Teach Students to Break Down Criteria for Success

EdWeek

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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.”

Putting Standards-Based Grading Into Action

EdWeek

Oh, how I long for the days when I felt actualized as an English and language arts teacher who based my grades on homework, classwork, tests, and projects. The numbers were simple, and a cumulative average was easy to calculate. Since reading the works of Ken O’Connor and Rick Wormeli, I have been plagued by the daunting and yet fulfilling challenge of making standards-based grading work and thrive in my classroom. The benefits and challenges of this process make it complicated, so I constantly reflect and revise my practice. I am encouraged as I hear other teachers begin to lean towards a standards-based method of grading, so I know this plight is worth the challenge.

To begin, let me share my interpretation of aligning my grading to standards, instead of assignments. Standards-based grading aims to communicate how a student is performing against a set of essential standards. A student is “judged” on what she knows, not how many assignments she has completed. Her grade is a reflection of her knowledge, and thus, is ever-changing. A student may score “proficient” on a standard one day, and “near-proficient” a week later—and her grade will reflect that change. Standards-based grading challenges many grading practices teachers feel very strongly about: assigning zeroes (which I no longer do), accepting “late” work (which I now always do), and allowing re-dos and re-takes (which I allow without limits). So why have I dedicated a large amount of my time and energy this school year to this alternative method of grading that calls into question so many of the grading practice norms we have relied on for decades?

Simply put, standards-based grading makes sense. It is the most accurate and honest grading method I have encountered thus far in my teaching career. Its benefits far outweigh its challenges.

So, what are some of the concrete benefits of standards-based grading?

  • SBG allows me to provide feedback to students on individual skills. Students are able to see a grade report that has all of the skills we have been working on, broken down, and not dependent on each other. This way, they are able to tackle the individual areas they need to improve upon, instead of re-doing all of a test or assignment they may have demonstrated mastery on in some areas.
  • SBG reports levels of mastery more current than those in traditional grading practices. Grades are entirely flexible—not a single number is set in stone, and the numbers constantly adjust up and down as students conquer and wrestle with new skills and content. When students, parents, or other stakeholders see a grade report from my classroom, they can count on seeing an evaluation of students’ most current knowledge.

One of the largest benefits of SBG is that I am beginning to see is that my conversations with students and parents shift from “Well, what can she do to bring up her grade?” to “What are the skills and areas she should be practicing more to help her learn better?” Since implementing SBG, I have had so many more conversations focused on student learning, and fewer conversations focused on attributing a set of numbers to what a student knows.

Needless to say, changing my grading methods and practices to becoming more standards-based has not been without some great challenges. SBG is difficult when teaching processes and skills. I teach reading and writing, which are ever-developing and multi-faceted processes for students, and this makes assessment especially difficult. Even when relying more on standards than assignment completion when reporting student progress, assessments still tend to feel inauthentic and inaccurate, and are only a snapshot of a student’s performance at one point in time.

In addition, even with the implementation of SBG in my school, I still have to report student progress through numbers. Assigning a number to a student’s skill level or content knowledge still feels too subjective and forced. And what’s worse is I still have to report a final grade for students as a cumulative average. I can break down this number into skills and individual content as much as I want, but at the end of the marking period, I still have to come up with one percentage to represent all of a student’s knowledge of the content covered in my class.

Implementing SBG has been a bit of a culture shock for both students and parents, simply because it is entirely different from everything they have ever known about grades. Focusing on more quantitative and individualized feedback requires some flexibility, open-mindedness, and a lot of trust in teachers. Though this shift in mindset is certainly an initial challenge for parents and students, it is a necessary one. The benefits and progressive thinking behind SBG far outweigh the challenges of implementing the practice. We have gone long enough assigning subjective and arbitrary numbers to student performance, and it is time that our communication of student progress reflects student learning, and student learning only.