(In)formative assessment: LESS grading and MORE feedback

It's an exciting time of the year. Classes start in less than 48 hours. Lots of district, building, leadership and curriculum meetings have taken place the past few days. One common theme has been "assessment." Even though our district continues to perform very well on standardized tests, we have been charged to go from "good" to "great" by the administrative team. I can't express in words how exciting I am for the direction our district is going through the boulevard called assessment. I truly believe that transforming assessment practices is the beginning of so many other great conversations and classroom changes. To keep this in the front of our minds, each faculty member is being asked to document his/her assessments from August to December. The documentation is loosely associated with Rick DuFour's three essential questions.

1. What do we want all students to learn?
As educators, we must think about the essential learnings (standards, benchmarks, learning targets, objectives, take your pick!) our students should have as a result of taking our course. These may change slightly from year to year depending the students, but we should be able to identify the "core" ideas and concepts each student is expected to learn.

2. How will we know when each student has learned it?
As educators, we should be able to articulate the connection between the essential learnings and the assessments we administer in our classrooms. This involves more than just printing out the textbook publisher's test and assuming it "fits" our intended purposes. It is also not merely giving students pop quizzes covering the night's reading and moving on when they haven't a clue what they were to have learned. What's the best way to clearly connect assessments and learning targets? Standards-based grading! It's been a hard sell the past few days in my conversations with colleagues, but I look forward to sharing my successes and failures in developing the implementation of this idea further on this blog.

3. How will we respond when a student experiences difficulty?
As educators, how are our assessment and instruction practices setup to support students who struggle? Are we caught up in the "assess and move on" rut? Or are our assessments created, graded (or not) to inform future instruction? The buzz word commonly used here is "formative assessment." I discussed this idea in many previous posts, including this one.

I really don't feel like I have a firm grasp on #3. Last year, I reported out to my students their successes and failures on quizzes (my bi-unit written, formative assessments) the same way I did on tests, via a 4-point scale per learning target. I keep thinking about Susan Brookhart's comments in her Dec. '07/Jan. '08 Educational Leadership article, "Feedback that Fits" when she said,

"Formative assessment..Here is how close you are to the knowledge or skills you are trying to develop, and here's what you need to do next....Good feedback contains information students can use....For feedback to drive the formative assessment cycle, it needs to describe where the student is in relation to the learning goal..."
My "old" standards-based reporting on quizzes looked like the image below. I gave students written feedback on individual problems and then a score for each learning target assessed correlating to a narrative describing their current state of understanding.
I used to argue that the learning target score was a way of communicating to students how well they were doing in relation to the learning goal. I think it still does make sense in this context, but it does not give them the feedback they need and deserve describing what they need to do next to improve their learning. Looking back, I was giving my students a red, yellow or green light, but never a map to tell them where to turn next. My "next" step is changing the "scoring" into a rubric that instead gives students an idea of where they fit on the continuum of concept mastery.
I hope this continuum and more "student-friendly" wording along the bottom is information students can better use. I will also continue to give feedback on individual problems so that students can understand what they need to do to better understand the topic or overcome their misconception. Last year's practice of grouping students according to their relative strengths and weaknesses (related to the learning targets) will continue so that students not have the opportunity to learn from my feedback, but also from their peers. My goal in this give students more meaningful feedback and less grading. This subtle change, I believe, takes the emphasis away from a "number" and instead on the feedback.

What flaws or critiques do you see with this change in philosophy? How would you react as a student if you did not receive a "grade" (in the form of a number or percentage) but rather a mark on a continuum to complement written feedback on problems?

What do parents need to know about standards-based reporting?

Regular readers of this blog know that during the last semester of the 2008-2009 academic year, I piloted standards-based reporting in my high school math classroom. After conversing with my building principal, he has given me the green light to continue this pursuit towards assessment, reporting and ultimately culture reform in my classroom. While I did not have any difficulties with parents questioning this grading/reporting practice last year, I am anticipating that may not be the case this academic year.

"Why?" you might be thinking?

Last year, I used the first nine weeks of the second semester as a "feeling out" time period with my students. Because we have a 4x4 block schedule at the high school where I teach, the second semester brought a fresh group of approximately fifty Geometry students. The first nine weeks of the semester, I would often take a few minutes each week to hint at a change I was thinking of making in my classroom and see how students reacted. After one test, I recall asking students,

"What do you think it would be like if you ALWAYS had the opportunity to retake a test? Better yet, what if you would be allowed to re-take only the parts of the test you did not do well on?"
I was alluding to the aspect of standards-based reporting that initially attracted me to it and that is a focus on reporting learning. I don't think it's fair that students who "get it" later are punished because they did not understand the content by the time I decided they needed to take the test. This, of course, excited the students immensely. As do many of the high school students I've had in my classroom, they always enjoy it when you tell them a story or go off on a tangent that doesn't seem to relate to "school stuff." My tangents related to what better grading might look like were naturally of interest to my students. Finally, the consensus of the class was to "try out this crazy new grading system Mr. Townsley keeps talking about!"

This year will be different. I am hoping to use standards-based reporting from day one. I mentioned to my principal that it could be a drastic change for a ninth grader to adjust to high school, an 84-minute class period block schedule as well as a new grading system in his/her math class. (Note: the grading system issue could be quickly resolved if all middle school teachers used this system, too, but I digress...) In other words, I don't plan on taking nine weeks of building a rapport with my students before rolling out my grading system. When secondary students are confused, upset and/or angry, parents often get involved, too, or at least that is my experience locally. I will continue to explain to the students during the first few weeks what standards-based reporting looks like, why it it beneficial and how it differs from traditional grading, but I also thought it would be necessary to have a communication piece ready to go. If it doesn't end up being asked for, that's a good thing and I've probably done a good enough job explaining it to the students. I also think it will be a good tool to use with colleagues as their curiosity once word travels around school via students' conversations. Here is a draft of the communication piece.

If you were a parent of a student in my classroom, what unanswered questions would you have about standards-based reporting after reading this document? Feel free to post your thoughts in the comments below.

Never work harder than your students

Note: This is the eighth and final post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

"We say that we want students to take more responsibility for their own learning, yet we continue to control every aspect of their learning...How will students learn to take more responsibility unless we first relinquish some of the control?" (p. 156).

Of the seven principles of master teachers Jackson suggests in her book, I scored the lowest on this one. She goes on several pages later to describe one of my biggest downfalls as an educator.
"...intervening too soon is one of the most common ways we prevent students from doing their own work..." (p. 176)
When a student raises his or her hand to ask a question during individual or collaborative work time, I have always felt like I need to provide supports that directly help the student understand the concept. Immediately. Rarely do I answer a question with another question. Rarely have I asked a student, "Where might you find the answer to that question?" The math teacher I learned the most from in high school as well as the math professor I learned the most from in college both followed up questions with additional questions. They knew how to ask leading questions to help me and other students think through our misconceptions. This strategy not only takes patience, but it also a solid understanding of the content area.

I admit it. For the past five years as a high school math teacher, I have probably been working harder than my students. When the 3:15pm bell rings, they're energized and I'm exhausted. On average, I probably do much more thinking during the class period then they do. Jackson suggest a conceptual change to my admittedly flawed past practice...
"Helping students means providing them with the minimum amount of assistance they need to learn to do something on their own. Enabling students means doing it for them." (p. 173)
As fellow edublogger Dan Meyer often says, I need to "be less helpful." What does that look like for me?
  • Requiring students to check their own homework answers each and every day.
  • Using collateral and "rent" strategies when students come to class unprepared.
  • Keeping more students after school to finish and get help with their work rather than allowing them to get off the hook with a below-average grade.
  • Following up more student-generated questions with questions of my own, as suggested above. Scaffold!
  • Continuing to emphasize routines and procedures to help "facilitate" rather than "teach" students.
  • ...and probably much, much more!
As I embark on a new school year in less than two weeks, this book has challenged me to make many changes. Some of these changes are subtle while others are more drastic. Jackson makes a plea on one of the last pages of her book that I feel is important to keep in mind.
"Trying to make a radical change right away not only dooms you to failure, it creates a cynicism about change in general." (p. 201)
It is time to take a step back and look at the action lists I've created. Which changes can be made over the first few weeks and months? Which changes will take extended time to implement?

For those of you who have read this entire series of posts, what have you learned? What action steps are you going to take? If you are just tuning in or missed one of the principles, here is a list of the principles and links to my thoughts on each.
  1. Start where your students are.
  2. Know where your students are going.
  3. Expect to get your students there.
  4. Support your students.
  5. Use effective feedback.
  6. Focus on quality, not quantity.
  7. Never work harder than your students (this post)

Focus on quality, not quantity.

Note: This is the seventh post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

A colleague of mine used to take home 75+ math assignments every night to be graded. She would hand them back the next day with check marks and a score, all written in red. I grinned each day as she walked out my door for the evening after our almost daily conversation about how the day had gone in our respective classrooms. She would often end the conversation with comments like, "Wow, I only have one section of papers to check tonight!" or "Looks like I'll be grading papers while watching a movie tonight." The return on her efforts, she often lamented was rarely worth it based on the glances the students gave their graded papers. I don't think she would be upset at me for sharing this story, because she is now realizing that she has been doing more work than her students. The sheer number of problems she was assigning each evening became a numbers game - how many must they attempt and/or answer correctly to get "full credit."

Robyn Jackson says,

"Master teachers invest their time up front...They spend more time designing quality assignments and assessment than they do creating volumes of work for their students and themselves." (p. 156)
In my earlier years, I remember asking my mentor how many homework problems were reasonable to assign each day. We agreed that 10-12 seemed about right. I felt guilty the night I assigned one hundred (yes, 100!) problems to my Consumer Math students as a "discipline measure. " Nobody completed all one hundred problems, not even the hardest working students. I learned a lot from that day and the subsequent days when the majority of my students did not turn in completed homework assignments. Assigning more problems did not make my class more rigorous or challenging. The attitudes of my students towards homework - and "math" in general, I'm guessing - only decreased as I assigned more problems.

Jackson also suggests what now seems like a no-brainer. Homework needs to have a purpose and that purpose should be clearly communicated to students. This is a great reminder. As I started sifting through the first chapter of Geometry to get my brain back in "math mode," I tried to remember what the overarching theme of the chapter is supposed to be. The theme is the basics of Geometry. It seems so disconnected at times. I'll need to not only share that "the purpose of us going through all of these seemingly disconnected ideas now is to help us later" but also reiterate this time and time again when the practice problems (formerly known as "homework") are assigned.

Today, I started acting on one of the principles I previously blogged about, "Know where your students are going" by looking at the first chapter to eventually see if it matches my assessments. I think I'm going to practice what Jackson calls "curriculum flexibility" - sorting out the "need-to-know" vs. the "nice-to-know." This will also help me better decide which problems to assign and how many to assign that correspond with each learning target. To clearly communciate the purpose of the assignment, I will need to articulate how the problems match up with the specific learning targets. From the perspective of my colleage, the more problems assigned, the more that will need to be graded. I think I have an alternative approach on "grading homework," but I'll save that for another post. :)

What successes have you found when trying to focus on "quality rather than quantity" in your classroom? Feel free to share in the comments section below.

Related reading:

Use effective feedback

Note: This is the sixth post in a series based on the book Never Work Harder Than Your Students & Other Principles of Great Teaching by Robyn Jackson.

"If we just grade assignments and never use that information to help inform our instruction, we have wasted our students' time and we have reinforced to students the false notion that they only reason they are learning the material is to take the test." (p. 127)
Yet another quote from the book that resonated with me was...
"It is one thing to collect feedback about students' progress, but if you simply collect this feedback and never use it to adjust your instruction, then you are collecting it in vain." (p. 132)
Of all the principles listed in Jackson's book, this one of my absolute favorite. I have a passion for assessment, there's no question about it. The quotes above are alluding to the age-old practice of simply "grading" everything and not doing much with those letters, numbers and percentages. In this chapter, the author discusses more than just "feedback." It's actually a nice summary of what many other authors are calling, "assessment for learning." For example, Jackson says...
"The purpose of assessment is to provide you and your students with feedback on how well students are mastering the objectives of your course." (p. 137)
(For a more in-depth discussion of formative assessment and assessment for learning, check out this Ed. Leadership article or a few of my previous posts.) Notice how Jackson's statement is centered on the student and how s/he is learning. The purpose of feedback/assessment is to guide the student towards mastery. I have long been guilty of assuming that numbers and letters were great ways of providing feedback to my students. Here's a challenge: the next time you grade a student's paper and give him/her a "B" or "85%", follow it up by asking what that grade or percentage means. What type of effort, mastery, and/or feedback does your "classroom grading scale" give to your students? From my experiences, it is typically a reference point for honor rolls, pleasing parents, allowance bonuses, staying eligible for sports or some combination of the previously mentioned reasons. Rarely have these measures been enough to spur students on to improve their own work in a specific and meaningful way.

Rick DuFour, probably most well-known for his work on professional learning communities, recently blogged about grades, homework and feedback.
In most schools, what a grade represents remains in the eye of the beholder of the individual teacher. Some teachers grade homework; some do not. Some allow students to retake a test; some do not. Some provide students with additional time and support; some do not. Some provide extra credit for tasks unrelated to the curriculum; some do not. Some consider behavior, participation, and promptness in determining a grade; some do not. It is time for educators to grapple with the question, “What does a grade represent in our school?” in a more meaningful way.
Grappling with the "What does a grade represent?" question is an excellent conversation starter, but Jackson's principle takes it one step farther. From my personal experience, I used to think that the hardest questions to answer from the mouths of students were along the lines of... "Will this be graded?" or "How much will this affect my grade?" With a more laser-like focus on learning targets and a change in the culture of my classroom, I am now hoping to eliminate these types of questions. But until I got past the "everything must be graded and recorded" mentality, it was impossible for me to see the value of effective feedback. My feedback (grades, numbers, etc.) was focused on "now" rather than the future. Jackson goes on...
"Evaluative feedback keeps students focused on the now. Coaching feedback focuses students on the next time." (p. 142)
This principle teaches us that much of our "grading" should actually be "coaching" instead. A few pages later, the author nails this idea.
"The best thing we can do for our students who fail is to provide them with an honest assessment of why they failed and show them how to do better the next time." (p. 144)
Letter grades, percentages and points just don't provide this type of feedback to our students. My grading to coaching ratio is really out of whack. In summary, I've learned that I need to do less "grading now" and more "coaching for the future."

What about you? What is your grading to coaching ratio? How much effective feedback are you giving your students?

Related post: