Before You Study, Ask For Help

The Wall Street Journal

That’s one of several ways students can better prepare themselves for tests in the new school year

ILLUSTRATION: HANNA BARCZYK

What’s the best way to study for a test?

Many students will plunge into marathon study sessions this fall, rereading textbooks and highlighting their notes late into the night. The more effort the better, right?

Not so, new research shows. Students who excel at both classroom and standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT aren’t necessarily those who study longest. Instead, they study smart—planning ahead, quizzing themselves on the material and actively seeking out help when they don’t understand it.

Carl Wilke, a Tacoma, Wash., father of six children ages 4 to 22, sees the studying challenges that students face almost every school day. He coaches his children to pick out the main points in their notes rather than highlight everything, and to look for headings and words in bold type to find the big ideas in their textbooks.

Several months ago, his 18-year-old daughter Eileen tried to study for an advanced-placement exam. Eileen says she struggled with a practice test and realized that she didn’t know how to study. She asked her mother, Catherine, for help. Ms. Wilke sat with Eileen for two hours while Eileen used an answer guide for the test to explain why her answers were wrong on questions she’d missed, then discuss the correct ones. As they worked together, Eileen says, “I was teaching her while simultaneously teaching myself” the material—a study technique that enabled her to ace the test.

FIVE WAYS TO HONE YOUR STUDY SKILLS

  • Find out what the test will cover and the kinds of questions it will include.
  • Start at least a few days before the test to plan how and when you will study.
  • Identify helpful resources such as practice tests or instructors’ office hours to assist with material you don’t understand.
  • Practice recalling facts and concepts by quizzing yourself.
  • Limit study sessions to 45 minutes to increase your concentration and focus.

High-achieving students take charge of their own learning and ask for help when they’re stuck, according to a 2017 study of 414 college students. Students who performed better sought out extra study aids such as instructional videos on YouTube. Those who asked instructors for help during office hours were more likely to get A’s, but fewer than 1 in 5 students did so, says the study by Elena Bray Speth, an associate professor of biology, and Amanda Sebesta, a doctoral candidate, both at St. Louis University in Missouri.

That activist approach reflects what researchers call self-regulated learning: the capacity to track how well you’re doing in your classes and hold yourself accountable for reaching goals. College professors typically expect students to have mastered these skills by the time they arrive on campus as freshmen.

Many students, however, take a more passive approach to studying by rereading textbooks and highlighting notes—techniques that can give them a false sense of security, says Ned Johnson, founder of Prep Matters, a Bethesda, Md., test-preparation company. After students review the material several times, it starts to look familiar and they conclude, “Oh, I know that,” he says. But they may have only learned to recognize the material rather than storing it in memory, leaving them unable to recall it on a test, Mr. Johnson says.

Top students spend more time in retrieval practice, he says—quizzing themselves or each other, which forces them to recall facts and concepts just as they must do on tests. This leads to deeper learning, often in a shorter amount of time, a pattern researchers call the testing effect.

Students who formed study groups and quizzed each other weekly on material presented in class posted higher grades than those who used other study techniques, says a 2015 study of 144 students. At home, Mr. Johnson suggests making copies of teachers’ study questions and having students try to answer them as if they were taking a test. Taking practice tests for the SAT and the ACT is helpful not only in recalling facts and concepts, but in easing anxiety on testing day, he says.

Retrieval practice often works best when students practice recalling the facts at intervals of a few minutes to several days, research shows.

Studying in general tends to be more productive when it’s done in short segments of 45 minutes or so rather than over several hours, Mr. Johnson says. He sees a takeoff-and-landing effect at work: People tend to exert more energy right after a study session begins, and again when they know it’s about to end.

No one can pace their studying that way if they wait until the night before an exam to start. Students who plan ahead do better.

Students who completed a 15-minute online exercise 7 to 10 days before an exam that prompted them to anticipate what would be on the test, name the resources they’d use to study, and explain how and when they’d use them, had average scores one-third of a letter grade higher on the exam compared with students who didn’t do the exercise, according to a 2017 study of 361 college students led by Patricia Chen, a former Stanford University researcher and assistant professor of psychology at the National University of Singapore. One participant’s plan, for example, called for doing practice problems repeatedly until he no longer needed his notes to solve them—a highly effective strategy.

Many teachers in middle and high school try to teach good study habits, but the lessons often don’t stick unless students are highly motivated to try them—for example, when they’re afraid of getting a bad grade in class, or scoring poorly on high-stakes tests such as the ACT or SAT.

When her daughter Deja was still young, Christina Kirk began to encourage her to identify major concepts in her notes and use retrieval practice when she studied. When as a teenager Deja resisted being quizzed by her mother, Dr. Kirk asked an older cousin to serve as a study partner.

Dr. Kirk also encouraged Deja to invite one or two of her more studious friends to their Oklahoma City home so they could quiz each other. After the girls worked for a while, Dr. Kirk took them to the movies. “You have to give them something positive at the end, because they’re still kids,” she says.

Deja, now 18, still makes use of study groups in her college courses.

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Why School Sucks (hint: it’s not because it’s “boring”)

Medium

Isabella Bruyere

(Google Images)

Read the title. Now notice that I said school, NOT education. Yes, there is a difference.

This fall I’m going to be a Sophomore in high school, and although I’ve only had one year of high school so far, I kind of hate it. It’s cliche really; the high school student who hates school, texts all day, goes to parties, etc. Well, really only 1 out of 3 of those things applies to me but let’s rewind for a second to when I didn’t completely hate school: kindergarten-5th grade.

Hate is a strong word, I don’t hate school. I’m only comparing my feelings now for the ecstasy of my elementary days. Back then I loved school. It was my favorite place, simply because I’ve always had a love for learning. I had a great childhood (well I mean, I’m technically still in my childhood, but let’s ignore that); I grew up reading every day, going on Zoo adventures to learn about animals, hiking up to the observatory to star gaze, visiting every museum possible, and etc. A seed of curiosity was planted in my mind at an early age, and continues to grow today. There is something about having a question and finding the answer that satisfies me, but what really excites me to the core is being able to do something with that answer. It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Now imagine little kindergarten me, sitting in a room (on a rainbow rug that only added to the excitement of it all!) where all (well, most) of my questions could be answered. I was able to learn how to read, write and count. I was able to understand things about different animals, plants, and the world. I was able to learn about my ancestors and the history of everything. Not only that, but everything was fun! Why just read about the different parts of the plant when you could label the construction paper parts and glue them together like a puzzle? Better yet, watch your very own plant grow! To me, school was some sort of paradise.

So how did my love for school change? Simple: school stopped being about learning. As I entered high school, and even middle school, everyone around me, teachers and students alike, had the mindset of “cram cram cram, A’s, A’s A’s”. They’ll shove useless information into your head as fast as possible, “it’s okay if you don’t understand it, just memorize it and get an A on your exam!” The exam? An hour in a room of no talking, just bubbling in multiple choice answers while bubbles of anxiety grew in your stomach. School slowly became a place of memorizing facts just long enough to get the A, doing the bare minimum to get into the best college. Everything was just to get into college, to be better than your peers. Why help your classmate? Why not sabotage them so you have less people to compete with when it comes to applying to Harvard, Stanford, Yale. That is the mentality that I hate, yet it is the mentality of everyone around me, and maybe even myself.

Why can’t school be a place where teachers taught slowly, treating their students as equals and engaging with them in meaningful conversations. I once had an algebra teacher yell at anyone who asked a question because “we are in algebra, we are supposed to be smart enough to know these things”. Why can’t school be a place that welcomes questions of all kinds, and actually allows time to ask them? I’m so tired of cramming for exams only to forget everything the next morning. In real life, we have unlimited resources. The internet, the library, our peers. Instead of sitting in a room for an hour bubbling in a Scantron, why don’t we get together with our classmates and use our resources to work through a complex critical thinking question that relates to the real world as well as the subject. That is how you grow minds fit to solve world hunger, and etc. That is how you engage students, and cause them to be enthusiastic about a certain subject. I’m not saying schools should take away testing and homework, I’m saying they should make it more about the learning experience, and more like real life. Testing should use a combination of critical thinking and prior knowledge; it shouldn’t isolate the part of the brain that memorizes facts, because half of the time students don’t understand them!

I too have fallen prey to this harsh reality. I’ll stay up late to study, knowing that I’m only going to forget everything after I test. I’ll get the A, I’ll push myself, but at what cost? I’ve fallen into a hole, developed anxiety and OCD, and if I don’t stop soon I can add depression to that list. School is encouraging me to continue to push myself, but how long is it until I reach my breaking point? These days the only things I do are homework and studying. I stressed out so much my freshman year, I not only landed in the hospital, but I didn’t read a single outside reading book all year, and to me, that’s even more tragic. I am only in 10th grade, and I feel like I’m barely clinging on.

So yes, school sucks. But that doesn’t mean that learning has to. I’ve made myself a promise that from this day forward, no matter what college I go to, no matter what job I end up doing, I will always love learning, and always strive to know more. And despite all I have said in this article, I still enjoy going to school, and I wouldn’t trade my education for anything. I have always been the type of person to read a book about ‘Ancient Greek Mythology’ or ‘A-Z animal facts’, simply because I want to learn, and I hope to continue being that person.

How I Turned Formative Assessment into a Dialogue with My Students

When formative feedback felt like a dead end, this teacher dug in and figured out how to empower students by making the process a two-way street.

March 14, 2017
James Denby

Educator/Curriculum Developer

A few years ago, formative assessment returned as a frequent topic of discussion in faculty meetings and professional development sessions. I started mulling it over — examining how I did it, how I used it, and how I saw students using it.

Like most teachers, I always knew there were things I could do better, but with formative assessment, I couldn’t really figure out what that was. I made a list of all the things I already engaged in on a regular basis:

  • Meetings with students about ongoing work
  • Writing extensive comments on student work related to specific learning goals
  • Knowledge/learning checks
  • Peer work (editing, revising, commenting, and so on)
  • Good old-fashioned quizzes
  • Goal-setting activities at different points during the year

After some careful reflection, I realized I didn’t need to give more feedback, nor did I need a new formative feedback tool. The problem I faced with formative assessment, I realized, was that the students who needed that feedback the most were the ones not using it. It wasn’t a big group, but in each of my classes I could easily identify a few students who, no matter what I seemed to do, ignored all that formative work.

We needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning.

Those Google Doc comments on the project we were doing? William turned in a final draft that didn’t reflect any of the improvements I’d suggested. The one-on-one conference in which we talked about how to support an argument with evidence? Michelle didn’t do anything we talked about. The learning-check activities we did about common characteristics in urban civilization? Aaron clearly saw that he couldn’t explain them but seemingly did nothing to remedy the problem.

If I thought about it, it made me crazy, but at least now I knew where to focus. Other students were revising work, studying things they weren’t sure about, and practicing skills. These three weren’t, and the first thing I needed to do was find out why.

Helping Students Own the Process

In the next regular meeting I had with each student, I told each one that we needed to figure out why they weren’t using the formative feedback to improve their learning. The answers they gave weren’t all that surprising, when you think about it. William wasn’t actually sure where to begin or how to incorporate the suggestions I made. Michelle felt like it really wouldn’t make a difference because she just simply wasn’t a good writer. Aaron was somewhere in the middle; he often felt like it was too late to “fix” the problems because there was often too much to do.

This was a good start. Now it was time to formulate a plan.

I asked each student to commit to making one substantive change based on comments or our meeting discussion before they turned in their final draft of the project we were working on. Since the writing portion was in Google Docs, they decided that they would explain how they were following through on feedback in a comment to me.

We talked about how they could use their peer-conferencing and -editing sessions better by incorporating what they wanted to improve into their meeting with a partner. Though it seemed obvious to me, each student was kind of at a loss about how to do that. We settled on asking specific questions (“How can I __?,” “Where can I __?,” or “Is this a good place to __?”). Each student committed to writing down the questions they asked. I followed up on those conversations with a similar discussion and modeling before our next peer-editing session.

Michelle, who previously had never followed through on the ideas we talked about in conferences, decided to focus on her use of evidence. She partnered with another student and asked specifically where she should include her examples and facts. She had the examples and facts, but she just didn’t know where they really fit. I actually heard her say, “But how do I make it fit?” With me, she started asking if the evidence was convincing.

I had already tried to give William focused feedback, but in his first peer conference he asked whether he should work on transitions between ideas or on his introduction. (Remember, this was the guy whose idea of revision had always been clicking “resolve” on a Google Doc comment.) In his final comment response to me, he explained that once he saw the difference in the introduction, it “felt like it was a check-box done” and he could move on to other steps.

Aaron ended up doing something of a combination of William’s and Michelle’s strategies. He worked with me and another student to prioritize what he should work on and how to do it, but he also asked me, through a written comment, if it would be OK to “just focus on sentence structure this time?” He wanted to get that skill down before he worked on anything else. For the first time, I was seeing him address his “gaps,” so how could I not agree?

I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback.

What We Learned

In the end, the strategies the three of us agreed to seemed like something every student would benefit from. I made changes in what I did that pushed for more accountability from students but which also made me engage in more of a dialogue in my formative feedback. William, Aaron, and Michelle did not magically transform, but they (and my other students) definitely started to “feel formative” (as we now call it). That idea, that we are still taking shape and not yet fully formed, is what prompts real change.

I Will Not Check My Son’s Grades Online Five Times a Day

More and more schools are adopting student information software, allowing millions of parents to monitor their kids’ attendance and academic progress. But should they?

Last week I received a letter from my son’s high school that started like this:

Dear Parent/Guardian,

PowerSchool, our student information system, allows you to create your own account and use a single password to access information for all of your children who attend school in our district. This account allows you to keep up to date with your students’ academic progress, attendance, historical grades, etc.

I believe the letter goes on to detail procedures for setting up an account that would allow me to track nearly every aspect of my son’s academic life. I say, “I believe,” because I have not read the rest of the letter. Our family had known the letter was coming, and we’d already discussed how we were going to handle it.

My husband and I handed the letter over to my 14-year-old son with the promise that we will not be using the system to check on his grades or attendance (or anything else). In return, he promised to use the system himself and keep us apprised of anything we need to know.

We’re not the only family that’s had to decide what to do with “student information systems.” According to Bryan Macdonald, senior vice president of PowerSchool, 70 to 80 percent of the schools that use PowerSchool choose to implement the parent portal, which represents about 9 to 10 million students. “Our best data suggests that over 80 percent of parents and students who have access – meaning their school has enabled remote access – use the system at least once a week…and many users check multiple times a day.”

When I posted a challenge on Facebook encouraging friends to join us in eschewing PowerSchool, I received many comments and emails, none of them neutral. Either PowerSchool and its ilk are best thing that’s ever happened to parenting or the worst invention for helicopter parents since the toddler leash.

Several parents reject the technology on the grounds that they want to talk to their kids face-to-face about school:

I am fairly certain that the fear of facing me with bad academic news was the only thing that kept my kids in line. Take away that moment when they have to look us in the eye, admit to not having studied and the ensuing results….not on your life! -Lisa Endlich Heffernan, mother of three and parenting blogger at Grown & Flown

We don’t use the info, either. We just talk to our kids. -Elena Marshall, mother of eight

Teachers and administrators have mixed feelings:

I like that parents can check grades and I encouraged them to do so. I feel that open communication between home and school is essential in educating children, and only sending midterm and final grades home makes grades seem like a big secret. With parent access on PowerSchool, there are no secrets.  I am bothered, however, by parents who CONSTANTLY check…sometimes 5 or 6 times a day. These parents tend to be the ones who push their children the hardest and are the first to complain when grades aren’t entered on the DAY an assignment is due. As a language arts teacher with 60 papers to grade, I just can’t do that!  I’m not sure parents realize the school can see how many times they access the portal. –Mindi Rench, mother of two and junior high literacy coach and education blogger

Teacher Gina Parnaby tweeted that PowerSchool is a “Bane. Stresses my students out to no end. Freaks parents out b/c they see grades not as a communication but as judgment.” Teacher Dana Salvador wrote in an email that i-Parent, the parent portal her school has implemented is a moot issue for her. This is not because the parents have not chosen to use the software, but the parents of her low-income, ESL students don’t speak English and there is no Spanish version of the software.

For a sampling of what students think about PowerSchool, one need look no far than Twitter.

Ultimately, for many, including mother and teacher Christiana Whittington, the choice to use the unfettered access depends on the child.

I think this may be best viewed as a case-by-case scenario. Our son sailed through school effortlessly with excellent grades but hit one very hard. He procrastinated telling us about his issues. By the time we found out that he was struggling, it was really too late to save him. If we had had the opportunity to check on his grades through the portal, we could have easily prevented this. Our other daughter, being dyslexic, has always struggled in school. She had not yet come to grips with the fact that she is a bright person in spite of her disability and was embarrassed about lower grades especially in the highly competitive environment. For her, we would definitely have chosen to access the portal. I think overall this is a good thing but it can also completely undermine trust between parent and child. You really need to know your child.

For the time being, I choose to trust in the power of open communication and my son’s emerging sense of responsibility and character.  When I handed him the envelope, and asked him to keep me in the loop, he thanked me and returned to his room to do his homework. He has four years of high school ahead of him, and only time will tell if my faith in him is warranted. Until then, I plan to keep my hands out of what should be his business, his responsibility, and his life.

Teach Students to Break Down Criteria for Success

EdWeek

Screen shot 2016-12-20 at 11.10.55 AM.png

As a general rule, I front load my units/projects by previewing and discussing the end product first and then using the following weeks to provide instruction and practice to ensure success criteria.

Since we’re starting our new unit now, we’ve been spending time looking at the assessment, modifying it together and now discussing how students can find success with the skills being assessed.

Rather than just provide a rubric and a sample, students were split up into groups focusing on a particular standard.

Students needed to review the assignment (which they annotated yesterday) and the rubric and align past learning with the standard they were responsible for.

Each group made a chart and shared out around the room. Students then were asked to take pictures of each of the charts and return to their seats.Screen shot 2016-12-20 at 11.12.44 AM.png

As they worked together to determine what success will look like and why they were working on these skills, I walked around the room answering questions and listening to their conversations.

After we shared out and developed a list of skills from the standards, students were asked to answer an exit ticket (that was emailed to them) that asked the following:

Exit ticket:

Based on the success criteria established and the work we’ve done in class thus far, what skills and/or content do you feel you’re already proficient in or mastering? How do you know? Which areas do you feel you need the most help with? What lessons will you need to find success?

1. What skills and/or content do you feel you’re already proficient in or mastering?
2. How do you know?
3.  What areas do you feel you need the most help with?
4. What lessons would be helpful to find success?
Thanks! Make sure to check your email and “pupilpath” regularly for feedback.
Right after class, I read their emails and provide them feedback as well as gather data to align my mini-lessons to ensure success for all. Number four is of particular use to me, asking students to identify areas of need. This is essential to helping them reflect and be more metacognative. The better informed they are about their own learning, strengths and challenges, the better they can get their needs met and I can be helpful in how that happens.
Students need to know what is being assessed, so they can name and understand what they are learning and more importantly why. In this way they can start to connect their learning to real skills that will be of use to them in the future.

Panel: Ditch Grades Now, Focus on Student Learning

The Journal

Teach without grades. Teach without tests. Teach without homework. That’s the message from a growing number of educators who are not only advocating but actually making substantial changes in their classroom practices by eliminating grades and scores entirely.

Sound like fantasy in this age of ubiquitous high-stakes standardized testing and “accountability” mandates?

It’s actually happening.

In American schools.

And it’s working for many of those who are trying it.

Educator and Hack Learning creator Mark Barnes is a leading voice in the movement to eliminate grades and test scores from students’ lives. For him, the transition from grading hasn’t been easy. But it has been necessary.

At a panel held at the SXSWedu conference last week in Austin, Barnes described how he came to question his own teaching practices that eventually led him to adopt gradeless teaching.

Shifting to Gradeless
For the first 15 years in his career in education, Barnes was, as he described himself, a very traditional teacher, and one who was failing far too many students year after year.

“My answer in the past when people would say, ‘Why do you have so many [students with] poor grades?’ was: ‘Well, the kids just don’t do the work.’ Or: ‘The kids are lazy.’ Or: ‘Their parents don’t bring them to school on time, and they fall behind. Their parents don’t make them do their homework. And all of these things lead to them not turning in their work, and they’re zeroed.’ So it was blame, blame, blame. It’s their fault or their parents’ fault; it’s not my fault.”

But, he said, after several years of that — and after a particularly gruesome year in which some 60 percent of his students received failing grades — “Finally, I took a long, hard look in the mirror and said, ‘This can’t always be their fault. It can’t always be their parents’ fault…. It’s got to be my fault.'”

He decided he either had to change or had to “get out” of the teaching profession “because it couldn’t continue to go that way,” Barnes said.

So he spent the summer reflecting on his teaching, researching alternative practices, learning about methods other teachers were using to help their students succeed and decided, simply, to do away with all traditional teaching methods, including homework, summative tests and all forms of grading — except, of course, the final grade that all teachers are compelled to provide. (More on that later.)

Giving Students Voice
So why gradeless? And what took the place of the traditional methods he’d abandoned?

Instead of grading students on their work, Barnes had “a conversation” with them. He used an online gradebook, but instead of applying grades or points or percentages, he recorded feedback and discussions with students. Instead of judging his students’ abilities at an arbitrary point in time by assigning a score, he guided them through a checklist that was designed to help them progress to where they needed to be. Instead of homework, he assigned projects that did not have a deadline or point value. In the gradeless classroom, there’s no “extra credit” because students aren’t working for points. There are no summative assessments. There are no zeroes. There’s only information that’s used to help drive the student forward.

“That’s what this is really about today,” he said, “shifting the conversation away from the traditional grade to a conversation, to transparency, to digital learning….”

(Barnes is particularly adamant about assigning zeroes for work that was not turned in by a student. As he noted, “We just don’t know” if the students have mastered the subject matter or not because “we haven’t seen the work. We don’t truly know what kids know [when they fail to turn in homework]. Quite frankly, that makes us failures. That’s a really tough pill to swallow. Once you do it, it really leads to incredible things.”)

More Work for the Teacher
The process is not an easy one. Eliminating grades and homework doesn’t mean less work for teachers. It generally means more, since the teacher has to create meaningful dialog with the students.

“A lot of what educators use, the traditional stuff, becomes a kind of crutch. It gets pretty easy,” he said during his well attended session at SXSWedu. “If you have a folder full of worksheets you can give students each year, that’s easy. If you have a bubble test that you can run through a machine, that’s easy. You just put the number on your online program, and it translates to a grade. That’s easy. But it’s not really good for kids.”

Switching to a gradeless system, Barnes said, requires a “systems change”: You can’t simply keep handing out the same old worksheets and simply decide you’re not going to grade them.

“You have to engage kids in learning,” he said. And that means project-based learning and using “checklists” to ensure that students get to where they need to be. Instead of judging, as Barnes explained it, it involves telling kids, “Here’s what I see,” then asking questions: “What would have happened if you had done this differently?” So it’s not about right or wrong on a set of problems. It’s about leading the student to understanding without judgement along the way.

And more work isn’t the only issue. In the first year of his new gradeless teaching practice, Barnes said, there was pushback from students, parents and administrators. But they all came around.

“What everybody started seeing was an incredible environment that was a little bit messy, a little bit chaotic, but was a place that was rich with independent learning,” he said.

That independence is what it’s all about: giving students the voice in their own education.

How Technology Helps
Barnes advocates the use of technology, including digital portfolios, to enable gradeless instruction. Portfolios, he explained, can also help keep parents in the loop on their children’s education.

“The best way to engage parents in the conversation,” he explained, “is to use a digital portfolio that makes it easy for them to be part of the conversation — it needs to be one-click, because we’re all so busy and overwhelmed with e-mail and social media ‘pings.’ Something like FreshGrade, which provides Web and mobile platforms, makes it easy because updates to each child’s portfolio are automatically sent to parents, and they can reply directly within the tool. Plus, it’s important for teachers to actively engage parents by asking questions and inviting feedback.”

He added that there’s so much in the digital space now that helps make it easier to capture learning and create those conversations with students and parents.

Peter Bencivenga, educator and president and COO of DataCation (a division of CaseNEX), shared the SXSWedu stage with Barnes. He noted the multitude of tools available to educators, so many of which are available without any financial investment whatsoever for the school (Google Apps, for example), that can help teachers with the one aspect of gradeless teaching that is absolutely essential: communication.

“There are so many tools that can be used to enhance this in your classroom,” he said. “What you see is that when you start having that communication with a student, and you start having … a conversation about learning, instead of, ‘Did you do this?’ — compliance — … you change the discussion [from grades to] learning. Compliance becomes a non-issue when you take out grades and have a conversation.”

Grading: Real-World Requirements
Now, a final grade for the students’ transcripts is, of course, compulsory. But for end of term grades, Barnes said he would not rely on the average of a set of scores compiled over the semester. Rather, he said, he would sit down with students and discuss what their final grade should be with them.

But even with the compulsory end-of-term grades, according to Barnes, students in gradeless classes are coming away with something more than a reductionist label representing a semester’s worth or work.

“We have something far better than scores when report card time rolls around,” he explained. “We have artifacts and feedback that provide a clear picture of learning. When a teacher reviews the body of work from a student and asks, ‘Where does this fit on a traditional grade scale?’ the student understands and provides accurate responses in almost every instance — at least as accurate as a traditional grade can provide.”

A Growing Movement That Needs Help from Higher Education
Since starting on this journey, Barnes has written several books on the subject of teaching without grades, and his ideas are catching on. He’s the founder of the Facebook Group Teachers Throwing Out Grades, or TTOG, which has so far attracted more than 5,500 members. Within online community, teachers share their individual stories, their declarations of independence from grading, their hopes, their fears, their best practices and their tips and techniques. And Barnes isn’t the only major voice in the movement. Author Starr Sackstein, who also blogs at Education Week, is a proponent of gradeless teaching. She’s also co-moderator of the TTOG Facebook group.

Barnes said the Facebook group has grown to its current size in just one year, and interest in the movement has reached the global scale, spanning a range of subjects, from English/language arts to math.

The limit on the movement’s right now is transcripts and the requirements imposed on teachers by policymakers and the universities that continue to require grade-based transcripts. That could change though with a little help from outside the K-12 system.

“It’s hard to make movements and strides,” Bencivenga said, “when the university level has not made those changes yet on how they’re accepting kids.”

“We need the help of all key stakeholders,” Barnes said. “Anyone at the college level, especially administrators, who show interest in shifting the conversation away from grades would be huge for the movement.”

Testing for Joy and Grit? Schools Nationwide Push to Measure Students’ Emotional Skills

The New York Times
By KATE ZERNIKEFEB. 29, 2016

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Jade Cooney with her fifth-grade class at Visitacion Valley Elementary School in San Francisco. She leads “good-behavior games” as part of an effort to develop students’ social-emotional skills. Credit Elizabeth D. Herman for The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — The fifth graders in Jade Cooney’s classroom compete against a kitchen timer during lessons to see how long they can sustain good behavior — raising hands, disagreeing respectfully and looking one another in the eye — without losing time to insults or side conversations.

As reward for minutes without misconduct, they win prizes like 20 seconds to kick their feet up on their desks or to play rock-paper-scissors. And starting this year, their school and schools in eight other California districts will test students on how well they have learned the kind of skills like self-control and conscientiousness that the games aim to cultivate — ones that might be described as everything you should have learned in kindergarten but are still reading self-help books to master in middle age.

A recent update to federal education law requires states to include at least one nonacademic measure in judging school performance. So other states are watching these districts as a potential model. But the race to test for so-called social-emotional skills has raised alarms even among the biggest proponents of teaching them, who warn that the definitions are unclear and the tests faulty.
“I do not think we should be doing this; it is a bad idea,” said Angela Duckworth, the MacArthur fellow who has done more than anyone to popularize social-emotional learning, making “grit” — the title of her book to be released in May — a buzzword in schools.

She resigned from the board of the group overseeing the California project, saying she could not support using the tests to evaluate school performance. Last spring, after attending a White House meeting on measuring social-emotional skills, she and a colleague wrote a paper warning that there were no reliable ways to do so. “Our working title was all measures suck, and they all suck in their own way,” she said.

And there is little agreement on what skills matter: Self-control? Empathy? Perseverance? Joy?

“There are so many ways to do this wrong,” said Camille A. Farrington, a researcher at the University of Chicago who is working with a network of schools across the country to measure the development of social-emotional skills. “In education, we have a great track record of finding the wrong way to do stuff.”

Schools began emphasizing social-emotional learning around 2011, after an analysis of 213 school-based programs teaching such skills found that they improved academic achievement by 11 percentile points. A book extolling efforts to teach social-emotional skills in schools such as the KIPP charter network and Riverdale Country School in New York, “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough, appeared the next year.

Argument still rages about whether schools can or should emphasize these skills. Critics say the approach risks blaming the victim — if only students had more resilience, they could rise above generational poverty and neglected schools — and excuses uninspired teaching by telling students it is on them to develop “zest,” or enthusiasm. Groups that spent decades urging the country toward higher academic standards worry about returning to empty talk of self-esteem, accepting low achievement as long as students feel good.

 

But teaching social-emotional skills is often seen as a way to move away from a narrow focus on test scores, and to consider instead the whole child. It may seem contradictory, then, to test for those skills. In education, however, the adage is “what’s measured gets treasured”; states give schools money to teach the subjects on which they will be judged.

Next year, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of students in grades four, eight and 12 that is often referred to as the nation’s report card, will include questions about students’ social-emotional skills. A well-known international test, PISA, is moving toward the same.

The biggest concern about testing for social-emotional skills is that it typically relies on surveys asking students to evaluate recent behaviors or mind-sets, like how many days they remembered their homework, or if they consider themselves hard workers. This makes the testing highly susceptible to fakery and subjectivity. In their paper published in May, Dr. Duckworth and David Yeager argued that even if students do not fake their answers, the tests provide incentive for “superficial parroting” rather than real changes in mind-set.

“You think test scores are easy to game?” said Martin West, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who is working with the districts in California. “They’re relatively hard to game when you compare them to a self-report survey.”

Students might be tested on performance, as in the “marshmallow test,” in which children were told they could have a sweeter reward if they waited. Those who waited scored higher in self-control. But those tests are too time-consuming to use on a large group of students.

Other researchers have proposed calling or texting students at regular intervals to check their behavior and frame of mind, or monitoring Facebook or Twitter to observe patterns of behavior. But privacy concerns would almost certainly disqualify those.

Transforming Education, a Boston-based group that is among the biggest proponents of teaching social-emotional skills, argues that they are so important that schools have to begin testing for them, even if perfect measures do not exist.

The group worked with the school districts here — which count one million students, or 20 percent of the state total, in cities including Los Angeles and Oakland — to choose four measures to evaluate: growth mind-set, social awareness, self-efficacy and self-management.

 

Just two years ago in her classroom in a trailer here at Visitacion Valley Elementary School, Ms. Cooney struggled with the kind of management problems that often confront young teachers.

Her students, mostly poor and living in a nearby housing project, were bouncing around the classroom, playing with their phones instead of paying attention, fighting out interfamily beefs. Even if they wanted to learn, they were not.

 

Ms. Cooney, 27, took a two-hour training session in a student-behavior program and began playing “good-behavior games.” They look like regular lessons, except that they begin with students identifying goals for good behavior, and end with her assessing what went right and wrong.

On a recent day, students took notes on their reading as Ms. Cooney moved with a kind of Zen bustle around the classroom, grading papers and consulting one-on-one while she watched for things she would compliment the class on later — keeping bodies still, focusing on the task — and quietly noted bad behavior.

For every 1,000 minutes of good behavior earned, the children win 15 extra minutes of recess.

“I’m really saving minutes that would be lost to transitions, settling disputes and behavior problems,” Ms. Cooney said. It can be exhausting, but not nearly as much as teaching before. As she said, “Would you rather put out fires, or prevent them?”

Social-emotional learning will count for 8 percent of a school’s overall performance score; no teacher will lose a job for failing to instill a growth mind-set.

Noah Bookman, the chief accountability officer for the districts, said he understood the concerns about testing. But, he said, “This work is so phenomenally important to the success of our kids in school and life. In some ways, we worry as much if not more about the possibility that these indicators remain on the back burner.”