Using student feedback, problem solving, and modeling to come to a better understanding of assessment
Continued from this previous post
So, I let the issue marinate a bit, had the same discussions with my other two classes the next day (block scheduling), and formulated the following situation. I took a break from the curriculum and devoted the next two days of classes (5 different sections, 90 minute classes) to investigating in the hopes that students might come to a greater understanding of how their grades are calculated, and maybe even learn how weighted averages work in the process.
As I mentioned in the previous post, I wrote this shortly after a workshop I attended (the first of five institutes for the Math Fellows in International Schools program). Whether consciously or not (again, this was way back in October), the discussions we had on mathematical modeling really informed the writing of this problem. Previously, I would have given some numbers, but here I required students to simply use my grading scale, and come up with their own interpretations of intentionally vague descriptors such as "or slightly better" or "just squeaking by".
I didn't (still don't) have a great understanding of "mathematical modeling", and found (still find) it difficult to include in the work I ask students to do. This problem feels like my first decent attempt at formulating a modeling situation.
Everyone had trouble getting started
"You want me to make up my own numbers?"
- "Yup, just make sure they make sense"
Most of the students started off with their "feelings" about the problem, which is great. I think we want students to speculate about the solutions before they get into the math of it.
However, many of them, particularly the older students, were weirdly overconfident and considered themselves "done", without doing the math to confirm.
The images above show work the students asked me to check, to see if they were right...
The model that ended up making the most sense to the most students (which I didn't get a picture of, unfortunately) was each category of grades (practice work, summative assessments) being a bowl full of available points. You earn a percentage of those points based on your average in that category.
These guys had an "aha" moment when they figured out the total is 95, not 100 (I have 5% in reserve for a category we don't use yet).
Further, if I don't grade practice work, it's out of 85...
So, the whole point of doing this was to really investigate the question:
In what case does grading practice work further my ultimate goal, which is to make grades reflect the level of understanding of my students?
Working through this problem allowed most of the students (with a little help from me) to come to the following (seemingly obvious, but important to understand) general conclusion: grading practice work is only beneficial if your practice work average is greater than your assessment average.
What does this mean?
Which leads us to the new policy: I'll keep track of practice work, because it's formative assessment. I need to be able to see if students are learning the skills they need to "play the game" of performing on assessments. However, I'll only count it if it helps your final grade.
I had students go back and check out their first quarter grades, and whether/how practice work affected them. This allowed me to address some really wild misconceptions ("It helped my grade went up by about 30%. It is very beneficial for me."), but also allowed most students to see that it has a very minimal effect, and that effect is sometimes negative.
For my own reflection, I had very mixed emotions after going through this with all 5 classes. A couple of them got it, and it felt like we came to a really powerful understanding. For others, including the class that inspired the problem, it was a big "Meh..."
If you've ever taught the same lesson 5 times in a row, you've probably had the experience of waning excitement on your own part: what seems fresh and exciting for the first two classes can start to seem repetitive and dull for the last two. I think that's some of what I was feeling, but there's also this vast difference in the dynamics of my classrooms that I've been struggling with all year.
I hate that I devoted this much time to talking about grades, when I really need to get the focus of these students away from grades and onto understanding.
I love the problem itself, and the fact that it was directly inspired by a need expressed by the students. I'd like to try to incorporate more problems like this in my classroom instruction. Problems where students have to build a model of a real-world situation, work through the mathematics of that model, and use their results to come to a real-world conclusion.
I started writing the first part of these posts directly after teaching it to my first two classes, hence the title. I remember feeling like "Wow! Look at this amazing thing that's happening!" The third class later that day just totally burst that bubble (the class I wrote the problem for, the source of the most emphatic "Meh"s), and really brought me down. I didn't finish the post; within a couple weeks I had stopped posting on my photo blog and gone twitter-dark, and the rest of the semester was really an unsatisfactory struggle.
With some time to re-charge over the winter break, and re-inspire at a recent Math Summit in Shanghai, I feel like I'm ready to get back into things now. There's an exciting curriculum switch coming up at our school, which I get to play a big role in. I've got some engaging project/assessments going in all of my classes to give everyone a good start on the second semester. We just bought a bunch of potted plants for our house, which we're giving silly names. Things are looking up...
I started this post back at the end of October on a real high, right after teaching the lesson to some really receptive students, then just got bummed out frustrated (with the reactions of some other classes and some other things) and never finished it up. Here's part 1, and I'll do my best to finish soon.
Using student feedback, problem solving, and modeling to come to a better understanding of assessment.
I ended my last post noticing how valuable being challenged by my students is turning out to be, especially as I go through this process of changing how I do everything. This is continuing to be the case.
We just finished up our first quarter here. I had a bit of a mad rush to squeeze some assessments in, so I was grading up to the last minute, and was really disappointed with the results, pretty much across the board. Also, every slacker in the class was emailing me to take care of practice work zeros in the gradebook, so I'd go look at the assignments, and half of them still weren't done... OK, my blood pressure is going up, so I'll stop, but you get the picture.
Anyway, got the grades in, then had a little time to reflect about practices so far. There were a couple of things that were bothering me:
Starting the conversation
I started these classes by asking everyone, "what do you think would happen if I stopped grading homework?" Most immediate reactions to this question are, "well, no one would do it." We talked about whether or not that was true, and I gave them my answer: I think the students who do it now understand the purpose of practicing and would keep doing it, and nothing I've ever done has had much of an effect on the others.
Then, I tell them about the new plan and have them do a practice warm-up.
A tale of two attitudes
Now, my first two classes, which I have been known to refer to as my "easy" classes, are very compliant, and just sort of say, "ok," and go on about their business.
My third class (22 juniors and seniors, last period of the day) is my most challenging group. After my first test, they told on me to the principal (who sat through my class on how to read test scores and improve, and totally backed me up). We've had a couple of breakdowns, where I just stop the class and lecture them about how useless they're being (they have a really hard time starting problems and staying focused). They complain about my teaching methods (they want more direct instruction) regularly, and are completely grade (percentage) focused. This class freaked out about #1:
<picking up here in January>
So, It's been awhile, and I don't remember exactly, but I'm sure I went home from that class frustrated and burned out, as usual. But somewhere in the night, it started coming to me (inspired, I'm sure by a recent workshop with Erma Anderson)...
And I made a math problem out of it.
To be continued...
I was lying in bed not sleeping at 2AM or so (as one does), and had one of those ideas that I just had to use in class today (again, as one does: why is this getting more and more normal for me?). It worked so well I had to blog about it.
When I introduced the 0-4 "Levels of Understanding" to my students, some of them asked me to show some examples of the difference between the levels, and of course I didn't have any handy. I told the students we'd come up with them as we went along, and tried to forget about it. That obviously didn't work...
So this morning I threw together my best stab at an example of 1-4 for a Geometry construction by working one out in four different ways. Take a look and see what you think.
I put 'em up on 4 walls, and had the kids circulate and "grade" each. I didn't tell them that there was one of each score, and I didn't give them any more pointers than to use the posters in the room (4 claims and levels of understanding).
-kids were referring to the posters, going up and reading more closely; signs they were thinking about it
-kids were discussing what proficient meant
-I think we started to get to the difference between a drawing and a construction.
-Could've done electronically, but it was worth 4 sheets of paper to see the kids moving around the room, discussing, walking up to check the posters.
What the numbers say:
I collected their post-it votes and (why the hell not?) recorded their responses and made a chart.
I didn't have time to prepare something like this for my two sections of precal later in the day, but we got a little discussion in, and I had them start to try to formulate 1-4 responses for a question. Definitely doing this next week with them.
Man, this feels good. I had the energy today that comes with going into a 5 day weekend, and I got to translate that into something that felt really productive. The students' notions of what a math class is and how it is supposed to work are being challenged, and they are challenging me about how I assess, and ultimately grade. Conversation started! Let's keep it going.
I need to start this off with a big thank you to my badass wife Rani for her help making the badass posters you'll see below. She's a badass 5th grade teacher.
My last two posts have been about my journey towards understanding SBA and some new understandings about assessment I gained this summer. I’m about to start my third week of school, and I think I have something ready to present to students (and also parents; back to school night is this Tuesday). I’ve broken it up into three sections.
What I Assess
Based on the four claims, here’s what I’ve put together in an attempt to make this clear to a population who has had no experience with standards thus far. I debated what exactly to present here, and decided just to keep it simple: these are the four things that matter - really matter - in understanding mathematics. I chose to leave out the Practice Standards and just include some of their wording in the descriptions. I might make a different decision if these students had any experience with standards, but I think this sums things up without overloading.
How I Assess
I have some experience with a 1-4 scale, so I’m sticking with that. I think I can explain it clearly and assess fairly using this model. The big idea is that I am assessing your level of understanding, not your ability to do a certain percentage of math problems correctly. I hope I can make this clear.
How this all translates to grades
I have to give a percentage grade, there’s no way around it at my school. This is sort of the hardest part for me. My last school was an IB school, so I used historical data from IB exams to set up my system there. It’s a much more forgiving system, in terms of percentages, than the classic American system where 60% is the minimum passing grade. I’ve done a lot of blog reading about this, and I think I’ve got something I can work with:
Grading Scale (what I put in the grading system)
10%: Practice work (includes homework, classwork, etc, and is pretty exclusively completion grades)
65%: Summative assessments
20%: Cumulative exams
Awesomeness, you ask? Yeah, this is something I threw in to try to keep kids on their toes.
So, by the time parents come in for back to school night on Tuesday and hear about this, I’ll have presented it to all of my students as well. I expect some pushback, but I’ve thought about this for a long time now, and I’m feeling confident and ready to support my position clearly. Wish me luck! And, as always, let me know what you think.
This past summer, I was invited to participate in a Math Assessment Workshop for AERO (American Education Reaches Out), sponsored by the U.S. State department. For anyone who doesn't know what AERO is (I didn't really), it's basically Common Core for international schools; the goal is to create "a framework for curriculum consistency across grades K-12 and for stability of curriculum in overseas schools, which typically have a high rate of teacher turnover." The math standards are essentially the same as Common Core (in fact, I think they're the precursor to CC, but I'm not solid on my history there). The workshop was led by Erma Anderson (@ermaander), an impressive individual with a wealth of knowledge who I'm glad to have met and been able to work with.
We were a small group of 8 teachers from schools around the world, and from all different age groups (2 K-5, 3 MS, 3 HS). The rest of the group had participated in workshops before for the MSIS (Math Specialist in International Schools) program run by AERO; I was sort of an outsider who slipped in because my wife is doing MSIS, but now I want more!
Now, I thought I was pretty up-to-date on SBA in the math community (see the previous post for my history), but this workshop turned me on to a new framework I'd never used, read about, or seen before: the four "Claims for the Mathematics Summative Assessment" from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. The purposes of the workshop were to
After getting our feet wet with this process, we turned to creating a student profile based on the four claims. We started out calling this a "rubric", which led to a lot of confusion about the purpose of the document. Once we changed our focus to creating a profile, we started coming together towards a final product. This process took two days, but we felt pretty good about having created a document that we all felt comfortable applying K-12
After this, we got back to writing and critiquing assessments. The high school group borrowed heavily from Illustrative Mathematics problems, and the following are three problems we felt pretty good about.
If anyone reading this is interested in checking out any of the K-8 problems, contact me.
Overall, it was energizing to be part of this group of math teachers who were focused and interested in what they were doing. I hope we can keep in touch through #AEROmaththinktank on Twitter.
Because of my unfamiliarity with the claims, I needed to do some independent study and research to help get my head around this way of approaching assessment. Here are two big ideas I'm going to try to use in assessment this year (but this will take some time, and I've got a lot of newness to deal with this year).
1. The four claims are the boss:
These are the things we are always assessing in math assessments, regardless of the specific learning target or subject matter. They should be considered whenever we are designing assessments. Part of Erma's instruction included a link between the four claims and the standards for mathematical practice (SMP); I'm much more familiar and comfortable with the SMP, so I found this helpful. The mess below is me visualizing this (and playing with MS OneNote on a new touchscreen computer).
2. Clusters are learning targets
I spent my first five years trying to write learning targets based on specific standards. Anyone who's done this knows how muddled it can get. Erma blew my mind with the idea of using the Common Core clusters as larger learning targets for assessment's sake. This is fitting in with the idea of a SBA "skills list", which I haven't used before, and the following is the beginnings of my attempt to do this for my geometry class this year. I'm using New Visions' curriculum as a jumping off point here.
Ok, I'm stopping there because the first day of work at my new school is tomorrow! Just had to get some of this down and out of my head before getting into work.
Where I'm coming from
I got my teaching license in 2003. None of my coursework for teaching, including my student teaching, had anything to do with standards.
Then I got a job outside of the traditional school setting, out of the loop as far as current best-practices and educational reform were concerned. I kept this job for 8 years.
In 2012, I got back into classroom teaching by landing a job at brand new international school in China. The leadership of the school was pretty progressive, and decided from the beginning to go with the most current research-based practices.
I still remember the staff meeting where we were introduced to Standards-Based (SB) Grading, Assessment, and Reporting (I'm going to use SBG, SBA, SBR, and try to explain why I differentiate later). Few of the staff (some with much more experience than I) knew about or had much experience with SB anything, and it was kind of a shock to most of us. Oh yeah, BTW, this meeting happened AFTER two or so weeks of instruction, AFTER some of us had already distributed syllabi, grading scales, etc. I had no idea what anyone was talking about - the only grading I knew was percentages and ABCs. I cried in the bathroom that day...
Pretty quickly, watching others struggle with this, I came to the understanding that my lack of experience was an advantage. I didn't have to deal with, or unlearn, years of assessing any other way, I just had to get my head around doing it this way. I was also the only secondary math teacher in the school, so I had an incredible, and often intimidating, level of freedom in developing my curriculum and classroom practices. So I bought in, did the work, and started learning.
Needless to say, I learned more through the experience of teaching than I ever had in any class about teaching. I learned more through personal research, struggling with frustrations, searching for my own answers, than I ever have from professional development. After five years with this school, I feel like I have a relatively good grasp on the idea of SB, although I'm still struggling with the practice and implementation.
Where I am now
As far as I can tell, so is everyone else. I ask educators and administrators about their implementations whenever I can, and I read a lot of blogs and articles on the subject. Over the last five years, only one educator I've spoken with said that his school had "completely figured out" SBG; further conversation revealed that what he really meant was that his school had aligned a 1-4 grading scale with a percentage grading scale in a way that the majority of teachers, students, parents, and other stakeholders accepted.
Everyone else tells the truth; it's a journey, a learning process that no one seems to have nailed down completely yet. There are great ideas out there, but there doesn't seem to be anyone (other than that guy) who's willing to say they've got all the answers and they know exactly how it should be implemented.
I like to separate SB, especially when it involves grades, into three areas that help me think about my own practice. These distinctions are mine, from my experience, and may be different from others'. (they may also be wrong! :)
Where I'm going
Earlier this summer, I participated in an assessment workshop for AERO which gave me a whole new way to think about the standards, and I really want to write a post about it later. The shift that's rolling around in my head involves using clusters (not specific standards) to come up with targets, and couching the targets in the four claims from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.
In a few days, I'm heading out to start a new job in Pakistan! I don't know everything about how things work there, but I don't think they're using SBR yet (kind of a relief to me). They use percentage scales and letter grades for reports, but I've been reading a lot on how other teachers are doing SBG within their own classrooms, even if it's not a school-wide practice, and even if they eventually have to show a letter grade. Overall I don't think I can do assessment any other way, so SBA will be a part of what I do no matter where I teach.
If anyone made it this far, thanks for reading. I hope to keep posting on this journey, reading about what others are doing, and refining my practice.
People who've helped me think about this (not an exhaustive list, INPO):
Follow the links for some great posts on SBG
After 5 years of living and teaching in Dongguan, China, we're making the move to Lahore, Pakistan this summer (after some down-time in Florida)! Never mind the geography - I'm also considering a whole lot of changes in my teaching.