08 February 2009

Weekly Dose of Grading

If I were a proper blogger these days, I would take each of the tidbits below and flesh them out. The sad fact is that my blogging energy is lagging, although not my interest. I tag a variety of things to think about and sharing them in this abbreviated form seems better than not sharing them at all.

Via Pharyngula comes the tale of a tenured university professor in Ontario who is in the process of being dismissed after the following incident:
On the first day of his fourth-year physics class, University of Ottawa professor Denis Rancourt announced to his students that he had already decided their marks: Everybody was getting an A+.
It was not his job, as he explained later, to rank their skills for future employers, or train them to be “information transfer machines,” regurgitating facts on demand. Released from the pressure to ace the test, they would become “scientists, not automatons,” he reasoned.
But by abandoning traditional marks, Prof. Rancourt apparently sealed his own failing grade: In December, the senior physicist was suspended from teaching, locked out of his laboratory and told that the university administration was recommending his dismissal and banning him from campus.
...the professor is undeterred about those A-pluses: “Grades poison the educational environment,” he insists. “We're training students to be obedient, and to try to read our minds, rather than being a catalyst for learning.”
If you have the time and inclination, have a gander at the article in the Toronto Globe and Mail. There is little doubt that Dr. Rancourt has a variety of controversial views. It is likely that the stance on grading was the straw the broke the back of the university, but should it have stirred this type of controversy? Hmmm...

Meanwhile, in Georgia, there is concern about the disparity between course grades and scores on the standardized End of Course Exams:
Teachers statewide are much easier on high school students than the state’s mandatory End of Course Tests, a study released today by state education officials found.
For most of the eight subjects tested in 2007, the percentage of students who failed the standardized exam was two to three times higher than the percentage who failed the class. The most startling disparity was in economics: While nearly 36 percent of students failed the test, only about 6 percent failed the class.
End of Course Tests account for 15 percent of students’ class grades, suggesting the gap between test scores and teacher-given grades is even larger.
“Both EOCTs and course grades are based on the same state standards, so we should expect general alignment between the two,” said Kathleen Mathers, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, in a news release. The office commissioned the statistical study from Chris Clark, a Georgia College and State University professor.
For some districts, the study reveals either pervasive grade inflation, or grading so tough that some students who ace the End of Course Tests are still struggling to maintain class grades high enough to qualify for the state’s merit-based HOPE scholarship.
Individual district and subject results, plus the research study, can be viewed at: www.gaosa.org/research.aspx.
This article from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution interests me mainly because there are rumblings here in Washington about going to End of Course (EoC) Tests for high school science. I am not in favour of this, primarily because it forces schools to offer and students to take particular courses in science. Right now, students have a choice about whether they take chemistry, physics, biology, AP, or other science offerings. Schools can offer what best suits their student populations (some schools are very heavy on agricultural applications), physical plant facilities, and teacher certifications. The other part about using EoCs that concerns me is based on what Georgia is starting to see. What if a kid passes the test, but not the class? (Here in WA, the EoC would not be included in the course grade.) Can we really say that our standards, materials, instruction, and assessment are so aligned and valid that there will be a 1:1 match with an EoC...and if not, is that a big deal?

Finally, the WaPo again captures my attention with its recent article detailing how Well-Connected Parents Take on School Boards.
For a new generation of well-wired activists in the Washington region, it's not enough to speak at Parent-Teacher Association or late-night school board meetings. They are going head-to-head with superintendents through e-mail blitzes, social networking Web sites, online petitions, partnerships with business and student groups, and research that mines a mountain of electronic data on school performance.
These parent insurgents are gaining influence -- and getting things changed.
In recent weeks, parent-led campaigns helped bring down a long-established grading policy in Fairfax County and scale back the unpopular practice of charging fees for courses in Montgomery County. They have also stoked debates over math education in Frederick and Prince William counties...
What binds them is impatience with the school establishment and an aptitude for harnessing the power of the Internet to push for change.
"We are not our moms, who were just involved in the PTA," said Catherine Lorenze, a McLean mother who helped organize Fairgrade, the parent-led campaign to change the Fairfax grading scale by lowering the bar for an A from 94 to 90 percent.
"We worked for a number of years before we had kids," she said. "We know how to research and find information and connect the dots. To expect us to show up and just make photos or write checks does not sit well with this generation. If you are going to invite parents in the door . . . it should be more of a partnership."
School officials say they welcome the heightened interest in public education, because parent involvement often leads to student success. But they also warn that the wildfire Web-based campaigns can spread rumors quickly and tend to benefit affluent, well-connected parents. They can also distract school officials from budget deficits or other pressing issues...
Officials caution that the new technology has turned up the volume for select parent voices. It can be especially apparent in parts of Fairfax or Montgomery where well-educated parents are not afraid to throw their weight around and register complaints with a phone call to the superintendent or the media. Blast e-mails and Web sites give these parents even more of an edge, compared with others who lack time or resources, some observers say.
Schools need to be more concerned about the digital divide than ever before, Hunter said. "We don't want to create two levels of power, those with access to information and those without it," she said.
Administrators across the region are looking for new ways to encourage traditionally silent parents to work with schools. In the District, efforts are underway to encourage parents to organize their thoughts into a short speech for the school board or to approach their children's teachers if they are concerned about a grade or a problem.
I've watched the fight about grading there for some time, fascinated with the fact that these parents are point-whoring for their kids as opposed to something more meaningful...like suggesting that their students' grades represent academic achievement only. Here's a headline recap of the saga: Schools to Study Grading Practices (4/26/2008), In Grading Levels the Playing Field Is Often Uneven (9/15/2008), Grading Bar Too High, (10/19/2008), Opponents Show Up in Force (1/9/2009), Fairfax Board Leans Toward New Grading Scale (1/12/2009), Fairfax to Ease Grading Policy (1/22/09), Enthusiasm for Grade Policy Change (1/24/2009).
But the additional point about technology enabling these fights is well-taken. Parents who are net and smartphone savvy have the additional benefit of being able to hound school districts on multiple fronts---all under the assumption that because they've attended a school at one point or another that it makes them qualified to run one. Will squeaky wheels always get the grease? Or is there some way to meaningfully connect with all parents in the SES spectrum?

Any grading news of note that I've missed this week? Things from your own classrooms to share?


Unknown said...

Grading work is coming to a head this week at my school. We're deciding on a variety of issues related to standards, both in the sense of the articulated concepts / skills and in the sense of our expectations for student learning. We're working to pare down our list of standards in each department / class - some classes had 13 different standards to report a grade for. We're also trying to decide whether or not to continue to publish a grade for each standard on the report card - we might just go with a course grade and an expanded narrative (that includes a specific mention of any deficient standards). We also might continue to list each standard, but move away from listing a specific grade and just go with a "met / unmet" notation. Another big item will be discussing academic initiative - whether to include it in the mix with content / skill standard grades in determining the course grade, or to define other consequences when academic initiative grades are not meeting expectations. Finally, we're also going to decide on our expectations - up to this point, we've defined "meeting" as a B- or better ... which many teachers feel is leading to some grade inflation concerns ... so we're considering dropping that down to a C- or better. Should be some interesting discussion, to say the least!

The Science Goddess said...

Wish I could be there for that---sounds like a very interesting discussion!

When I talk with secondary teachers/schools, it's not so much the "grading" part that they have a difficult time with in a standards-based world...it's the reporting. How do we effectively communicate learning in these settings?

Lightly Seasoned said...

I am deep in EOC-dom right now as my state is rolling them in this year. Last month I went out and wrote items, making me the district expert (I don't know all that much, but man am I working my butt off doing staff development on top of my regular teachign duties). I'm interested in the disparity between the EOC grade and grades in courses, but I see it breaking down another way for us: our slacker kids, (who read on or above grade level) who may or may not do enough work to pass English, doing just fine on the basic reading and writing test that is our EOC.