02 April 2009

Settling the Score

When I changed to standards-based grading practices, I also changed my grading scale: no more percentages...no more "90%+ = A." Within the classroom, this was not such a dramatic shift. It didn't take long for kids to understand that on a 4-point scale, a four was not the same value as an "A" on a traditional scale...and that meeting the standard with a score of 3 was very desirable. Outside the classroom, this took a bit more explanation, but I have to say that I didn't have very many conversations about things simply because my reporting methods were still stuck in the 1890's. My students and I knew what the letter grade represented---we let other users make their own assumptions.

As more and more schools move to standards-based reporting, we are seeing more stories about confusion on the part of parents. From a recent NYT article about how Report Cards Give up A's and B's for 4's and 3's:

Educators praise [standards-based report cards] for setting clear expectations, but many parents who chose to live in Pelham because of its well-regarded schools find them confusing or worse. Among their complaints are that since the new grades are based on year-end expectations, 4s are generally not available until the final marking period (school officials are planning to tweak this aspect next year).

“We’re running around the school saying ‘2 is cool,’ ” said Jennifer Lapey, a parent who grew up in Pelham, “but in my world, 2 out of 4 is not so cool.”
Therein lies the primary issue. Everyone wants to make the scales equivalent. A parent thinks 2 out of 4 represents only 50% of the possible points...and that a four = an A. What the parent needs to understand that the scale really has a student goal of "3" (meeting standard). A student at Level Two is very nearly there. And 4's? They're not the goal. What's more, they may not be available for every standard. (For example, simple addition skills. Either you can add 1 + 1 or you can't. There's no above and beyond.) So, it sounds like the school has some parent education and communication issues to deal with. I do think that this will be a slow transition, but as these kinds of report cards are more and more common at elementary grade levels, parents will become more savvy.


Tracey said...

We too have switched to standards based report cards and the parents are very confused.

Humane Teaching said...

I'm also using this scale. A "3" is right on track. A "4" means that you are above and beyond typically performing grade level expectations.

I've also explained that a lot of the standards will never have that "4".

However, to make it even less confusing, I've set my grading program to descriptors instead of numbers.

So they either get:

"Needs work in this area"
"Almost there"
"On track!"
"Above typical expectations"

From this post, it seems as though you're the only one using this scale. I am the only one really using it in my school. One other teacher uses it in a slightly different way.

I'd love to discuss this with you a little more. Can I email you some questions?

hschinske said...

I may have asked this before, but what do you do for students who are working on material that's above grade level? If you give them an automatic 4 because they're beyond grade level, that makes it seem as if they don't have to work hard on what they've actually been assigned. If you give them a 3 on work that's a year or more beyond grade level, that doesn't seem quite fair either (particularly if the report card doesn't show the level, as most don't).

The Science Goddess said...

Humane Teaching---Please do feel free to e-mail me. I'd love to chat more about this!

hschinske---Students above (or below) grade level can legally be given a "modified" grade if that is part of their IEP/Learning Plan. FERPA regulations prohibit you from explaining on the report card/transcript how the grade has been modified, but you can attach a sheet that goes home with the report card.

Dorothy Neville said...

Hshinske and I had kids at the same elementary school (gifted magnet) using standards based report cards and found that the teachers interpreted the scoring differently,with inconsistency between teachers and in some cases inconsistency in a single teacher from standard to standard. Our kids were working above grade level and we were both educated and involved, so we usually had a pretty decent idea of where our kids were at, standards-wise, but not at all from the report cards; they were mostly useless. I am in favor of standards based reporting, but would like something very clear, so that parents (and students, when they are older and that's appropriate) can have very clear understanding of what's been mastered, what needs work, what can we expect to be taught between now and the rest of the year.

I also wonder about how to accurately tell parents and students if the student is working at the appropriate pace during the year to finish the year with year-end expectations being met. Your quote shows a school where the appropriate midterm score would be a 2. But then Humane Teacher says a 3 is "on track." On track to me means that a student would get that as a mid-term assessment. With those descriptors, I would be concerned if my child received 2s midyear.

Roger Sweeny said...

Maybe this is a silly question, but if you're going to use "standards-based reporting," why use numbers at all? Why not use words? If the student is "on track to meet standards," why not say, "on track to meet standards"? And so on.

The Science Goddess said...

I don't think it's a silly question at all. I think the symbol (e.g. 2 = on track to meet standards) is just a timesaver/shorthand. Personally, I'd be quite happy with a narrative format.

Roger Sweeny said...

One reason I ask is that way back in the fifties, my elementary school report cards showed about 15 things and gave you a BA (below average), AV (average), AA (above average), or EX (excellent).

I suppose those could have been purely descriptive (e.g. the middle half got an AV, the bottom quarter got a BA, the two upper eighths got AA and EX) but I seem to recall my family treating them as standards. Unless you had special problems, you should be performing at least at the AV level. It was the "good enough" level. Some students would get to that level faster than others. In the time the middle of the class was taking to hit the minimum, some would reach "above average" or "excellent."

Everything old is new again?

The Science Goddess said...

I think many elementary schools have kept narrative remarks (and few/no grades), especially for primary students...but you're right in observing that the practice is really mounting a comeback.

Some of the research I've been looking at indicates that students begin to disconnect from school about the same time (late elementary) that official grades start appearing on report cards. Maybe we could do something to change the dropout issue if we focused more on words than numbers when describing student performance.

Roger Sweeny said...

Some of the research I've been looking at indicates that students begin to disconnect from school about the same time (late elementary) that official grades start appearing on report cards. Maybe we could do something to change the dropout issue if we focused more on words than numbers when describing student performance.

Perhaps. But I strongly suspect the reason for the increasing disconnect has very little to do with grades. My money is on biology and sociology. Their bodies are beginning to take adult form and their brains (not necessarily the thinking parts!) want them to stop being children. There is then a whole big wide world of music, tv, etc. that is exciting and entertaining. School can't compete.

I teach high school and my kids are interested in and passionate about lots of things. A possible list, in no particular order: other people near their age, other people slightly older than them, sex, music, movies and tv, clothes, cars, sports, making money, "what will I do when I grow up?"

They don't see a lot of connection between that list and the curriculum. And they're right.

The major connection is the fear many people try to put into them, "if you don't do well in school, you'll never get a good job or make much money."

The Science Goddess said...

Hmmm...I think we may be branching off into two different things here. I do think your biology/sociology comment has some merit---although elementary kids can be as diverse in their interests as high school students. The levels of expertise may vary, but the passions are there for all ages.

It's the last paragraph of your comment that gets back to the ideas in the research on motivation. Once we (educators, parents...) start tying learning to jobs, money, etc., kids start to disconnect. In other words, fostering the love of learning gets replaced by "you'll need to know this when you're a 5th grader." Not a particularly compelling reason to stay in school. I would think that at lower grade levels that the connection between education and career, mortgages, etc. is pretty abstract for young minds.

Roger Sweeny said...

I think when pre-pubescent kids are told to go to school and learn, they are much more likely to just accept it than older kids. They are curious and school is a way of satisfying that curiosity.

When they get older, they get curious about different things. Watch what happens in a ninth science class after the teacher honestly answers a question about drugs or alcohol.

Roger Sweeny said...

I don't know much about the literature on motivation. I take it as obvious that people who are interested in learning at school will be interested in learning at school and that people who are interested in school because they need a diploma to get where they want will not be so interested in learning at school.

Perhaps there are chicken and egg problems here. Do teenagers become less interested in learning at school because we start telling them they have to do well at school to succeed in life, or do we start telling them they have to do well at school to succeed in life because we know they are losing interest in buying what we are selling?

Anonymous said...

I'm interested in learn more about how you report out grades using standards (I call them learning targets, but I think we're on the same page here). A "problem" for me is figuring out how to report "formative assessments" if I even do at all. Should homework and other "practice" really affect a student's "grade" particularly if you're reporting it out in a standards-based fashion, you don't want to send mixed signals.

If you are not using the traditional 90, 80, 70, 60 scale, would you be willing to share how you link standard mastery with a final grade, assuming you are not able to provide a narrative? Thanks for your insight.

The Science Goddess said...

McTownsley: I don't use formative assessments in the grade---with one exception. If I have a student who has consistently performed at/above standard on the formative assessments and then does poorly on a summative, then I will consider the formative information. If I'm satisfied that the student can meet the standard, that's all I need.

If you have the time, you might look at my posts relating to grading---and you will see several different approaches to reconciling standards-based grading with traditional reporting.

You can read what I frequently used on this post. It's not a solution that many are comfortable with, but I can tell you that I had no complaints from kids or parents. Everybody knew what the grade was, what it represented, and why.

Good luck!

Unknown said...

Great post, SG ... I've been chomping at the bit to find some time to leave a comment, and I hope it's not the case that the discussion here has already come & gone.

From my perspective, I think the 1 - 4 grading system for standards is a bad idea, for a few reasons. First, the 1 - 4 system is, I would suggest, so similar to the GPA system that they are easily confused. If using the 1 - 4 system is a matter of using shorthand symbols for communication efficiency, we could just as easily use shapes ... a circle for not meeting expectations, a triangle for partially, a square for meeting, and a star for exceeding. We could also just use the narrative definition of what each number is intended to represent, as others have mentioned.

Of course, those narratives and/or shapes don't necessarily have the simple ordinal inference that the number symbols do, which help the consumers of the information to determine their position in the continuum of learning. This leads to my second concern: the 1 - 4 system breaks the learning continuum into too few categories, one of which (the highest) is not available to all students at all times. The example used about simple addition skills is perhaps better critiqued from a curricular organization standpoint, but it'll serve as a good example about the problem with the grading system, too: if the concept / skill ("standard") is defined with such specificity that it can't be measured other than in a binary nature, it should not be considered a standard (it also opens the question about "scripted" teaching when standards are excessively narrow and numerous). I think teachers deserve multiple tools for assessing student learning, and trying to squeeze everything into the four categories represented by the 1 - 4 system makes an inherently difficult task even more difficult; furthermore, I think it gets us away from the most important goals of standards-based reform.

Nothing, to me, reveals the complexity and difficulty of the standards-based reform hypothesis more than the commonly-used but poorly-formed phrase "meeting the standard". The word standard is being used in two different ways: first, as an articulated concept or skill that should be learned as a result of the class; second, as an articulated expectation of a learning outcome. Therein lies my third concern with the 1 - 4 system: it's a "solution" to the wrong problem. The problem is that it is difficult to describe what we want students to learn and how we expect them to demonstrate to us that they've learned.

The 1 - 4 grading system doesn't solve that problem, it makes it worse because it confuses (and potentially alienates) parents and other consumers of our outcome reports like college & university admission officers. It's important that we acknowledge that our students are moving through a continuous educational system; it is our folly and detrimental to students to ignore the importance of good communication among all constituents in the educational community. While it's possible that parents and colleges might become savvy over time, it's just as likely that parents might become disengaged from their child's educational progress earlier or that colleges might mis-translate information in the process of trying to compare student learning outcomes. The 1 - 4 system doesn't inherently improve student-teacher communication, either - the critical component here isn't a grading system, it's rubrics.

Rubrics act as the map for students to navigate what they need to learn and how they need to demonstrate that learning. Rubrics can be aligned with the 1 - 4 system, to be sure, but they can as easily be aligned with grading systems such as A - F or percentages. The point, I think, of standards-based reform is to improve our communication of the concepts and skills that we want students to learn, and to provide students with clear guidelines on how they are to demonstrate their abilities. Rubrics, not grading systems, should be the focus, since they are the key communication tools bring together learning goals, demonstrations of learning, and achievement results.