25 March 2013

Proficiency Scales: The Next Frontier

Most people who make the shift to standards-based grading have a journey on their hands. Whether it’s a philosophical change, managing communications with stakeholders, reconfiguring grading and reporting tools, or just determining the basic nuts and bolts of a new-to-you program, there can be a lot to sort out. But suppose you have survived the sturm and drang of making this shift and are ready to move out to the bleeding edge again. Why not take a look at proficiency scales?

A proficiency scale breaks down a standard into smaller and more specific skills and abilities. The scale is often 1 – 4, but you can increase or decrease the range to fit your needs. Think of it as a way to determine whether or not a student can meet a specific standard.

Here’s a sample from the Common Core ELA standards for Writing at Grade 5. This is standard #6: With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of two pages in a single sitting.

What are all of the things a student needs to do in order to meet this standard at grade 5?
  • Use technology (including the Internet) to produce and publish writing. 
  • Use technology (including the Internet) to interact and collaborate with others. 
  • Type a minimum of two pages in a single sitting. 
Aside #1:

I’m trying really hard to overlook some of the vagaries here. But this standard is not making it easy.
  • What qualifies as “technology”? Do they mean “digital,” or can a kid still do a science fair project board, take a picture, and post it in order to “produce and publish writing”? Does printing something and pasting it on a poster board equal "publishing"?
  • Can you produce, but not publish, writing? What if you post something and no one reads it—If a science goddess blogs and no one comments, has she still published?
  • Can you collaborate, but not interact? Interact, but not collaborate? I think both of these are possible. Does the Common Core imply they should be simultaneous in order to count here?
  • How on earth does seat time translate to an evaluation of keyboarding skills? I can type two pages of nonsense in a hurry…or sit for a long time while I “hunt and peck” a well-reasoned two pages. What if I take a bathroom break while I’m still logged in—does it still count as a “single sitting”?
I know, some of you will tell me I’m being too literal, but I tend to look at things through the bleary eyes of Assessment. And from a measurement perspective, this standard is too squirrelly for my tastes. I wish I hadn't picked it as a model. Damn.

For those of you who come from the "standards shouldn't be taught in isolation" camp, welcome to my blog. Line forms at the left for your comments. I totally get where you're coming from, but the reality is simply that most schools want to document what each child is able to know and do for each standard along the way. Apologies in advance for pooping on your quixotic parade.



Let’s move on. We’ll pretend that the people writing the Common Core knew what they were doing when they created these bigger-faster-stronger standards. All of our students will be veritable Olympians of mental and technological gymnastics all because we have new standards. Opportunity gap be damned. Full speed ahead!

Sorry. I got distracted again. But I’m really ready to move on now. Scout's honour. We were talking about proficiency scales, weren't we?

With the statements above, we can at least get the basics of an at-standard performance. But what about student work that is above or below standard?

For above-standard work, we are looking for evidence that the student has transferred or applied their knowledge or skills to new territory. Perhaps the student moderates a discussion about their writing. Or, maybe s/he shows fluency by choosing the publishing tool to best fit the content or audience. Take your pick. The bottom line is that we want more complex thinking.

And for below-standard work, we would see evidence of simpler thinking. Maybe the student understands that a word processor can be used to produce writing and is able to do some keyboarding, but isn’t able to save and share documents…or use features that would allow him or her to comment on the work of others.

Work that is well-below standard could represent a student who is unable to use the available technology or has other learning deficits.

Okay, so we have a basic outline…


Ideally, a group of teachers would sit down and develop this together. I won't claim to have finessed this one...just remember that it's only a model.

If you want to go halfsies with the points, I won’t stand in the way of your interpolations. In fact, if you go here and download the proficiency scale for this standard from Marzano Research Laboratory, you’ll see that they do just that.
Aside #2: Aside #1's Shorter, but More Handsome Brother
Did you notice that Marzano is recycling his Making Standards Useful in the Classroom tome? I always did think that book didn't fit how he was trying to sell it. And now, under the guise of creeping Marzano-ism, we have a whole new hole for this peg. An ugly peg with way too many lines, and ohmygodmyeyes, but a peg nonetheless.


We have more reasons to push into this frontier. Now we can build leveled assessments and other tools that will support our new grading aspirations and make monitoring student progress even simpler. We'll have to invest more time, thought, and energy to get there, but I think you might find it scratches some of your remaining itches from the move to standards-based grading. Stay tuned.

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