28 March 2010

March 2010 Grading Roundup

This has been a busy month for me in terms of grading practices---three presentations for very different groups and lots of email inquiries for resources. I think my favourite message was "I'm now going to start a grading revolution in my school and eventually district!" You go, girl!

In other news...

Education Week is reporting that DC's "Money for Grades" program needs more money. I'd love to go into detail, but the info comes from an Associated Press story, and you know how possessive they are about their content ("This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.") Let me just pull these bits from the piece: Last year, the district paid out nearly $2M...and they are on track to need 20% more in funds for this year. What the article fails to mention is whether or not anything is happening in terms of student learning. Quite the pricey experiment DC schools and Harvard are running.

Speaking of Harvard, an academic there has looked into the "fairness" of grade weighting for honors and AP courses. Many schools---like the one I used to teach at---assigned extra grade points for AP coursework. We only used it to determine class ranking because there were years where the valedictorian was a kid who'd taken 3 periods of PE and being a TA for a teacher and ended up with a 4.0...while a kid busting their hump with a full load of challenging coursework didn't end up on top. However, some schools do figure extra points into the overall GPA. This has an impact on how colleges look at transcripts.

To encourage high school students to tackle tougher academic classes, many schools assign bonus points to grades in Advanced Placement or honors courses. But schools’ policies on whether students should receive a grade-point boost and by how much are all over the map.

My local public school district, for instance, used to add an extra third of a grade-point to students’ AP course grades while the private high school on the other side of town would bump up students’ grades by a full letter grade.

Since students from both schools would be applying to many of the same colleges, and essentially competing with one another, it didn’t seem fair to me that the private school kids should get such a generous grade boost.

That’s why I was heartened to come across a new study by a Harvard University researcher that takes a more systematic look at the practice of high school grade-weighting.

For his study, Philip Sadler asked college students in 113 introductory-level physics, biology, and chemistry classes across the country about the level of science classes they took in high school and the grades they received in them. He then compared those numbers with the grades those students were getting in their college science classes in the same subject.

He found that for every increasing level of rigor in high school science, students’ college course grades rose by an average of 2.4 points on a 100- point scale, where an A is 95 points and a B is worth 85 points and so on. In other words, the college grade for the former AP chemistry student would be expected to be 2.4 points higher than that of the typical student who took honors chemistry in high school. And the honors students’ college grade, in turn, would be 2.4 points higher than that of the student who took regular chemistry.

Translating those numbers, and some other calculations, to a typical high school 1-to-4-point grade scale, Sadler estimates that students taking an honors science class in high school ought to get an extra half a point for their trouble, and that a B in an AP science course ought to be counted as an A for the purpose of high school grade-point averages.

There is more to discover with the whole article, including the issue of accessibility to AP. A student who goes to a small school will not have access to the same amount of AP classes, so the transcript will not be as flush. However, I would hope that admissions officers would recognize this and adjust accordingly. Isn't this why a college application consists of more than a transcript?

That's all the grading news that fit to blog about this month. I have one presentation scheduled in April and a quiet calendar after that. I am working on various pieces of paperwork to be able to begin earning something from these presentations and other opportunities. Not sure that it will amount to much---but with pay cuts, furloughs, freezes, and other bad budget news looming, I need to try to make the most of what I have (part of which is in my head and slide deck).

26 March 2010

All the Time

I will let you in on a secret: There are times when the project I am working on is overwhelming in scope and complexity. I don't get to reinvent a wheel, or more accurately, I remain so unimpressed by existing models that it is far preferable to start from scratch than to try making chicken salad from chicken s***. It is true that I do not have to engage in this work alone. I am very fortunate to have a phenomenal group of teachers to work with; however, it is on my shoulders to ferret out the path and provide them the tools to keep us moving forward.

The good news is that we are making progress. The exciting news is that when we are finished, this state will have something no other state does (but don't worry, we'll share). And even more exciting, is that we are slowly finding ways to measure the unmeasureable: organize ideas, generate creative solutions, and more. We are doing so in ways that build in best practices for instruction. I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

Facilitating this work has been a real test of my skills. At the beginning of this part of my career---about the same time I started blogging---I was fortunate enough to be provided with some staff development on working with adult learners and have a supportive environment for learning to actually do this kind of work with teachers. I didn't realize just how fortunate I was to have been provided this until the last couple of years. I am grateful that I know how to change my position in a room and regulate my body language depending upon what is happening with a discussion. I know when to let a discussion range and how to pull back gently on the reins and refocus when it's time. I am very good about wait time---I don't believe that there is such a thing as an awkward silence. I can push a group on a task, but I also know when it the point of diminishing returns has arrived and can decide what the next move is. All of those "old" skills are as useful as ever.

But I am learning a lot of new things while facilitating this current project. I am learning that in choosing a group, the more diversity of experience, the better. No one feels the need to outdo somebody else or get pissy over a piece of territory. Everybody has something unique to contribute and the collaboration is stronger. I am learning about the kinds of things that are okay for my office and me to decide ahead of time and which things are better suited for large group discussion. I was completely surprised at a recent meeting how putting a copy of the synthesis of their work to date in their hands totally removed a sense of anxiety in the room. I think that they have been feeling just as overwhelmed by the size of the project as I have been---and to hand them something concrete was like tossing a lifesaver to one swimming in a stormy sea. I am getting better at rearranging pieces of work during meetings. I plan as best I can ahead of time and then remind myself to be flexible once the group gets moving.

I like building these skills. I don't know when I'll need them again, but I am frequently surprised at what I need to pull out of my tool kit and use to facilitate during a project. It's still good to be learning all the time.

19 March 2010

Value Wars

It's no secret that state budgets are in trouble---which means school district budgets aren't so healthy. There are many hard choices to be made between now and the start of the next fiscal year---choices based on what is valued the most (which isn't always kids).

An area school district has decided to keep funding its full-day kindergarten program. There are some (including The Union), however, who are against such a proposal because the money which funds those teachers and classrooms means that other district programs go unfunded. Class sizes in other grade levels increase, library and music programs are reduced---and that doesn't even consider the voices of secondary schools who are trying to avoid cuts. Is full day kindergarten more important than funding art specialists for every child in an elementary school? PE? The district views kindergarten as an investment---children who are well-prepared to read and have the best chance at success throughout their K-12 career. Is that better than being able to offer a more diverse curriculum?

I had a similar conversation with a friend last week. Some people are passionate about the arts, some place science first and foremost, others raise their voice for PE/Health. But there are some schools out there whose entire focus is math and literacy. Again, there's been a value judgment about curriculum---that it is more important to have children be able to read at grade level than to learn science (even with a kit). Is it better to have kids who can comprehend a text...or kids who understand a science concept?

I can hear you out there. I know you want it all---that all of those sorts of curricula and opportunities need to be present. You're thinking that they're all pieces of a rich and meaningful public education. For what it's worth, I agree with you. I think there shouldn't have to be these choices. I believe that every child should have access to a full range of opportunities in the classroom. All the same, schools and districts are making decisions based on budgets, which means that we have to take a hard look at what we value most.

If we can't do it all, what should we do?

12 March 2010

Do the Right Thing

I listened to lots of stories at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference. Some were shared by presenters. Some were shared by neighbor attendees. A few were things I picked up while eavesdropping at meals or walking behind people in the halls of the convention center. With 10,000 attendees, there are no opportunities for anyone to be lonely or private. (I was even treated to someone's deep meaningful cell phone conversation about the Common Core Standards while in the bathroom.) And really, that is the point of a conference---to be able to get together with others who have a similar interest and share ideas.

What I noticed most at this conference was the number of stories about teachers and administrators working their asses off to do the right thing---or, at least, the expected thing. While it is not a surprise to hear about the number of hours required to plan, prepare, instruct, assess, and/or remediate, what was a surprise was the lengths some people were going to. I am sure that the results can only be beneficial for kids, but I would not reach the same conclusion for the adults involved.

In fact, one of my big take-aways from the event was a collective sense of desperation about assessment, grading, and data. The educators present cared deeply for students and for doing the very best that they could for kids---but I had the impression that no one thought that they had the “right” answer or were doing things well. I find that hard to believe. I find it distressing that there is no “good enough” in these situations. I understand that no child should be left behind. I applaud the efforts that go into ensuring every student has the opportunity to learn. But what is missing from the whole equation is a way to honor progress. I talked with a teacher from Alaska whose Title I school has been in AYP for five years now. She mentioned the huge gains the school has made in that time…and yet in the eyes of the state and feds, it’s not good enough. It is apparently not even worth recognizing. I find that appalling.

Thomas Guskey and others have called for similar measures on report cards for individual students. That there is more that happens in a grading period than just the final mark---there is progress and growth along the way. A gifted student who is already above the standard should still be able to show progress. The same is true for a struggling student who may have made great gains, but is still not at standard by the end of the grading period. There are examples for every student in between---and yet almost no examples of reporting for students or schools for this factor. I hurt for them all.

I’m never sure what to do about things like this other than to just keep talking about them and hope that at some point, the people in the positions to do something will choose to do the right thing.

10 March 2010

Reporting Out

As I sat in a session on progress monitoring at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference, I started to wonder about a few new things in terms of report cards. The presenters were describing ways in which they used three different forms of data about students. One was the traditional form of scores on papers. The others are traditional in the sense that they represent data that is readily available in the classroom, it’s just rarely used for reporting: observations of and conversations with students. In my various bits of work with teachers and grading, these forms of data collection and use are the ones that make teachers uncomfortable because they rely completely on professional judgment. However, as the presenters at the session were quick to point out, when we visit a doctor, observation and conversation is the most common form of data gathering to make conclusions about our health. Certainly lab tests and vital stats inform the opinions, but we don’t think twice about physicians being unprofessional because they rely on their eyes and ears to reach a summary. Such forms should be no less valid in the classroom. I agree with this and think the key for most teachers is in finding and using data collection tools (running records or charts, for example) that are simple and meaningful to use.

But this brought me to another thought about report cards: Are letter grades “dumbed down” versions of reporting? Teachers have a rich opportunity in the classroom to gather all different forms of data---which we then expect to be crunched into a single representation. I’m not sure that even a standards-based report card would solve this, because summary progress on each target is still reduced into a symbol for that item. Do we use a single letter or number for a class on a report card because we don’t think families need or would use more meaningful information? Is the symbol good enough to represent all of the learning and evidence?

The presenters did not have to wrestle with this in their school. On the report cards, they were expected to report on three aspects: what were the learning targets for the grading period, a description of student progress toward those targets, and the plan for upcoming improvement/extension for the student. Because of the qualitative data collected throughout the reporting period, the end of term descriptions were a snap to write. I am sure this idea sends a shiver down the back of many a secondary teacher---but remember that these presenters were elementary teachers having to track and write summaries for each of 30 students in every subject (reading, math, writing, science, social studies…). The number of boxes to fill in is very similar.

I have to wonder how other stakeholders (e.g. college admissions) would view this sort of reporting. If the Carnegie unit goes away at some point (and it should in a standards-based system), what will colleges do with “transcripts” that are full descriptions of student strengths and needs as opposed to a simple list? Can they handle the truth?

Doing away with grades is not a new idea. I can think of plenty of people I’ve chatted with over the last few years who have told me about schooling where grades aren’t used and things move along just fine. I do think that an emphasis on qualitative data and more descriptive communications at secondary would shake a lot of trees. Maybe it’s time we did.

09 March 2010

Anonymouse Update

A quick note before disconnecting from the airport wifi nipple and boarding the plane for home.

Before I headed to San Antonio, I mused about the being at a conference anonymous(e)ly...and wondered what would happen afterward. I no longer have to wonder.

I had someone in line at a Starbucks (at least a mile from the conference center) turn to me yesterday and tell me how much she liked my presentation. And someone on the shuttle over to the airport this morning knew me by name (even pronounced it correctly) and then complimented me and talked grading all the way here. Very sweet and unexpected events. And another couple of examples for me about the oddly public nature of sharing---when people know me and I don't know them at all.

The odd thing to me in all of this is that I only get these sorts of shout-outs from my presentations about grading. I have presented on differentiation, standards, using GoogleApps, data visualization, and a host of things in between. Somehow, only when I talk about grading practices do I make new friends. Who knew?

Life is full of wonderful surprises. Here's hoping I learn from them all.

ASCD 2010: Parting Thoughts

Today is a travel day for me. In a few hours, I will be on a homeward bound plane. I am ready to be home and have a couple of days of "normal" before the next conference (now only 4 days away).

The ASCD annual conference was a fantastic experience and I highly recommend attending one if and when you can. There is an incredible amount of expertise available for access. I really appreciated that this conference is not specialized. I've been to plenty of science conventions...a couple of tech ones...gifted ed...and a few other boutique things. They were wonderful in their own ways---and I do believe that the science specific ones helped me the most early in my career. But now, it is much more valuable for me to see the big picture. I liked the smorgasbord of possibilities offered here.

As with any conference, the quality of the presentations was hit and miss. I had a couple of outstanding and engaging sessions to sit in on...a couple so-so...and two truly awful eye-bleach necessitating ones. There is always a roulette feel to picking a session. There were so many (seemingly) wonderful choices which you finally narrow down to one before hauling your cookies to the room and discovering if you're a winner or loser. Generally speaking, I would say that classroom teachers have the most difficulty with presenting to other adults. They are obviously very knowledgeable about a given topic and passionate about what they do. They are probably amazing in the classroom with kids. They have a lot to share---they just need some help in getting their message out in a way that connects with an adult audience.

One of the things that impressed me most about this conference is ASCD's commitment to social media and using that to help members connect with one another and have a voice. I did get to meet the two communications staff members who tweet for the organization. I was very impressed with their professionalism and their earnestness in listening to us. For example, it was nice to actually be involved with a conversation about the Common Core Standards (instead of being told what I should think about them...as I am at home). How refreshing to not be bullied into giving up critical thinking.

I have a couple of posts started that will pull out some of the larger take-aways for me. Thank you, ASCD, for allowing me to present and to learn. At the moment, I am physically tired, but my professional spirit is rejuvenated, refreshed, and ready to work even harder on behalf of students everywhere.

07 March 2010

The Big Show

About this time last year, I tossed my hat in the ASCD Conference ring. It was not the first time that I had applied to present, but this was the first time my presentation was accepted. And since finding out that last July that I had made the cut, I have looked forward to today. Whether or not it's true, I have always looked at ASCD as The Big Show. This is the premier conference in education. It's where the experts come out to play. While I do not consider myself an expert, I do believe that I have things to share and can do it in a meaningful way. I like working with teachers.

The shot above was from my vantage point about 10 minutes before the official start of my session. And just like NSTA last year, they had to close the doors and declare the room full prior to my scheduled start time. We had at least 200 people in a room that had been scheduled for 160 (and I had prepared only 150 copies of my handout). This was far and away the largest group I have ever presented to and it was such an adrenaline rush that two hours later, I still have some butterflies and shakes. They were an amazing crowd to be with: fantastic energy.

I took my new powerpoint out for a test drive. I liked its look and flow, but I also tried to squeeze in too much for the 90 minutes. I had to rush a bit at the end. I think the other part of that was simply the size of the crowd. Getting 200 people to start and stop their conversations takes time, especially when the discussion is so rich. I will have to rethink things a bit if I have another opportunity like this.

Overall, feedback was positive. I had several people talk to me after the presentation to thank me and tell me how much they liked the session. ASCD has limited (as in 10) evaluations for each session and I was provided with a copy of each as I left. I scored all 3's and 4's and all but one "Yes" in terms of interest in learning more and attending a PD Institute on the topic. In terms of written comments, the most common theme was that they thought I had great technology skills. I used PollEverywhere and showed them my Delicious site and grading wiki. This was also the first time I put my blog and twitter handle next to my real name. It's a transition point for me.

Someone wrote that this was "one of the best presentations I have attended so far---articulate, knowledgeable, even-handed, informative." No negative comments, but a wish for "more examples on standards-based report cards and information on whether they improve student achievement." Point well taken, I think. It is something else I need to work on. I had one person ask me if there were any more evaluations because this was one session that she really wanted to give ASCD feedback about (in a good way). It was a very sweet thought.

On a personal note, I was delighted to have some friends in the room. One was someone I used to work with when I was in the Assessment division. She was a great help with handouts today and helped me celebrate afterward. There was also a science coach I worked with last year (total surprise to see him at the conference). I also met Joe Wood, whose blog I have enjoyed for awhile and have gotten to know a bit through Twitter and Facebook.

I feel like I can relax now (once the adrenaline rush wears off). Tomorrow is the final day of the conference. I am looking forward to the chance to continue to learn with others before folding up my tent and heading home.

05 March 2010


I consider myself to be a relatively private person. My personal life is quiet and uneventful for the most part. I am enjoying living alone (at least for now) and getting out to visit with friends when I can. I'm a rather nondescript little mouse.

My job, however, is a stark contrast to this. In that role, I have a very public existence. I was reminded of that earlier this week when I was approached at a conference by one person who referred to me as "the assessment guru" and by another who had to tell me about the various presentations she's seen me do and the impact it is having on her classroom. All good things---all very pleasant interactions---all made me grateful that these relative strangers made an effort to visit with me. However, for those two, there were probably several others who did not make the same choice. The thing is, when I look into a crowd, I never know who is looking back.

This weekend will be a little different. I am in San Antonio for the annual ASCD Conference. It is an event I have been anticipating since last July. A lot of the excitement has to do with seeing presenters I've only been able to admire from afar. For example, I have used quotes from Susan Brookhart's work in many presentations. And bright and early Saturday morning, I get to be the ultimate fangirl and sit in on her session. There will be other similar moments through Monday where I get to be anonymous.

The lone exception will be Sunday afternoon, when it will be my turn to get up and stare into the void once again. I wonder who will be peering back at me.

01 March 2010

Get It Together, Baby

As we move forward with an assessment process for 21st century skills, some aspects are straightforward...and some are squirrely. For example, constructing a task can be something that follows a regular pattern. There are parts that should be included, ways to check for alignment, and so forth. It's the evaluation portion that isn't always predictable.

Let me give you a little piece that I'm wrestling with: Organize ideas.

What does that mean to you? What qualities come to your mind when you think about a student who has organized their ideas? Would your answer be different if I told you to just consider what an organized 8-year old would look like---or are organized ideas more universal in concept (you're either organized in your thinking or not, regardless of age)?

Suppose you were constructing a rubric for this...what would you include? Does organization need an audience---in other words, does your style only have to make sense to you...or do others have to be able to ferret out the method to your madness? Do there have to be levels of detail or an evident hierarchy, regardless of whether the organization is text-only or mindmappish? Are there any aspects to organization which transcend the medium used---if I organize using notecards, a task list in Outlook, or a flowchart in webspiration, can I identify the essence of organized ideas?

What would you suggest? What would you like to see?