Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s why.


A student takes notes in an Advanced Placement class at Woodrow Wilson High School in Washington in 2014. (Charles Dharapak/AP)
June 18, 2018

In an era when the quality and nature of American secondary school education are subjects of vigorous debate, it is time to rethink our curricula. Together, we lead eight Washington-area independent schools, and we have been meeting regularly over the past several years to discuss research and compare experiences.

While each of us offers a unique academic program grounded in our historical missions and educational philosophies, we have jointly come to recognize the diminished utility of Advanced Placement courses. Consequently, collectively we agree that we will better equip our students for further study and for life beyond the classroom by eliminating AP courses from our curriculums entirely by 2022.

When introduced in the early 1950s, the rationale for the AP program was to offer particularly ambitious students an opportunity to pursue and receive credit for college-level work, allowing them to graduate from college early. Yet today, few college students graduate in less than four years. At the same time, almost 40 percent of high school students enroll in AP courses, meaning it is no longer true that only a few, exceptional students take them.

As a result, AP courses on high school transcripts are of diminished significance to college admissions officers. Further, we’ve conducted our own survey of almost 150 college and university admissions officers and have been assured that the absence of the AP designation will have no adverse impact on our students. The real question for colleges is whether an applicant has taken a high school’s most demanding courses; the AP designation itself is irrelevant.

Naturally, colleges and universities want the most capable and hard-working students. Therefore, in the belief that failing to take an AP course may hurt their college prospects, students reluctantly pass up more interesting, more engaging and potentially more intellectually transformative and rewarding courses. Because these tests loom so large for students, faculty often feel pressed to sacrifice in-depth inquiries to cover all of the material likely to be included on the test.

But the truth is that college courses, which demand critical thinking and rigorous analysis, look nothing like AP courses, which stress breadth over depth. Moving away from AP courses will allow us to offer courses that are foundational, allow for authentic engagement with the world and demonstrate respect for students’ intellectual curiosity and interests.

Theories of education have changed a lot over the past 50 years, and the ways we teach and test must reflect these changes. Rote memorization is giving way to learning that is more collaborative, experiential and interdisciplinary — with an increased focus on problem-solving. We also integrate and connect coursework to real-world issues and provide students with more opportunities to engage in original research and deep analysis.

Collectively, we believe a curriculum oriented more in these directions will not only better prepare our students for their futures but also will result in programs that are more engaging both for students and faculty. Moreover, this approach will encourage student motivation driven by their innate curiosity and love of learning.

This change does not signify any effort to diminish the academic rigor for which our schools are known. To the contrary, we believe that by capitalizing on the talents of our superb teachers and resources, students will be offered more stimulating courses that explore subjects in greater depth, enhancing the strength of our programs.

We are far from the first independent schools to eliminate the AP designation. Many excellent boarding and day schools around the country have embraced this change and seen students thrive and teachers flourish without any negative impact on college placement. What is unusual about our decision is that we came to this conclusion together and are announcing it jointly. We hope that by adding our collective voice to the conversation, we will make it easier for other schools considering a similar change to follow the same path.

As schools devoted to nurturing students’ potential, fostering their talents and preparing them to lead productive lives, we believe the flexibility we will gain from developing our own courses will better prepare our students for college and their professional futures. In this time of unprecedented challenges, we owe our students and the world they will enter nothing less.

Russell Shaw, head of Georgetown Day School

Susanna Jones, head of Holton-Arms School

Jim Neill, headmaster of Landon School

Marjo Talbott, head of Maret School

Kathleen Jamieson, head of National Cathedral School

John Kowalik, head of Potomac School

Vance Wilson, headmaster of St. Albans School

Bryan Garman, head of Sidwell Friends School

Advertisements

Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project: It’s About Equity

Learning Policy Institute

Guest Author Young Whan Choi

What should a high school student be able to do upon graduation?

While students ultimately choose many different roads after high school, the Oakland Unified School District has made a commitment that we will prepare all students for college, career, and community. To this end, we expect all seniors to complete a Graduate Capstone Project in which students choose a topic, conduct original field research, write a research paper, and present orally to an audience that includes school staff and often community members.

Research shows that, when designed and implemented well, performance assessments like OUSD’s Capstone Project are essential for measuring and improving student performance with higher-order thinking skills like inquiry, research, analysis, problem solving, and communication. They are also essential for developing other important skills, like planning, organizing, reflecting, and self-assessing, as well as teaching students to be resourceful and resilient.

Oakland’s decision to institute a senior project in 2005 was rooted in advancing these goals. However, for many years, the district had not made any concerted effort to support the equitable implementation of the requirement. Five years ago, it was common for seniors at some schools to complete a rigorous research project and defend it publicly in front of strangers, while their peers at other schools were not expected to complete any kind of project in order to graduate.

In the Oakland Unified School District, a yearlong Graduate Capstone Project provides an opportunity for students to research, analyze, and become experts in a topic of their own choosing. A video, produced by the Learning Policy Institute and the Oakland Unified School District, shows how this complex project, which is used as a districtwide performance assessment, is building students’ ownership of their own learning and helping them develop and use critical thinking and communication skills.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Our teachers surfaced these equity issues, and together we began an effort to promote consistent expectations of high-level work through what we now call the Graduate Capstone Project. The work began in earnest in 2014, when teachers from a handful of schools convened first to identify a set of key graduation competencies, then to incorporate those competencies into evaluation rubrics, and finally to pilot them in their schools.

One high school’s experience with the rubrics illustrates their importance. At this school, students in all career academies had to write a paper as part of the senior project, but the academies had never used the same rubric for scoring until the 2014–15 school year. During that academic year, they also required every paper in the school to be scored without the students’ names and by two adults.

When the first drafts of the papers were scored in May, every single student from the academy with the highest number of Black students failed. This was not a failing of those students. Rather, the results revealed that the students in this academy had been allowed for years to think that their work was meeting a standard for college. When the school adapted a common rubric for all seniors and created a transparent scoring process, it exposed a history of low expectations.

Those students with unsatisfactory first drafts rallied with the help of teachers to improve the quality of their work in the final days before graduation. More importantly, the teachers and staff organized to figure out how to ensure students in all academies would not only be held to the same rigorous expectations the following year, but would also receive the same high-quality instructional supports to be successful. Their key steps included having regular meetings of the Graduate Capstone Project teachers to share instructional practices, identifying an adult mentor in the school for every senior, and moving up deadlines to ensure that students receive early feedback on the progress of their projects. The following year, students from all academies had comparable pass rates on the Capstone research paper.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like.

This story speaks to the value of clear expectations for quality and to the even more critical question of how we ensure that all students learn what they need to be successful. In Oakland, we have found that the real opportunity of having common rubrics has been the resulting conversations that teachers have been able to have across our district. These conversations have led teachers to change their practices to reflect the level and types of instructional supports students need to be successful. Four times a year and for a week every summer, Graduate Capstone Project teachers from across our high schools learn together. We start with the rubrics because they give us a common language, but we don’t stop there.

By looking at student work and discussing how we would score it using the rubric, teachers calibrate their expectations of what high-quality work looks and sounds like. From there, they learn about different instructional practices from their peers and from instructional experts. They investigate these practices by trying them in their own classrooms to see whether they support all students to achieve the level of quality that we expect

With the district having adopted the common rubric, our next step is to begin central collection of data relating to student performance on the Graduate Capstone Project. With these data, we will be able to conduct a detailed analysis across school sites and student groups to understand how well we are meeting our equity goals by preparing all students with the knowledge and skills they need after graduation.

In 2017, we surveyed graduating seniors for the first time to better understand how they felt the Graduate Capstone Project was supporting their development of key college-ready skills. The results were promising: 83% of the 1,290 students who took the survey said the assessment was valuable for improving their skills as researchers; 81% said it was valuable for improving their skills as writers; and 84% said it was valuable for improving their skills as presenters. Further, 81% of the student respondents said the Graduate Capstone Project was valuable in helping them become more proactive learners. We’ll continue to administer this survey annually.

As we move forward, we hope to work with an external evaluator on a rigorous evaluation of the impact of the Graduate Capstone Project on student skills, engagement, and graduation rates. In the meantime, feedback from students and staff tells us we are on the right track. Our alumni come back and say their Capstone helped them get ready for college. Educators, for their part, remark on the sense of accomplishment students feel on completion of a Capstone and their excitement and engagement as they explore issues they care about.

We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals.

There are several practices that have contributed to our progress from a district that lacked a clear way to assess graduate outcomes to a district that has articulated competencies that are measured using common rubrics at most of our high schools. As central office leaders, we have listened to our teachers, whose perspectives are too rarely taken into consideration when making decisions. We have included teachers as true partners at all stages of the work, from identifying key competencies for our graduates to revising the rubrics and developing the instructional improvement goals. We have modeled the process of calibration on scoring student work, so that principals and teachers can lead this process with their staffs. We have also provided guidance to leaders to ensure that there are financial resources for teachers to participate in professional learning both during the school year and over the summer.

In our schools that have embraced this work most fully, we hear the staff having conversations about the quality of student Graduate Capstone Project work at various levels of the school—from grade level to department to career pathway to instructional leadership. If you walk through these schools during Graduate Capstone Project presentations, the audience won’t just be teachers who work with seniors. Instead, you will see members of the entire high school staff, because they understand that their efforts throughout a student’s high school career are a critical part of a senior’s success.

By starting with the end in mind, the school faculty can see where their instructional strengths and gaps are and set clear improvement goals. These concerted and unified efforts by a school to improve instruction lead to better student outcomes. There’s no quick fix for improving a school. Instead, it takes deliberate and persistent work for a school to transform student learning so that schools fulfill our promise to educate all students.

Young Whan Choi is the Manager of Performance Assessments for the Oakland Unified School District.

The Power of Performance Assessments: Oakland Unified’s Graduate Capstone Project

Learning Policy Institute

Their Graduate Capstone Projects may be done and graded, but seniors from the Oakland Unified School District say they’ll be reaping the benefits and keeping alive the passions that came with their yearlong graduation requirement as they move on to college and work.

Oakland High School’s Kennedy Russ plans to work for improved reproductive health care for underserved women. Valeria Fernandez, from Fremont High School, has her sights set on a career in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field and plans to be a role model to encourage young women to pursue STEM careers. Marwat Al-Olefi, from Life Academy, wants to combat racial bias in health care. All of these aspirations were honed and deepened as these students worked on the research for their Capstone Projects.

Passion, relevance, in-depth research, control over their own learning, and a desire to create change in their own community are a few of the ways Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project differs from other assignments and assessments that are often completed and then forgotten.

During the yearlong project, students delve deeply into issues that interest them, designing their own research projects that include analyzing online and print sources and conducting field work. In addition to completing a significant research paper, students share their findings and analysis with peers, teachers, and the broader community in a formal presentation. Throughout the process, they’re honing an array of critical thinking and communications skills that they will need to meet the future challenges of college, work, and civic life.

Video Series: Reflections on Oakland’s Graduate Capstone Project
OUSD students, teachers, and administrators reflect on performance assessments and their impact in these video clips.

OUSD Video Gallery

Teachers, for their part, are learning to shift their practices to function more as coaches, providing support and guidance to students throughout the project. They’re also working with peers in their school and district to create and refine the structure, process, and evaluation of the Graduate Capstone Project.

Preston Thomas, high school network superintendent for Oakland Unified, said the goal of the Capstone Project is to provide students with the challenge and opportunity to solve authentic problems and engage in deep learning that has an impact in the real world. Throughout the process, they have “an opportunity to integrate college- and career-readiness skills.”

As part of the district’s Linked Learning initiative, students explore career pathways through coursework and related internships. For some seniors, Capstone Projects are born out of these work experiences. Others choose to explore a topic that’s relevant to their neighborhood or community or that they’re curious or passionate about. Capstone Projects for the Class of ’17 focused on such diverse topics as the underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, sexism in video games, the forced sterilization of incarcerated women, alternative medicine, beekeeping, refusing medical treatment, sex trafficking, lack of access to reproductive health care, and life expectancy differences between minority and white populations.

A Path Toward Equity

Oakland schools have long required senior projects for graduation. In the past, however, instruction, project requirements, and results varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. “You had some (projects) that were portfolios, some that … almost looked like middle school reports, you had some that were in-depth research papers, you had some that were action projects,” said Young Whan Choi, district manager of performance assessments. “From that incredible diversity of senior projects emerged the sense that there was a lot of inequity, and students and teachers were clamoring for more support and direction,” he added.

In 2014, district administrators began partnering with teachers to fashion a more consistent and equitable system of assessment. Through that process, they created a districtwide rubric that effectively defines skills to be evaluated and creates a more structured and collaborative process so that requirements and assessments are comparable across schools.

It was important, said Choi, that the teachers created a shared vision of what high-quality research, writing, and oral presentations looked like. “What the performance assessment system requires is a high degree of collaboration and everybody being aligned to a common mission and purpose as a school community.”

A Focus on Revision and Growth

Throughout the process, students have opportunities to get feedback and revise their work. Students and educators alike see the emphasis on growth and improvement as integral to the yearlong performance assessment. A low or even failing grade on a paper or presentation is not considered the end of the road, and many students appreciate that the assessment allows for a second or third opportunity for them to incorporate feedback, revise their work, and further hone their knowledge and skills.

 One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence.
—Matin Abdel-Qawi, Principal, Oakland High School

“One of the ways I see our young people grow and develop through the senior process is confidence,” said Matin Abdel-Qawi, principal of Oakland High School. “They don’t believe they can write a paper of that length. They don’t believe they can do that amount of research. They don’t believe they can stand up in front of a group of adults and present their findings and their research. … The beauty is we have such amazing teachers here who continue to remind them and encourage them and watch them go through that productive struggle from ‘I can’ to ‘I did.’”

Teachers find that in teaching the skills that are essential to successful completion of the Capstone Project, they grow, too—both in their ability to support independent student learning and their ability to step back and let the students put their developing skills to work.

“Incorporating performance assessments in my classroom has changed the way I teach,” said Fremont High School English teacher Johanna Paraiso. “I’m a much more courageous teacher, not only in keeping up with new technology, finding ways to incorporate rubric skills throughout the year, and being responsive to students’ questions and dilemmas, but in being part of a teacher team willing to openly assess whether their teaching methods are working and to change direction if they’re not.”

That willingness to continually reassess happens at the administrative level, too. Abdel-Qawi said he and the teachers continue to find ways to make the projects more rigorous, more relevant, and more related to the goals of the Linked Learning Pathways and the school.

The district, for its part, supports teachers and school sites through regular professional development, assistance with changes in the master schedule to allow for more collaboration time, and convening teachers so they can make ongoing revisions to the rubric. Just as students are encouraged to do, Choi says the district is “constantly trying to assess, ‘What can we learn? How can we get better?’”

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.

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.