we don't want to cheat," he said. "On the other hand, we can still cheat a little bit and feel good about ourselves. So maybe what is happening is that there is a level of cheating that we can't go over, but we can still benefit from cheating at a low degree as long as it doesn't change our impressions about ourselves."

Ariely goes on to describe other revealing experiments. For instance, paying people in tokens that they could exchange for cash doubled the amount of cheating compared to paying people directly in cash. And when people saw an outsider (like a college student wearing a sweatshirt from another university) cheating, cheating among the group went down, but when a colleague cheated, cheating among the group went up.

Does this, I wonder, have any relation to why several students in a class choose to cheat on a test when their teacher isn't there? Is this why my conscience doesn't bother me when I drive 65 mph in a 60 mph highway zone because other drivers are, too? Are we socially programmed to cheat---at least just a little bit?


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."


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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There's Always Room for Grading

24 May 2009

For those of you who may be thinking that in a month filled with travel, data collection for dissertation, mother with brain tumor, and job upheaval, that I haven't been engaged in much that is related to grading practices. While it might be accurate to say that I haven't had a lot of headspace for this topic, it has been on my mind for a number of reasons.

A couple of weeks ago, I was at an event where a teacher sought me out to introduce himself. He had seen me present at the NSTA conference six months ago and wanted to tell me how much my information had impacted his thinking. It was a good reminder for me of a couple of things. First of all, the things I share really can make a difference. I don't always know anyone sitting in the audience---let alone their backgrounds and reasons for attending---but those opportunities are powerful ones. And secondly, there continue to be people hungry to move forward with putting best practices in grading.

This was also reinforced for me when I had a merry band of teachers invite me to spend a few hours with them thinking about their implementation plans for classroom grading practices for next year. Mind you, this was a Saturday morning...they weren't being paid to work or meet...they're just enthusiastic. The discussion and ideas were refreshing. Energizing. I am looking forward to sitting in with them some more...and even more excited to hear what happens in their classrooms next year.

All that being said, when I cruise the edusphere, I see that there is still a long way to go. A sampling of things I've been looking at over the last few weeks:
  • Some of you may have seen the rants over at Ms. Cornelius's place. I find these disappointing for any number of reasons, especially the "torches and pitchforks" comments made by some visitors. It's embarrassing that so many people see their gradebook as the ultimate weapon---their proud method to mete out punishment as opposed to a tool to support student learning. Even worse is the "my shit don't stink" attitude that comes along with it. Apparently, some of the teachers over there have never needed a second chance in their lives and accomplish all tasks perfectly the very first time. I'm guessing that they never drive faster than the speed limit, jaywalk, violate Fair Use regulations in their classrooms, or bend rules in any other fashion---and therefore they can be judge, jury, and executioner for the rest of us. Demi-gods in the classroom who would rather point fingers than be reflective. It's stunning to think of what life for kids in these classrooms must be like.
  • Joanne Jacobs noted the age-old disparity between "inflated" high school transcripts and underprepared college students. I would really like to do away with the notion of grade inflation. It would be much simpler to just focus on what the grades represent. My hunch is that the "inflation" is caused by teachers who give grades that include the behaviors Ms. Cornelius's commenters rail against. As long as a kid gets points for "participating" and attendance, who cares what the student really knows and is able to do? No wonder these kids struggle in college---they never had to learn the basics associated with knowledge. In high school, they just had to sit still and be quiet to get an A.
  • But my favourite item comes from Bill Ferriter over at The Tempered Radical. Grading is tangential to the point of his post, but it is still intriguing. He uses a fight in Ottawa over grading practices to illustrate the difference between fundamentalists and believers within school systems. He hosted an amazing Voicethread conversation with the author of these ideas. I highly recommend taking the time to peruse the comments and ideas.
As the school year winds down, teachers thoughts often turn to fancies about the next year. With all of the islands of practice I keep running across, I think that grading will be front and center for many classrooms next fall.


Settling the Score

02 April 2009

When I changed to standards-based grading practices, I also changed my grading scale: no more percentages...no more "90%+ = A." Within the classroom, this was not such a dramatic shift. It didn't take long for kids to understand that on a 4-point scale, a four was not the same value as an "A" on a traditional scale...and that meeting the standard with a score of 3 was very desirable. Outside the classroom, this took a bit more explanation, but I have to say that I didn't have very many conversations about things simply because my reporting methods were still stuck in the 1890's. My students and I knew what the letter grade represented---we let other users make their own assumptions.

As more and more schools move to standards-based reporting, we are seeing more stories about confusion on the part of parents. From a recent NYT article about how Report Cards Give up A's and B's for 4's and 3's:

Educators praise [standards-based report cards] for setting clear expectations, but many parents who chose to live in Pelham because of its well-regarded schools find them confusing or worse. Among their complaints are that since the new grades are based on year-end expectations, 4s are generally not available until the final marking period (school officials are planning to tweak this aspect next year).

“We’re running around the school saying ‘2 is cool,’ ” said Jennifer Lapey, a parent who grew up in Pelham, “but in my world, 2 out of 4 is not so cool.”
Therein lies the primary issue. Everyone wants to make the scales equivalent. A parent thinks 2 out of 4 represents only 50% of the possible points...and that a four = an A. What the parent needs to understand that the scale really has a student goal of "3" (meeting standard). A student at Level Two is very nearly there. And 4's? They're not the goal. What's more, they may not be available for every standard. (For example, simple addition skills. Either you can add 1 + 1 or you can't. There's no above and beyond.) So, it sounds like the school has some parent education and communication issues to deal with. I do think that this will be a slow transition, but as these kinds of report cards are more and more common at elementary grade levels, parents will become more savvy.

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31 March 2009

I seem to recall that in the early days of my career, there was some level of government regulation that prohibited classroom teachers from teaching about contraceptives. If a student asked for specific information, we were allowed to provide it---but we couldn't initiate any conversations. Mind you, I was never designated to teach sex ed; but being a teacher in the life science content area meant that certain topics are inevitable and it was always good to be aware of where the lines were.

I was thinking about this last week after a conversation I had with an instructional coach. He had invited me to spend a day with his teachers (and others around the district) to talk about student feedback, data collection/use, grading practices, and interventions. We'd sorta plotted things out. It was shaping up to be a really great day of professional learning.

And then, word came from above him to say that there could be no conversation involving the g-word: Grading. He'd been slapped with the contraceptive rule.

I have mentioned before that one of my favourite quotes in the research literature about grading is that "Teachers guard their grading practices 'with the same passion with which one might guard an unedited diary or sacred ground'" (Kain, 1996). I can tell you that after getting out and about this year with various presentations, grading is still very much a taboo subject among teachers. Even knowing this, I am still a bit surprised at the hammer that came down. The coach was given no reason for the district's change of heart (although, based on other things I'm seeing/hearing in other schools, my hunch is that a nervous teacher complained to The Union).

So, we will put Grading in the back of our minds for a day and work on the other items with teachers. If they have questions about grading, we'll answer them. For the most part, however, we just have to assume that if we don't talk about things, teachers will stay professionally safe and sound.

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March Grading Roundup

23 March 2009

It's that time again! Time to look at the bits and pieces about grading that have accumulated in my Reader account over the past few weeks. Ready?

Up first, is my favourite project-du-jour to watch: Cash for Grades. The WaPo had a recent update on the program in DC. Cash Incentives Create Competition: Payment Program is a Source of Pride, Shame for DC Schools looks at the various impacts this program is having on kids and families. I can't say that I'm particularly impressed so far. "The D.C. students earn cash based on behavior, attendance and three other criteria. Many schools, including Hart, pay students for wearing uniforms, completing homework and getting good grades." Okay, so the program is not necessarily about rewarding grades (although that can be part of it), but is really more targeted at academic behaviors. Most of the students profiled in the article are getting a portion of the potential $100 monthly payday just by doing the things we would expect: showing up to school ready to learn. Many of their reactions to the checks, however are unexpected, such as dripping water onto them until the paper falls apart or outright ripping them up. There is clearly a disconnect between what the "reward" means to those to give it and those who receive it.

But what about their grades?

"In some ways, the checks are like alternative report cards. But Woods said he hasn't seen grades improve noticeably. D'Angelo still gets A's and B's, higher than his brother and sister, who tell of getting C's and D's." In fact, even the A student profiled in the article was getting A's before the program. Cash for grades doesn't seem to make a difference in the short term. Long term results are some time away, of course, but I really don't anticipate that there will be anything positive to report. You might be able to buy compliance to put on a uniform and show up at the schoolhouse door...the promise of money might even buy filling in a worksheet...but engaging with the material and learning? Not going to happen.

Via Joanne Jacobs, there is continuing concern about grade inflation. My ideas about whether or not grade inflation actually exists continue to change. There is an underlying assumption that there should be normal distribution of grades. Does such a utopian classroom model exist (at least without manipulating it)? Not even in Lake Wobegon do we approximate "normal." In my research on grading, I'm come across two studies that touch on these ideas. In the first (Determining Grade Boundaries), someone looked at how professors tend to try to manipulate the distribution of grades in classes. For example, they give the first test---the results of which show that 60% of the students failed. The test was "hard"...so next time, the prof makes the test "easy" in order to adjust the distribution. And so on and so on. The simple truth is that no one ever gets a nice bell curve out of that. The various performances of students don't necessarily fit our rigid idea of percentages. The other article, An Unintended Impact of One Grading Practice, is even more relevant in this situation. Let's say that you have a group of high school freshman...some of whom do poorly and drop out of school. Once the earners of D's and F's are gone, what happens? Ah...teachers readjust expectations for those who are left, and a new crop of "low" students are identified. If they drop, the cycle repeats. The article doesn't follow these kids to colleges, but I can't help but wonder if what we think is "grade inflation" is really some variation on all of these adjustments. Meanwhile, who cares? If every student in a class learns the material to standard, shouldn't they all get A's? Why do we even pay attention to bell curve conformity?

Is there something else out there on grading that you've seen whilst prowling the interwebs? Drop me a comment.

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Stand Back...She's Gonna Blow

21 March 2009

It isn't that I haven't wanted to blog...or had relatively blogworthy events and ideas to probe as of late...but rather that I can't seem to get things to coalesce into anything resembling a real post. Longtime readers here will argue that this lack has not stopped me from writing before. Fair enough.

Some snapshots from the week, in no particular order...
  • Finally met Jim from 5/17. We've each been blogging for several years. You'd think that with all the events for educators (and the fact that we live relatively close to one another) that we would have stumbled across one another before now. But, better late than never. It was fun to get to know him a bit better. Other than Dr. Pezz, I've now had the pleasure of hanging with most of the other Washington edubloggers. Dude, you're up!
  • There seems to be a lot of bad news in the air. I enjoyed some time this week with a wonderful group of educators who will likely have to take different jobs next year. I also had to tell members of another enthusiastic group "No." to a lot of their ideas. This was due to budgetary restrictions, and it made me nauseated to have to deliver the message. When people are focused on what's best for kids and teachers, it makes no sense to put up roadblocks to this mission.
  • I did another intro to grading presentation at an area conference. At the end, a teacher in the front row said, "I think my head is going to explode." Interestingly enough, this is not the first time I have gotten that type of feedback, along with variations such as "You're making my head hurt." or "My brain is really fighting with itself." as a result of this presentation. I'm not sure what it is that engenders these comments. Is the cognitive dissonance that jarring? It would be kinda cool if it was, but I suspect it's due to more of a confluence of events rather than the presentation itself. In other words, the presentation is just the proverbial straw and thoughts about classroom performance are the camel's back. Anyway, I'm still amused when I hear it.
  • Today, however, was the first time anyone asked me if someone was out there blogging about grading practices. Another person said, "I tried to for awhile." I found it intriguing that (more) teachers are open to using blogs for information on classroom practices. I think this is a very positive step to see this sort of communication going more mainstream.
I do want to have some time to catch my breath and blog a bit about some resources I've run across, grades as predictors of college success, and a couple of other ideas that have recently been kicked my way. Because this long time between posting? It blows.

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Back to Grading

27 February 2009

While I have been in absentia, various articles about grading practices have been making their way to my inbox and RSS aggregator. Some of you sent along the link for an article in the New York Times concerning Students Expectations Seen as Cause of Grade Disputes. Interestingly enough, the piece draws from a study I blogged about at the end of December in terms of What It Means to Make the Effort. I do find it interesting that the college reps interviewed by the NYT seem to be pointing fingers at K-12 education (while the original study cited parents who make normative comparisons as the major factor). I doubt that colleges should be excused from the blame game here.

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

Additionally, Dean Hogge said, “professors often try to outline the ‘rules of the game’ in their syllabi,” in an effort to curb haggling over grades.

Professor Brower said professors at Wisconsin emphasized that students must “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.”

This informal mission statement, along with special seminars for freshmen, is intended to help “re-teach students about what education is.”
Hmmmm....perhaps the rules of the game are leading to the haggling in the first place? Perhaps colleges should rethink their grading practices and make them in line with the mission of education? I wonder if profs at Wisconsin value reading for knowledge and writing with the goal of exploring ideas enough to not grade those behaviors? I don't care what age or ability level a teacher is targeting, if you set up the policies such that performance is valued over learning, then that is what you will get.

Meanwhile, on-line grade reporting is rearing its ugly head again. A web-based system for communicating with parents and students about course progress would seem like a desirable item. The more I travel and talk to teachers, however, the more I find that it is not of benefit because the inflexibility of the software. Teachers would like to report incomplete assignments, revise categories to reflect standards, and hide averages. Instead, they are stuck with tools that inaccurately represent student achievement and are forced by districts to use them. Now, Education Week reports "A number of Maryland schools in the D.C. suburbs and beyond are installing online grading systems so students and their parents know exactly what their test scores and grades are almost instantaneously. But parents and school officials acknowledge monitoring the daily e-mails and fluctuations can be addictive and obsessive even as it prevents surprises and offers help for failing students before it's too late." The article goes on to mention what amounts to point-whoring on the part of both parents and students---the value of the decimal over the learning. What a world of difference vendors could make if they just had an option to hide the average grade and just show scores on assignments (and incomplete work).

I also think that we have to get away from viewing grades along a bell curve. If our goal is for every child to learn and meet standard...shouldn't be okay if all of them pass a class? I'd think that worthy of celebration. Arkansas lawmakers, however, do not. Or perhaps they're just a bit mixed up on the whole idea.
Lawmakers working on a bill creating lottery-funded scholarships said Thursday they're considering easing a restriction that would exclude students who graduate from schools that have been cited by the state for grade inflation.

Draft legislation releaed this week said the lottery-funded scholarship program would exclude students who graduate from high schools cited by the Education Department as schools where 20 percent or more of the students receive a grade of "B'' or higher but did not pass the end-of-course assessment on first attempt. The students, however, would be eligible if they scored at least 19 on the ACT.

Or maybe I'm the one who is mixed up here. Let me see if I am understanding this correctly. Legislators are going to punish kids because schools didn't have curriculum/instruction/assessments that aligned with state standards and therefore the course outcomes and end-of-course assessment scores didn't match...and we're going to call this "grade inflation"?

I worry about the possibility of end-of-course exams for science in Washington. This is partly due to all of the unanswered questions about what happens when course grades and end-of-course test scores don't line up. I don't expect scholarship questions to come up as much as course credit. Does a student who can meet standard on the test (but doesn't pass the class) get credit? What about those who ace the class and can't pass the test? A few years ago when I ran a summer program for high school kids who needed some supplementary test prep, I remember a particularly angry parent who called me. She was made because her daughter had an "A" on her report card for her English class...and the girl's score on the state test was abysmal. Mom wanted to know how that could happen. The suggestion that the teacher was perhaps not addressing the standards did not go over well with the parent---and for good reason. With mandated end-of-course exams, I wonder how many phone calls just like that one will be headed in the direction of schools?

I hope you all had a good week. Now that I'm back and have caught up at work, I hope to get caught up in this space, too. Hang in there!

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