28 August 2010


When I was a classroom teacher, this time of year engendered a mix of emotions. I was always sad to see the end of lazy vacation days and dreaded the seemingly endless hours of meetings, but all of this was a small price to pay for the chance to start over. New school years feel fresh and shiny---new kids, new instructional opportunities, new clothes, supplies, and so forth. It takes a lot of energy to get a school year up and running again. Every ounce is worth the effort.

I have to admit that I miss that with my current job. There are some cyclical aspects to the year, but the work is very much linear. Projects begin and end. There are no mulligans.

But as I plug along with things, I have a little fantasy that I use as a mental escape. I've been thinking about being a science teacher in a small town. The kind of town where all of K-12 education fits in one building and there is only one science position. A place where you get to know families as their children grow in the system. Life is slow and time is savored.

Yes, I know the reality would be different. A small town means that everyone is in everyone else's business. Multiple preps would be grating and small schools require more hats to wear among the staff. Small districts don't pass many levies---facilities would likely be old and in poor shape. Opportunities to go to conferences or engage in PD would be nil.

But I try not to focus on those aspects when I take little vacations in my head. Instead, I think of morning walks along the tree-lined blocks...Saturday breakfast at the local diner...watching afternoon basketball games and hanging crepe for prom. Life isn't better or worse in this little G-Rated fantasy, just full of new experiences.

22 August 2010

Introducing Google AppInventor

A few months ago, I got a shiny new Droid phone. I have had a smartphone since starting my new job, mainly because I am on the road a lot and can't use any of my hardware for work to stay in contact with my personal world. It is a luxury, of sorts, but one I expect will be in the hands of a lot of people in the next year or two. I wonder what will happen in high schools when students have their own 3G devices that don't care about the Internet filter?

I was intrigued when Google posted the invitation to sign up for beta testing of its AppInventor. I had been perusing apps in the Market for awhile, disappointed in the lack of (good) productivity tools for teachers. As smartphones become more common, I have to think that we will need more specialized apps for them. Teachers are going to want some different things than dentists or ranchers want. Why not start seeing what we can build now?

I patiently waited for my invite---and it arrived on Friday. I've spent the weekend puttering. I've gotten my phone set up and am working through the tutorials. There are some very interesting things about the interface. There are two screens that you work with (for the first time, I've wished for dual monitors). The first is within the web browser and looks like this:

Think of this space as a kitchen prep area. It is where you get your ingredients ready. The left sidebar is your pantry. You drag and drop whatever you need to create the app. Does it need buttons to push? A timer? Do you want to integrate sounds and pictures? Make the app use the vibrate function on the phone when the phone is shaken? You place all those things in the middle, using the sidebar on the right to develop their attributes: color, text, name, etc.

Once you have the pieces ready, you assemble the recipe on the next screen. Here is the example from the "Whack-a-Mole" tutorial:

Just like the second part of a recipe instructs the cook which elements to combine, the order, and other steps to make the meal, the Blocks Editor is where you make the final assembly for your app. Along the left sidebar, you have a "drawer" for each piece you created in the first window. Each of those drawers contains actions that can happen with the piece. (One of the drawers is open in the picture above so you can see some of the options.) You drag and drop the actions you need into the main workspace. As you can tell, different actions have different colour codes (e.g. green for "math"). The "whack-a-mole" game has 6 different activities it needs to do: move the mole, display a score, update the score, keep time, reset the score to zero at the end of the game, and vibrate/change score when the mole is touched. Therefore, there are 6 groups of blocks in the work area, each with their own instructions about what to do when any of those things happen.

As you build an app, you can see it on your phone and actually use the app. When you're happy with things, you can use the Package for Phone option from the first screen and load it to your phone. I haven't loaded any of the products from the Tutorials onto my phone yet. I'm not sure that I need a whack-a-mole game; however, since I can use any image I like in place of the mole, there may well be some other heads I would find very therapeutic to squish. :)

You may have noticed that none of this requires any coding skill. In my mind, this is a real plus---especially as I think about how you might use the AppInventor in the classroom. You do have to understand logic arguments or there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Blocks Editor. (So far, I have not built anything from scratch---still using the tutorials with all the training wheels).

Right now, the AppInventor is limited in several ways. You can only build apps that use one screen---and I can already see that for some classroom applications, you're going to need more than one. For example, in a gradebook app, you might want to be able to navigate to screens with class lists, standards, assignment lists, etc. There is apparently a couple of work-arounds for now, but this is a good reminder that the AppInventor is in beta: It's not the finished product. Some patience will be needed for now. Another drawback is that it is very difficult to share your app with anyone. You can't upload it to the Market, for example. Features will be added in time. Currently, this has to be a rather selfish enterprise.

If you've been curious about AppInventor, I would encourage you to give it a try. It's a lot of fun to tinker with and there's something that feeds one's creativity to be on the edge with a tool like this.

What would you like to invent?

21 August 2010

Casting Out Demons

It's back-to-school time. I heard from a teacher this week who was frustrated that her repeated request to order additional textbooks last year had fallen on deaf ears. The new school year is here and she doesn't have enough books to pass out. My solution? Just be sure the student with the squeakiest wheel parent is among those without a book. Once momma or daddy bear find out that their little one doesn't have a book, I can pretty much guarantee they will ride the proper fannies until said textbook appears.

I've had a love/meh affair with textbooks since my career started. My first job came with a classroom set of books as the district was too poor to purchase enough books for the 1200 students at my school. Being young and inexperienced, my workaround was to pre-digest the info in the text for students and then have them take notes and do some labwork. Looking back, I really wish that I'd known more about reading strategies and helped students make use of the books we did have. It's true that science should be inquiry-driven---and we did lots of "canned labs" 20 years ago. But it is also true that there is sense to be made from text. What I learned over the years was that textbooks really did serve a purpose in the classroom. They were not used everyday, and my last year in the classroom was much like my first in that I did not have enough books to assign to individual students. But what did happen is that the students and I learned to make meaning together---to read and interpret graphics, to build vocabulary so we could talk about scientific concepts, to learn how to use text features to find information, to learn to organize ideas. Reading became an integral part of instruction. Is that really so bad?

I have no doubt that textbooks are sticking around because of tradition and money. But I don't think those are the only reasons.  Perhaps we need to stop for a moment and think about whether or not textbooks should be demonized, as well as whether or not they need to go away.

Is it possible that some books are "bad" merely because they exist? Should our platform be that we tell children that books are great and students should read all the time...except for textbooks? How do we explain to kids that "The Cat in the Hat" is okay to read over and over again, but an Algebra book is not? Where does a regular book end and a textbook begin? Shall I toss out the Divine Comedy because Dante's work served as textbooks for college classes?

Digital content has its advantages over print. It can be easily updated, and large amounts of information can be cheaply stored in small places---all delivered on demand. But part of the "hard sell" states are facing is that there is no educational research that shows that digital content improves learning. Perhaps texts don't, either, but if you're going to dethrone them, you'll have to prove that digital content is better for students in meaningful ways.

Strategies for reading online text are scant. I'm not saying they don't exist or can't be developed, but reading from a computer screen is different from reading print. Nearly all of the strategies we currently use for pre-reading and during reading do not transfer well to a digital environment. It is possible that with time, the tools will catch up with the digital format---we will be able to annotate and move between content and notes with grace. Right now, the few options available are clunky. We are not only going to need to invest in new tools, but an incredible amount of PD to help teachers learn to teach reading via digital content. Right now, it's a helluva lot cheaper to replace a textbook (even at $80) than to replace a damaged laptop/netbook/eReader, purchase licenses, and upgrade teacher knowledge---all for an unknown trade-off in learning.

We're also not seeing a lot of demand from students that text go digital. Sure, it sounds like a great idea in an era of scoliosis-inducing backpacks, but the current capabilities of eReaders are limited (at best) and the current struggles over content ownership make it nearly impossible to bend the content to students' needs and abilities. Smartphones and netbooks will help, but I think it will be some time before we see the tide turning.

In thinking about all of these threads, I am continually surprised at the number of educators who think textbooks are evil. Maybe we don't need a "radical change." Maybe we need to just help students learn how to learn. Textbooks are not perfect, but like anything else in the classroom, they're tools. You can use them to good or bad ends---the choice is yours.

13 August 2010


San Francisco seems far away---both in terms of geography and time. I will go there in March 2011 for the ASCD annual conference. The last time I was there was 1996 and that was for a conference, too: the NSTA International Conference for Science Education. It was the first time I ever presented anything. While I can say without a doubt that my presentation skills sucked, the material itself was good.

I developed this tool to use with my 9th grade Physical Science students. Part of the curriculum required them to learn to construct chemical formulas. Some of the kids cottoned onto the concept right away---others struggled. The course was one semester long, so I had two opportunities a year (x several preps a day) to figure out how to teach this. I also noticed that students in the fall had a more difficult time of things than my spring bunch. Whether that was due to growth spurts of frontal lobes or other factors, I'll never know. I do know that the "concrete" method I created to help them understand the concept worked. Here is what I did...

Each student had a packet of little squares of paper like these:

Each one had the name of the element and its chemical symbol. Those which had ions with a positive charge had a black dot at the bottom: one dot per charge. For example, Hydrogen and other elements in Group 1 all had one dot at the bottom; Magnesium, Calcium, et al. had two; Aluminum three; and so forth. The common transition elements that we used which had more than one oxidation state (e.g. copper, iron) had more than one tile available. Elements that formed negatively charged ions (like Oxygen) had holes punched at the top, one per "space" available for an electron to fill.

I could then ask students to write a formula using Hydrogen and Oxygen. Using their pieces, they would end up with something like this:

All they had to do at this point was transfer what they saw into the written formula, with elements at the top first: H2O. Eventually, I would wean students away from using the manipulatives as their understanding of oxidation states increased along with their understanding of the periodic table. I called this system "Elementiles."

There were limitations with using these, of course. They didn't help students directly connect atomic structure with why there were dots and holes on the pieces. But for kids who were already struggling to picture an atom they would never see, holding something in their hands was a helpful scaffold. And since every student had them at their desks (whether or not they needed them), there was no stigma in pulling out the Elementiles for help.

I don't remember a lot about my NSTA presentation on these. I remember it was a Sunday morning...and I had less than 10 people attend the session. I had driven there the day after Christmas, narrowly escaping a huge snowstorm in Seattle (and drove back to its aftermath). There were no such things as LCD projectors or document cameras. I had an overhead projector (with a set of Elementiles made from transparencies---something I also used in class) and some clingy plastic I put on the walls that the paper versions could temporarily stick to.

In March, it will have been close to 15 years since this first presentation. I have different material this time...new tools...and far better communication skills. Here's hoping I make the most of this golden state.

12 August 2010

Model Core Teaching Standards

While most education organizations are distracted by the release and falderal associated with the Common Core Standards, the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) has posted their draft of the Model Core Teaching Standards for public comment.
These new draft standards comprise a set of principles of effective teaching, revised from the 1992 model standards, in response to new visions for teaching. This document is being distributed as a draft for public comment. Members of the public and the profession alike are invited to:
  • Critically examine what an effective teacher must know and be able to do today;
  • Thoughtfully consider how teacher policy should change to support the vision articulated by these standards;
  • Creatively explore how K-12 schools and teacher education programs can be restructured to advance this vision.

It's unclear what the range of implementation is meant to be for these, but go have a look and see if you agree that they've captured the dimensions of good teaching. You can visit the main site for more information, review the draft, and complete the survey (open through October 15).

11 August 2010

Summer Treats

Over time, the blogs appearing on my sidebar and in my RSS aggregator shift. I can't tell you that my tastes are more refined now than they were a few years ago, only that interests evolve and that some blogs close down. When I look back at posts I've written where I've made recommendations, it's surprising how many of those sites are no longer functional. In spite of the unstable nature of the Internet (and my own interests, ahem), I've run across a few bits of fun you might enjoy adding to your own rounds.

Fresh Photons aggregates a variety of science related graphics, like the view of amaryllis pollination shown at the right (via FEI Company). The site really is like a box of chocolates---you never know what you're going to get. Sometimes it's a New Yorker cartoon...other times you have vintage photos of apparatus and scientists. Graphics representing nearly every discipline make an appearance. Having this site in Google Reader is a bit like having a palate cleanse between blog posts and news stories: a beautiful brain break in a sea of text.

Meanwhile, I am completely addicted to Comically Vintage. I was never a comic book fan at any point in my life, but I still love this site. The "paleocomicologists" who post a stream of non-sequitorific panels from old comic books. We don't know whence they came or any aspects of the story. Frankly, it's more fun not knowing. Having this site as part of your feeds is guaranteed to make you laugh, shake your head in wonder, and want to take a closer look at that box of moldy comic books at garage sales.

While you're busy updating your feeds, stop by Playscapes, a blog about playgrounds---focusing on the non-commercial variety. I love the various ideas for kids' spaces. I also like thinking about the kinds of play we engaged in as children. They might not have been "safe" enough for today's bubble-wrap-your-kids society, but imagination was king while you were there. I miss seeing those places.

I am sure that I am missing many more good sites and blogs out there. It has been fun for me to see all the new standards-based grading blogs sprout. As the Internet grows, it's not always a simple matter to find new blogs I might enjoy or who might link here. If you're a regular reader and blogger, you might consider dropping me a note in the comments with a link to your blog to check out. I'd love to freshen up my sidebar some more.

09 August 2010

Free to Good Home

For the last year or so, I have been working on giving away pieces of my old classroom life. I had six large boxes full of books that I gave away last July, along with all of my AP Biology files, in a fit of empty nesting. This spring, I took all of the markers, beads, rulers, Play-Doh, and other ephemera to a meeting with my assessment group and rehomed all of it. I gave a friend my boxes of special order pencils, DVD collection, and a few other items. All of these things were collected and purchased to be used with kids---not sit and grow mold in my basement. Sure, I may have some regrets if I go back to the classroom, but for now, it feels good to let them go. I want them to have a happy life in the hands of children.

But the work continues. I still have a lot of paper stashed in the basement...paper I need to either scan and save and/or send to the big recycling bin in the sky. I'm only fooling myself by keeping it down there. I'm a teacher, for crying out loud. We don't do things the same way twice---let alone do things the same way 10 years later.

However, I need your help with two specific items. If you want one of them, then leave me a note in the comments about why you're interested, along with your email so I can contact you to make arrangements.

Item #1: 16 mm copy of Hemo the Magnificent

Here is a repost from 2005 about why I have it:
I love working with high school sophomores. There are members among the faculty at my school who do not, but it has been my favourite age to work with. (Maybe that says something about my maturity...or lack thereof?)

There are so many events I get to be a part of during the year: "sweet sixteen," new drivers' licenses, first formal dance, removal of orthodontia, and so on. It's fun to see the kids hit these marks. It doesn't matter that it's the umpteenth time for me. It's new to each of them.

Perhaps you remember reading Julius Caesar as a sophomore. Maybe you can remember other events associated with your sophomore year that everyone seemed to experience.

High school biology has it's own addition to the pantheon: Hemo the Magnificent. When the time rolls around each year to show this film, I always start off talking to my kids about "rites of passage." (This year, I wrote the phrase on the board, because last year, one kid thought I'd said "rights of passage" and that led the discussion in an entirely different direction.) We talk about "sophomore-ness" and the associated rites. We look forward in time (for them) to what they can (legally) experience at 18 and 21. When they whine about ole Julius, I talk to them about "cultural literacy." We look at Julius from the perspective that it is part of their "ticket" to the adult world. As adults---and gatekeepers of their move to adulthood---we want to be sure that they have been properly indoctrinated with the things the society (at large) claims are important.

I own a copy of "Hemo" in glorious 16 mm. Do you remember watching films in that format? The noise of the machine? The scratches and "skips" in the movie? This year, not a single one of my sophs could say that they'd ever watched a movie shown this way. It's very sad, I think. Maybe they do, too, as one remarked later, "I'm going to be sad when this comes out on DVD." I told her that it already had. Another student wanted to know, then, why I didn't show the DVD. The first student piped up to say, "But then it wouldn't be part of the tradition!"

I had to smile. She got it. Since 1957, biology students have been watching this 16 mm film. It was good enough for their parents, for me, and now for them. (The content is still very worthwhile, too, by the way.)

Welcome, kids, to the fellowship of biology.

Hemo is special and it needs a very special home...someone who will love it and share it with high school biology students. If you can help with shipping (shouldn't be more than $15), that would be great...but is not necessary if you think you are "the one" and can't afford to chip in. Again, tell me in the comments why you want it---maybe your own Hemo story to share or something about your kids. Whatever makes a connection for you. If more than one person wants Hemo, there will be no "fair draw." I'm just going to pick the story that I like best.

Item #2: Poster of Titanic wreckage with quote and autograph by Bob Ballard

I picked this up at an auction many years ago---right after Ballard discovered the remains of the Titanic. I was a Titanic buff in high school, long before the remains were discovered and Leonardo Di Caprio declared himself King of the World. But, I'm ready to let this go. The poster has a little warping, but is in pretty fair shape for being nearly 20 years old. It's approximately 22" x 31.5" in size. I'll take it out of the frame and just send the poster itself. If you can help with shipping ($5), that would be great.  Again, just leave a note in the comments if you're interested (no special story needed). If more than one commenter is interested, I'll do a random drawing for this one.

So, there you have it. Please leave a comment by 11:59 PM PT on Sunday, August 15, 2010, if you're interested in one or both of these items. You can now be part of my grand plan to clean the basement. Help a sistah out, would you?

08 August 2010

How to Build a Test

Last month, I wrote a series of posts (Parts One, Two, and Three) about how an idea for a test item becomes an actual item. Items can take a lot of different pathways, depending upon the test. Advanced Placement free response questions (which are not reused) get a test drive in college freshmen biology classes around the country. The SAT has an entire section on every test which is devoted to pilot items to replenish the bank. Some states exclusively use contractors to write items---although the need for revision, pilot, data and content reviews remains as part of the process. Other states, like ours, have classroom teachers write as many items as possible.

I had a comment on one of the posts about test build. How is it determined which items get put on the test? What about the psychometrics?

First of all, tests are comprised of pieces of very expensive real estate---not just in terms of the money spent developing, scoring, and reporting on them ($1M - $1.5M for our state...per test...per year), but also in terms of what gets tested. The volume of possible standards for items far outstrips the number of slots on a given test. This is why it is not possible to claim that teachers are off in classrooms "teaching to the test." The standards selected are different from year to year---teachers don't know which ones will be specifically targeted, only the pool of standards the items are built from.

Tests typically have some design characteristics. For example, there are set numbers of item types (multiple choice, true/false, fill-in-the-blank, essay...). There are also specifics on how many items from particular areas of content may be asked. On a biology test, there will be percentages allotted to molecular, evolutionary, human, plant, and other sundry biology areas.

There is a chunk of the test that gets eaten up by "anchor items." These are items that are the same as the previous test and need to occur within the same half of the test that they appeared in before. The purpose of the anchor items is twofold. First, it allows for some equating from the old test to the new one (we can look at how two groups of students performed on identical items) and it also serves as a test within a test. The items selected need to (inasmuch as possible) resemble the make-up of the overall test---the same percentages allotted to content, item types, etc. Again, this gives us a psychometric comparison.

I wish I could say that it is a free-for-all beyond that---that you can just fill in the rest of the space with items in the bank that are the right content and type. And plugging holes is part of the process. It's just not the whole story. Test builders keep track of how many times A, B, C, D, and E (for AP) get used as answers for multiple choice items. This can be trickier than you'd think---because you can't just randomly order the answers. Why not? Because the item was piloted a certain way. All of the data for that item is based on that structure. If you reorder the answers, you are changing the item. For an item that uses four answer choices (A - D) it is considered okay to flip A with D and B with C if you have to balance the overall answer selections.

The selected items must also add up psychometrically such that the test is as close as possible in difficulty to the previous test. We don't want to leave room for the scores to rise and fall as a result of using an "easy" test one year and a "hard" one the next. There are several values associated with a test item---I won't pretend to know them all. Two are particularly important: the p-value and point biserial.
  • P-value means something different here than in classical statistics. In test-speak, it's the proportion of students who answered the item correctly. The lower the p-value, the more difficult the item. 
  • Point biserial is a correlation between the item score and the test score. (Again, data is gathered from pilot.) In other words, did students who got the item correctly also do better overall on the test? In this case, the higher the number (e.g. the more positive the correlation) the better the item.
The p-values and point biserials are tracked across the entire test build. The psychometricians are looking for a sweet spot that means the current test is as close as possible in difficulty to the previous version. This is where test build can get tedious, because sometimes you just need to find one item to swap out...and you don't have it. And once you start swapping, you throw off all the other things you had balanced (item types, content...).  The bigger your test bank, the easier it is to handle these little burps.

Once you get to this point, you just have the more concrete pieces to deal with. What directions to the student should be included? How many items on a page? What instructions for the proctor are going to be provided? Where are you going to put the pilot items---and how many?

Want to know about a particular test? Check the website (College Board, ETS, your state's department of education...) for information on test specifications (which will tell you ahead of time about the structure) and technical reports (which will tell you about the psychometrics after scoring). If you're a Washington teacher, here are links to the technical reports, released items, and item analysis data for all released items (by state, district, and school). Specific test and item specs for each content area are linked from the main site.

I wish I knew more about how adaptive tests are built, as well as online tests which scramble items (and therefore throw off the careful structure of a build). If you've been involved with these and have some insight to share in the comments, I'd love to learn more about those.

Test builds are intricate processes---far moreso than would be reasonable at a classroom level; however, classroom teachers have much greater capabilities to capture a range of performance over time and in with a variety of tools. I do wonder if I would have looked at tests differently in my classroom if I had access to the psychometrics and the time and knowledge to be more purposeful in how I constructed them.

PS If you want to see what the scoring process looks like, check out my post from the 2005 AP Biology Read.

06 August 2010

The Good and Bad Old Days

With the beginning of the school year around the corner, I have been thinking about my own beginnings in education.

I don't remember much of Kindergarten---couldn't tell you the name of the teacher if my life depended on it. I know that it was a half-day program and that I went in the afternoons. I remember the look of consternation on an adult's face when I didn't know my home address...and I remember how angry I was when someone wouldn't help me spell the word "really." Telling me to just sound it out made me even more pissed off. (Screw you, Whole Language.) There was a trip to an area pond, and of course, someone fell in. On those occasions when a child got a staple in their finger (which seemed to be frequent), they seemed to disappear into the top floor of the school. And they. never. came. back. The music teacher had butt-length hair. And I recall making a green Christmas tree ornament decorated with bottle caps and glitter. My best friend was Marguerite, who I have only seen once since then (and her Internet trail runs cold in 2001).

We moved twice after Grade 1---long distances and plenty of opportunities for firsts. New first days of school in new towns, transitions to junior high, high school, and college. Even my first day of teaching. But I remember nothing of any of them.

This has not kept me from reminiscing. I recently ran across this kid on Facebook. Well, he's no kid anymore, but it seemed right to send him a copy of the picture and tell him that his moment of joy had been inspiring me as a teacher for a long time.

When I think about starting my career in Carlsbad, NM, I can't say that the memories are unilaterally pleasant. There was the assistant principal who would read us the staff handbook nearly word for word during our August inservice days. Or the time I had flu and laryngitis a few weeks into the school year and had to drive myself to see that same principal (because I couldn't call him and he was the one who scheduled subs). The janitor showed up drunk at my duplex one night and tried to force his way into the house. There was a guilty sense of relief engendered when I found out one of my 18-year old ninth graders (you read that right), who was the bane of my existence, lost his life by wrapping his car around a telephone pole after taking a curve on a country road at high speed. (<----Candidate for world's worst sentence.) I remember getting the principal to sign off on a purchase order for the liquor store---because I had to substitute Everclear for ethanol in a lab. A man, who had just been released from prison, stood up and yelled at me during my very first Open House because I wouldn't discuss his stepdaughter's grade in front of everyone. (found out later he was sleeping with the girl...which is why he came to get her from my 6th period class early most days) There was a student, who on his very first day of school, came into my classroom, and started a fistfight with one of my kids---there were blood and teeth everywhere. I had a wannabe cowboy who once told me that the only way he would be quiet in my class was if I sat him in the middle of a "bunch of Mexicans," because he would never talk to them. (He left me speechless, too, with that observation.)

There were many more adventures that first year. It's a wonder that I ever came back for the second one. I was either really stupid...or really stubborn. Maybe some of both.

This year will be the first year in at least six years where I will have the same job as the previous year. This is the sixth year of this blog, and until now, I have had a slightly different position every single year. If that first year of teaching taught me anything, it was to stay flexible and that it's okay to live with uncertainty. I've been applying that lesson for a long time now, as I am about to kick off the 20th year of my career in education.

So whether this year is your first or your last, I wish you all the best in the upcoming year. Happy New Year to every educator. Remember that no matter what happens...the ups and downs...the number of good and bad days you have...that you can still choose how you remember these events.

01 August 2010

Grading Roundup: Summer 2010

Summer is typically a quiet time in terms of news items about grading. I expect things will ramp up in another month or two. But to tide you over, here are a few tidbits.

From the NJ Daily Record, we have a story about how the Mount Olive Township school board has eliminated D-grades (text below from EdWeek article behind paywall):
Students in one New Jersey school district will have to work harder to pass.

The Mount Olive school board voted Monday to eliminate the "D'' grade for middle and high school students.

Superintendent Larrie Reynolds proposed the policy, saying he was tired of kids getting credit for not learning.

The new policy, which is expected to take effect in September, would raise the failure score to anything under a 70 instead of 65.

Reynolds says 384 high school students received a "D'' as a final grade at the end of this school year.

Board member Sheryl Colligan cast the only dissenting vote. She said she's not confident the support system is in place to implement the policy this September.

While I applaud the superintendent for recognizing that in many cases credit did not represent learning, he really hasn't done anything to change this disconnect. I don't care where you set the cutoff, you have to change what is represented by the number.

Speaking of misunderstandings where numbers are concerned, you may have heard about how Texas's "Truth in Grading" Law was recently taken to court. The law required that students be assigned the grades they earned, and banned minimum grade policies.
Some districts have long had policies that established minimum grades of 50, 60, or even 70, so even if a student earned a zero, his or her grade would be automatically brought up to the minimum score.
This issue is a lot more complex than reports of the case include. In my mind, this is neither about "inflated grades," nor is it about percentages. It is about grading scales and what represents "passing." Even schools where a minimum grade is a 50 (not 50%...just 50) does not mean that the score is inflated or that a 60 is passing. It just means 50 is the lowest score. People new to thinking about grading scales seem to have difficulty internalizing a couple of things. (a) 0 - 100 is only one possible scale out of an infinite number of possibilities. and (b) percent and scale are separate concepts. Rather sad in Texas that there is a judge who can't understand these things and students will suffer for that.

About a year and a half ago, I blogged about a Brave New World: a district in Colorado that was doing away with grade levels and assigning kids based on performance and readiness. Now, it looks like districts in Alaska, Maine, and Missouri are also ready to move this direction. From Teacher Magazine:
Here's how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it's needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren't bored and struggling students aren't frustrated.

But backers acknowledge implementation is tricky, and the change is so drastic it can take time to explain to parents, teachers and students. If the community isn't sold on the effort, it will bomb, said Richard DeLorenzo, co-founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which coaches schools on implementing the reform.

In some ways, this makes a lot of sense...and in others, I have some reservations. Student learning is more complicated than just the material itself. I worry about social development. This is not a reason to hold students back from content---I'm just wondering how we balance all of the needs.

My last item to share comes from an estatesltd eBay auction (ending Saturday).

I love looking at old report cards---seeing all the different things students were evaluated on. But this is the first time I have seen anything like this where the grades appear to be reported as a distribution. And it isn't a distribution of scores---it's a distribution of the class. The column after (grading) Period is "Class Enr.," which I am assuming means class enrollment. Could it be that the numbers in the following column represent the total number of students who earned an A - F for the class, with the individual student performance circled? If so, what an unusual and intriguing way to present data to parents: no scores, just a communication to parents about how your student's performance ranks in the class.