Cameroon 2009

Cameroon 2009

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Marks don't matter

What follows is the "message from the principal" in our upcoming newsletter.  We need to work hard at trying to help our students and parents (and staff, if you're not "there" yet) to stop thinking of marks as a meaningful definition of student learning.

Here at Ashern Central, we've come a long way as staff in understanding that percentage grades are a silly construct.  We only report that way because of the provincial report cards, and then only four times a year.  Aside from that, we do use a 4 point scale for measuring student progress in learning outcomes; even there, though, we try to frame the discussion around the learning, and not the numbers attached to the summative assessments.

Marks don’t matter.

A strange sentiment to accompany the year’s first report cards, for sure.  Really though, marks don’t matter, not much anyway.  Learning matters, a lot, but marks are a terribly blunt instrument for measuring that learning.

So much of what students learn in a day, a week or a semester goes unmeasured by marks.  The most important things: personal responsibility; caring (for themselves and for others); determination and “grit”; self-confidence; leadership; and many others.  If you’re a student, aren’t these the things that you want for yourself?  If you’re a parent, isn’t this what you want for your child?  These are the things that matter, the things that last, that stay with us for a lifetime.

Yes, we have a responsibility to teach the academics, and yes, they matter too.  Perhaps not as much as we used to think they did, and certainly not if it’s just the learning of facts, in a world that offers us all the facts known to humankind in just a few key clicks.  Even then, though, a single percentage grade to represent that learning?  Really?

As a teacher, I watched students chase marks, and even the very best of them often didn’t care about what they learned.  “What do I have to do to get a 90?”  Not what can I learn, how can I grow, what will make me a better, more complete, more effective and happy human being.  We want our children to become life-long learners, but if grades motivate them now, where will the motivation come from when they aren’t receiving marks?

Our students need and deserve useful, descriptive feedback about their learning.  We know from research that verbal feedback is most effective, and that the relationship between teacher and student is key  to fostering student learning.  This is what we are working on, this is what matters.  Students and parents, when you speak with one another about how school is going, let’s focus on the learning, not on the marks. 

Marks don’t matter—people do.

Monday, November 4, 2013

It starts with the "3"

I received a request from a colleague about how to interpret the meaning of a "4" on Manitoba's 4 point scale for middle years report cards.  One of her teachers had suggested that it meant "above grade level".

What follows is the email I sent in response.  The bottom line is that in our school, we call "3" meeting the outcome (and we assess by outcome, not units or tasks).  The teacher and students need a strong understanding of those outcomes, and they need to know what "meeting" looks like.  With any luck, there are multiple possibilities for demonstrating it, but still...

More to follow about our journey toward outcome-based assessment (standards based grading) soon.

What follows is the report card descriptors.  No mention of "grade-level" at all.

Academic Achievement of Provincial Expectations

4  Very good to excellent understanding and application of concepts and skills
3  Good understanding and application of concepts and skills
2  Basic understanding and application of concepts and skills
1  Limited understanding and application of concepts and skills; see teacher comments
ND  Does Not yet Demonstrate the required understanding and application of concepts and skills; see teacher comments

Like grade level, these descriptors are, in themselves, meaningless.  The conversation needs to change, and teachers need to accept that their interpretations of "good" and "basic" etc. are about as objective as grade level suppositions.  There simply is no objective standard.  That requires definition of the assessment, exemplars and so on, and curriculum documents (thankfully) don't contain those.

That's where it becomes incumbent upon teachers to have a solid understanding of the outcomes they're expecting from students, and what it "looks like" when students meet them.  At Ashern Central, we start from that point, and define meeting the outcome as a 3.  Further, never mind the percentage ranges on the report card, 3.0 = 80% when we convert subject grades to a percentage, which we only do for report cards.  No percentages at any other time, and a shame we have to do it for the report cards.

If 3 = meeting the outcome, does that mean that 4 = exceeding the outcome?  Simply, yes.  The form that takes will vary from course to course, outcome to outcome.  And, it's up to teacher and student to define what that looks/sounds like.

Some examples:

in gr. 7 Math:  The outcome is to determine mean, median, mode and range. 
3 = the student successfully calculates these values from a set of numbers (perfectly?, or 9 times out of 10? - there's the subjectivity of the teacher's definition of "meeting")
4 = the student completes an independent project to collect and collate meaningful data, and then calculate these values, or...
the student goes on to learn about standard deviation, and show a basic understanding of its meaning, or...
the student successfully tutors a peer, finding ways to explain these concepts meaningfully by deconstructing the steps in new ways, or with new examples.

in gr. 5 Social Studies:  The outcome is to describe daily life in early French and British settlements in Atlantic Canada
3 = the student provides descriptions that provide a level of detail prescribed by the teacher (in whatever way, not just tests)
4 = a comparison and contrast of these descriptions, or...
the creation of a performance, artwork, ??? that represents these lives, or...
an analysis (appropriate for gr. 5, of course) of why these lives were different.  Simply, working higher up Bloom's taxonomy in answering the question.

And so on.  Lots and lots of possibilities.

What is a 2?  Again, we try to keep it simple.  It's when the student "gets it", but isn't quite there in meeting the expectation(s) for a 3.

a 1?  It's when a student is really barely there.  Again, as always, a subjective professional judgment.  1 is the threshold, where the teacher believes that the student has a cursory understanding or demonstration of the skill, but only that, no more.

So, it all starts with defining the "3".  4 is an extension of that in some fashion; 2 and 1 lower levels of demonstrating the learning expected for a 3.  We kid ourselves if we thing teachers are ever going to have extensive rubrics for all of the outcomes, exemplars and so on.  It's much more reasonable to ask just for the definition of 3, and work from there.

Hope that helps.  We need to push teachers, and ourselves, to embrace the complexity and professional thinking that goes into assessing grades.  At the same time, we need to keep all of this in its place, and to remember that it's about pushing a learning agenda, not a grade-grubbing agenda, and that's about formative and not summative assessment.