Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Making Sense of Assessment...My Grading Philosophy

As many of you know, I have struggled to find good and valid ways to assess the kids in my classes. And if you have any twitter presence at all, you know that there has been quite possibly the most epic discussion ever held on that platform about Standards Based Grading*. If nothing else good comes from this twitter discussion, it has been an opportunity for me (and several others) to really reflect on what it is that makes assessment in my classroom authentic and not just some random number that gets translated into a grade.

Warning: personal conjecture ahead...
The thing about the grading and assessment that occurs in your class is that it is extremely personal.** It truly ties into what your teaching philosophy really is. Think back on your teacher preparation classes for just a second. Did ANY of you have ANY kind of instruction or even guidance as to how to grade the kids in your classes?? I didn't. I'm not sure I know anyone who has. Essentially, we were set loose with the assumption that we would figure it out. Now if you were anything like me, I just graded how I had been graded in the past. I kind of started with 100% tests. Now you realize in high school pretty quickly that that is probably a bad idea.*** So I made it something like 20% homework. Then I added in some participation points. And for the love of everything holy, I gave extra credit for bringing in kleenex. Hey, everyone had a cold that year.

And so over the years, it just kind of morphed into something that really reflected what I believed as a teacher was important. My guess is that you have probably followed a similar path to end up with whatever type of assessment regime you currently work under. It has taken me quite awhile and a good bit of trial and error, but I have finally arrived at a place where I really feel like the final grade that I assign to any given student is one that I feel good about.

So in the spirit of waxing philosophical, here is my personal grading philosophy...

1. I believe, in my heart of hearts, that a grade a student receives in my chemistry class should be a reflection of what he knows about chemistry. Period. Done. That's it. You're acting up in class today? Fine. I will deal with that, but not by reducing your grade. You want to bring cookies in for my birthday? Aw...I love you even more. But not enough to give you extra credit. For me, grades are NOT a classroom management tool. I don't hold points over your head to make sure you don't cause me any problems. In turn, I don't reward you with points for sucking up.

2. I am going to be as clear and concise as I possibly can as to what it is you need to know. I use Standards Based Grading in my classroom for a lot of reasons, but first and foremost I use it as a tool to describe exactly what skills and ideas you need to master in order to navigate through a specific class.

3. I am not going to give you points for your homework. Probably the biggest argument I hear about this is that by not grading homework, we are not preparing kids for the "real world".**** I give homework about once a week. This is typically practice and an extension of what we have learned in class. Kids know they are expected to complete it (yes, I keep track) and they know that the next day we will whiteboard it in class. When I first started whiteboarding, I didn't realize what a powerful formative assessment tool this can be. As kids are preparing their boards, I wander around and answer questions and listen to the discussions. That right there gives me mountains of information about whether or not kids are getting it. Then those kids present their work. I have a group of kids this year who fight over who gets to present. Know why? Because it helps cement in their brains what it is we are doing. I have teachers who argue that this is a waste of class time. (Seriously.) They don't have time for kids to go over every single homework assignment. I just have to say that I do not agree. For me, if it is important enough to assign, it is important enough to go over with my kids. Amazingly enough, even though I am not bribing them with points, I have found that kids still do their homework. Can you guess why? Because they see the value in it. They understand that if I am going to give them the opportunity to practice those skills and give them feedback on their progress then they will be much more successful when it comes to test time.

4. I don't do averages. This is a big one. I don't have too many standards that kids are expected to master in any of my classes. How you score on each target counts individually towards your final overall grade, but one does not override the other. This means that one target is no more important than another. You have to know them all. You can't do horrible on Conservation of Mass and balance that out by totally rocking Stoichiometry.

5. There will be lots of opportunities to reassess on something you didn't understand the first time around. I more or less have my targets set up in a way that allows me to circle back to each one over and over again throughout the year. For me, if I haven't assessed that target more than three times in the trimester, it is worth a look at rewriting. I really don't believe education is a one time shot. Listening to some of my colleagues and a surprising number of parents, this goes against everything they believe education should be. There is also a big debate on the whole retake thing. That is an individual preference and can be handled in a lot of ways. In general, a student cannot walk through my door and just get a retake. I have allowed that in some cases, but there is a lot of work on the student's part that must be done before I will let that happen.

6. I care that you are understanding what I am teaching. How that translates into a letter grade is a side concern of mine. All that letter does is give you an idea of where you stand in your mastery of the standards. Notice that I did NOT say where you stand in relation to your peers. Grades are not a competition in my room. If what you know rewards you an A, awesome. If you "only" get a B, awesome. You're getting an F? Um, you really aren't getting it. Get in here and let's see where you have gone off track.

I think that pretty much sums it up! Now that I actually have it on paper and can look at each point individually, I really feel better about the decisions I have made to change my classroom assessment.

Our district has just started the conversation about how to move to a more transparent system of grading. I'm not sure how it is going to go. We spent nearly two hours debating the homework issue one day. This could get pretty interesting, so I will keep you posted on that one...

*This thing has raged on for weeks now, one THREAD has over 2,000 replies, and at this point is mostly at a point of last-worditis and not so veiled name-calling because Frank and Brian and lots and lots of others realized you can't have a decent discussion when the other side refuses to even pretend you might know what you are talking about...good luck @DataDiva :) And truly, this has morphed into something that isn't even really about grades any more.

**I am NOT saying that it should be, just that it is.

***Ironically, I am sort of back to that theory now...

****This. Right here. This is probably the worst argument I hear. Besides teaching, in what world are kids going to have three hours of homework every night to be turned in the next day??? In what job are kids going to get a reward for every. little. thing. they. do??

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