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1 Point Of View

Stotts   Who?
Brian Stotts
Stottspic bstotts@jeffco.k12.co.us
303-982-3915
Precision Toolkit Platform
Partner, Escent Partners, LLC

Brian has been an English teacher and instructional leader at Conifer High School for 10 years.  Because his school is one of the top high schools in Colorado and functions roughy "at capacity" in terms of quality use of instructional time, Brian has spent the last five years working with Escent Partners (EP) to investigate ways to use classroom time more efficiently so his class and school can continue to grow.

In particular, Brian and EP have confronted the underlying problems teachers face concerning formative assessment.  His goal is to rescue this process and return it to teachers, where it rightfully belongs, by improving teacher-driven assessment quality and reliability

The Pitfalls of the Error-Free Classroom
On Assessment
Brian Stotts

In order for second order change to happen in any business, an urgent need to continuously improve must be felt by both leaders and employees.  In industry, this is easy: either we improve or we go out of business. Formative and summative assessments were intended to create the feeling of an urgent need in our schools, but while our schools' leaders are feeling it, many, if not most, of our teachers are not. Why is this?

 
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Brian Stotts Who?
Brian Stotts
Stottspic bstotts@jeffco.k12.co.us
303-982-3915
Precision Toolkit Platform
Partner, Escent Partners, LLC

Brian has been an English teacher and instructional leader at Conifer High School for 10 years.  Because his school is one of the top high schools in Colorado and functions roughy "at capacity" in terms of quality use of instructional time, Brian has spent the last five years working with Escent Partners (EP) to investigate ways to use classroom time more efficiently so his class and school can continue to grow.

In particular, Brian and EP have confronted the underlying problems teachers face concerning formative assessment.  His goal is to rescue this process and return it to teachers, where it rightfully belongs, by improving teacher-driven assessment quality and reliability

Stottspic
 

The Pitfalls of the Error-Free Classroom

Teacher Point-Of-View

A few years back, Allen Krauskopf (whose bio and POVs you can read elsewhere on this blog) and I created something we call IFA, or Integrated Formative Assessment. It's essentially an assessment engine designed to make the assessments teachers create and administer so often of the same quality, from a data perspective, as those produced by the major publishers. It works. It's something that leaders should investigate. Much of the "how"s and the "why"s of it are explained under the POV section of this blog, but before anyone would be interested in exploring all that, I thought it would be appropriate to explain why, from a student growth standpoint, schools must closely examine their assessment strategies.

The concept behind IFA began with my decision to switch to a standards-based grading, and my decision to switch to standards-based grading started with a powerful, but frightening realization brought about partially by my principal (Dr. Mike Musick) and my wife. You see, my wife’s a psychologist, and, thus, I’ve become a bit of a psychologist-by-proxy, and she and I have numerous discussions over dinner regarding the way that education is affecting the youth she counsels on a daily basis. Dr. Mike has also seen the behavioral implications that performing below grade level can have on a student, and he and I have brainstormed numerous solutions to the problems, some of which are incorporated into the system I am about to describe. These conversations caused me to begin looking at education through a more psychological lens, and when I did this, I realized something strange having to do with the way the schools reward children with their grades.

Traditional grading systems (including current standards-based grading practices) reward students for doing two things: conforming to arbitrary constructs that teachers create for their classes and being error-free. Now, this seems like a logical enough way to reward students until one begins to examine the psychological impact of this reward system more closely. The paradox inherent in this system is that when a child is experiencing a period of rapid growth, they are likely to make many mistakes as they work towards mastery. In a traditional system of grading, this period of rapid growth would translate to poor marks for the assigned tasks and the student receiving grades that are unacceptable to them and their parents. The results would be a possible grounding for the student or a revoking of privileges if their parents are behaving in the manner we would expect them to. Minimally, it causes a child to feel he has failed despite his best efforts. It was at this point in my thought process that I reached the truly frightening conclusion and didn’t sleep for a few nights. In fact, I still have trouble sleeping when I think about it.

An analogy best encapsulates my realization about our nation’s schools. I have a 10-month old at home. He’s my 10-month old, in case there was any confusion, and he’s been cruising around on the furniture for some time now. He’s actually just beginning to push away from the coffee table and take his first steps. In other words, he’s just entering into an exciting period of rapid growth where the entirety of his world will become accessible to him. However, he often falls down, and this concerns me. I want him to be able walk error-free as quickly as possible; after all, I don’t want him to injure himself on the corner of the fireplace or some other pointy object. So I have a meter stick that I carry around with me when he’s trying to walk to me, and when Noah falls down, I hit him over the head with it and take two steps backward. He needs to learn that he must do his best in all endeavors, and it’s better that he experiences a small injury now versus a major injury later. It would also be wrong of me to teach him that his error-ridden walking is getting him anywhere, so if he makes a mistake, he must learn that it will now take twice the effort to get to his goal. My wife doesn’t like the way I teach Noah to walk, so she makes sure he never falls. She holds his hands and walks him around the house, being careful never to let go because she knows that it he falls, he will quickly receive my rebuke.

Please put down the phone and don’t call child services because this isn’t actually the way that I teach my child to walk. It is, however, the way our school systems teach our students to master any of the thousands of standards that make up a K-12 education. As students struggle to keep up with the ever-moving standard of success, they are consistently beaten with poor grades during their fast-moving classes. In fact, my analogy has a slight logical flaw: in reality Daddy (the metaphorical embodiment of the success that students are trying to achieve) is invisible, and students have no idea what they are walking towards. Teachers, therefore, slow the pace of their classes considerably and inflate grades so that students won’t have to feel the harsh blow of a 60% or lower achievement rating, feeding students correct responses for their assessments all the while to ensure they will experience success on that particular task.

I can’t say I blame us. I did it for years. With our grading and assessment systems it’s actually impossible to avoid being either the father or the mother in my analogy, so naturally our good-natured teachers would choose to be the mother. The real tragedy in the analogy is in the realization that my son will either never learn to walk (either my wife never lets go or he gives up on account of the repeated beating) or learning it will take him much longer than it should at the expense of his confidence in being able to learn quickly.

So how do we teach our children to stand and walk? If we continue with my analogy, the answer is obvious. We position ourselves an appropriate distance away from them. When they fall, we encourage them to keep trying without punishing them. When they reach us, we celebrate the achievement and move back again, this time leaving a little more distance between them and ourselves. And within a week or two, our child has achieved proficiency in an incredibly difficult skill set. Kids learn quickly if they’re given an environment where appropriate mistakes can be made, and my standards-based grading method provides that safe environment without ignoring the appropriate level of work ethic needed to survive in life after school. As I describe my method, I will continue to frame my discussion in terms of the analogy, so please keep that in mind.

Why didn’t I use a Marzano-style method?

As I was deciding on a style of standards-based grading to use, none of the current models appealed to me for a number of reasons. The most widely used model is what I will refer to as the Marzano Method, so naturally I evaluated that system first. The system prioritizes the standards that students must master to be successful, and when students complete benchmark assessments, they are given a rating of one to four with a score of three “meeting the standard.” While on a surface level this system seems to make sense, upon closer inspection my basic needs as a teacher were not addressed.

First of all, I work very hard (as all teachers do) and the thought of administering one benchmark assessment after another seemed too daunting to bear. Proponents of this system concede in their journal articles that the process of pre-assessing and post-assessing is exhausting for teachers and quickly leads to burnout. In addition, I had a hard time imagining when I would ever have time to actually teach and differentiate with all of the required assessment. This system moves in far too linear of a fashion to adequately deal with the wide range of abilities typically found in the mainstream classroom as well. While it may be effective in ensuring the partially proficient students reach proficiency by the end of the year, it does so at the expense of the proficient and advanced student.Being an advanced student myself, I couldn’t ignore their needs in good conscience.

Thirdly, the system does not provide students with an adequate picture of “Daddy”. Students need to see how far they have advanced conceptually and need to be constantly reminded of their growth, regardless of the struggle it took to get there. A series of threes and fours on a report card doesn’t make sense to students or feel like growth to them, and the evidence of this can be found in the protests from parents, students, and college professors when districts move to Marzano models of standards-based grading; it doesn’t make sense to the stakeholders (even well-educated ones), and if it doesn’t make sense to my customers, then I’m trouble and will search for a potentially more agreeable solution.

I quickly moved to an ACT model of standards-based grading where standards are arranged in a conceptual hierarchy and each level of difficulty is assigned a numerical value. Students are then assigned a numerical value based on the difficulty level of the standards in which they demonstrate mastery. This felt natural for me and for students: they are used to receiving more points as they master more difficult standards, rather than receiving the same amount of points for each standard they master, no matter how difficult. Few would argue that the three-point line in basketball didn’t improve players’ long-range shooting abilities. The only tricky proposition was figuring out how this should look in a traditional gradebook, but the solution was relatively easy. I simply began to think about what I actually do when I grade.

When I grade, I assign the students a task and attached to that task are any number of standards. For a writing assignment, students typically have the ability to demonstrate mastery on roughly 100 benchmarks on the ACT rubric. When I grade in a traditional fashion, I spend roughly nine hours per group of essays generating standards-based feedback for the students, and then I assign the task a percentage. However, I only enter the percentage for the task in the gradebook, essentially throwing away all the actionable, standards-based data I just spent nine hours creating, and all of that data typically ends up in the garbage can just outside my room.

To remedy this, I created two sections for my gradebook, a tasks section and a standards section, and assigned them each an appropriate amount of weight. The weight can vary based on one’s particular educational philosophy, but, for me, the tasks were assigned a weight of forty percent; the standards, sixty. When a student completes a task, he or she is given a percentage in the tasks section based on the level of completion of the task, and the real grade is then distributed among the standards in the standards section of my gradebook. The scores in the standards section are based on the ACT 0-36 scale and can go up or down, depending on how the student performed on their last task or set of tasks (we’ll get to how the whole “sets of tasks” thing works later). A nice feature of this method is that a score of 36 need not be set as 100%. In this way students who are functioning at an advanced level can continue to advance and be rewarded for their work.

If a student demonstrates mastery of benchmarks that are higher up the conceptual hierarchy on the next task, I simply replace their old score with their new one. They have walked to Daddy, and we celebrate that achievement in the way that means the most to the student: their grade. If they regress in their skills, I split the difference between the standard score currently in the gradebook and the standard score for that task. For example, if a student was receiving a 16 for a particular standard and he or she demonstrates mastery at a 20 on the next task, the grade for that standard becomes a 20. If he or she was receiving a 20 and he or she demonstrates mastery at a 16 on the next task, the score becomes an 18, and the student is reminded that if they get their act together, that score can always be replaced. I do need to remind my students that I expect their best effort on all tasks, but that needs to be done in a way that allows them to correct their behavior and get back on track. Too often I see students for whom success has become literally impossible, and most often that leads to self-destructive or criminal behavior, further increasing the burden those students place on the teacher.

I know at this point one might be thinking that the “outs” for students who make mistakes are too numerous to bear. One must remember, however, that they are children and we cannot expect them to act as anything but children. We must deal with the realities of their development in the same way we deal with those realities when they are very young. We do not impose life-altering penalties on our very young children who make relatively minor missteps.

I also realize that this style of grading lends itself well in cases of anecdotal data, like writing, and becomes more difficult in cases where more concrete data is needed, but The Co-Operative Project LLC and I have solved that problem too.  It is described in a subsequent post.

  roll-up

A few years back, Allen Krauskopf (whose bio and POVs you can read elsewhere on this blog) and I created something we call IFA, or Integrated Formative Assessment. It's essentially an assessment engine designed to make the assessments teachers create and administer so often of the same quality, from a data perspective, as those produced by the major publishers. It works. It's something that leaders should investigate. Much of the "how"s and the "why"s of it are explained under the POV section of this blog, but before anyone would be interested in exploring all that, I thought it would be appropriate to explain why, from a student growth standpoint, schools must closely examine their assessment strategies.

The concept behind IFA began with my decision to switch to a standards-based grading, and my decision to switch to standards-based grading started with a powerful, but frightening realization brought about partially by my principal (Dr. Mike Musick) and my wife. You see, my wife’s a psychologist, and, thus, I’ve become a bit of a psychologist-by-proxy, and she and I have numerous discussions over dinner regarding the way that education is affecting the youth she counsels on a daily basis. Dr. Mike has also seen the behavioral implications that performing below grade level can have on a student, and he and I have brainstormed numerous solutions to the problems, some of which are incorporated into the system I am about to describe. These conversations caused me to begin looking at education through a more psychological lens, and when I did this, I realized something strange having to do with the way the schools reward children with their grades.

... continue
 

 
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