In an earlier post, I suggested a school assessment plan, even though I have never been a school principal. In this one, I intend to outline a district assessment plan, even though I have never been a superintendent or trustee.
This plan is aimed at secondary (7-12) assessment. The elementary school world is too foreign to me to comment on its assessment practices.
I need to begin by saying that I am glad that the board of trustees in Edmonton Public Schools has voted to review their assessment procedures. Never before has assessment been such a hot topic, and we need to make sure we do this right.
The review must accomplish one thing, and one thing only. We need to emerge from the review with a clear understanding of what grades represent. By “we”, I mean teachers, students, parents, the general public, and the media. Let’s clearly define what we are assessing, and do a better job of communicating it.
I have confidence that our board and superintendent will do this right. Just in case, here’s what I think needs to be included in a district assessment plan. I’m sure theirs will be quite a bit longer.
A grade represents demonstrated level of achievement compared to curricular outcomes.
Notes about definition
- Notice the use of “demonstrated”. Kids have to do it so we can assess it.
- Kids can demonstrate 0 ability compared to the curriculum. We can enter 0 if we have evidence that shows they know nothing.
- If the student doesn’t demonstrate (ie misses the assessment) we do not assign any grade. We put in one of two codes. (See below)
In curricula that include behaviour, we will assess behaviour. In curricula that do not include behaviour, we will not assess behaviour. We will, however, report on behaviour. We will do this in the form of comments, or a grade in categories like employability, effort, ability to meet deadlines, post-secondary preparedness, or whatever other rather subjective measures will make people happy. We are limited here by our current grade book software. I won’t name them, but it is written by a giant textbook company.
Grade Book Software
We need to take over how our grade books work. They need to adapt to our needs, not the other way around. If our current provider won’t adapt, we need to find a new one. Here is what we need our grade books to do.
The grade book will allow only one of three things to be entered into it.
- A Mark – The mark entered must be supported by evidence. Lack of evidence is reported differently.
- An “Omit” – The omit code would not factor into student grades. This code is the option for teachers to leave out small assignments, or to excuse students who have extenuating circumstances. It should not be used for major assessments.
- An “Incomplete” – Incomplete indicates just that. The student didn’t do the assessment, and the teacher needs him to. We need to get our grade book to function such that as soon as an “incomplete” is entered, it no longer calculates the cumulative grade. Instead, it reports the cumulative grade as, wait for it… ”Incomplete”
Notes on Incomplete
The entry of the incomplete would also automatically generate a comment which would appear on all reports, and be sent home to parents via School Zone. The comment would say something like this:
Due to missing assessments, I am unable to determine Kevin’s grade at this time. Once the missed assessments are completed, a cumulative grade will be calculated. Please contact me to make arrangements for Kevin to complete any missing assessments. Failure to complete the assessments may result in Kevin having to repeat this course.
I used a similar process in my last teaching position, and it worked wonderfully. Parents really took an active role in making sure those assessments came in to me.
How This Plan Affects Various Kinds of Students
Top End Kids
Our top end kids will react well to this plan. They tend to react well to everything we do to them. They will learn that we value performance compared to the curriculum. They will learn that the way to get high grades is to master the course material. They will learn that there are certain assessments that them must do. They will be well prepared for university life, where most courses use only a handful of assessments to determine a grade.
Our 26% Who Drop Out or Fail to Complete High School
26% of Alberta students fail to complete high school. That’s thousands of dropouts lacking the skills to be productive members of society. There are all kinds of reasons that students fail to complete high school. We need to fix the ones that are our fault. This plan will help most of them.
- We won’t end up failing lazy students who could actually do the work. This plan ensures that lazy students are forced to do the work so we can assess them.
- We will teach them that we expect them to do the work, which will serve them well in employment even if they drop out.
- We will be able to extend the course for the kids who are truly struggling. A final grade of “Incomplete” is more supportive than 32%. It says, “Come back to school, and we’ll try to get you through this course so you can graduate from high school and have a better life.”
The Middle Kids
We mistakenly assume that our middle kids all want to be top kids. Some do. Many are happy where they are. Kids that are happy where they are “game” the system that allows zeros. They do the minimum amount that they can to get by with a 50 or 60 or whatever they are happy with. We have taught these kids, by allowing them to take zeros, that they can pick and choose what to do, and still get by. No wonder employers think they are lazy. We’ve taught them to be like that. By allowing them to take a zero, we may have let them believe that their employers will let them pick and choose which tasks they are willing to do in their jobs.
The plan above, whereby the kids have to do the essential assessments, teaches them the opposite. It teaches them that they have to do all aspects of their job, even the ones they may not like as much. That’s responsibility and accountability.
Who We Have to Educate, and How
To make this work, we need to get the following messages to the following people.
They need to know that they can’t skate by and do nothing. We have a set of non-negotiable assessments, and they are expected to do them.
We need to help teachers understand that many of us give kids too many little things “for marks”. We need to get deeply into formative assessment and how to embed it in our classrooms. Most of what I used to chase kids for should have been formative.
We also need to get into the notion of “professional judgement”. Proponents of zeros argue that they want professional judgment to allow them to give zeros. Professional judgement, in an assessment context, dictates that the teacher use other evidence (other assessments, observations, re-dos, etc…) to put a mark in a grade book that reflects what the student knows. See above: The mark that goes into the grade book must be supported by evidence.
If you believe the student truly knows zero, then put in zero. When you do that, you’ll realize you’ve really been harsh on your own teaching skills, though. If I had a kid who had been in my class for any length of time, and I thought he truly knew nothing, what does that say about my teaching ability?
For this to work, you have to be the ones chasing kids. Teachers are busy and stressed.
You need to be taught that our grades will now reflect how your child is performing compared to the curricular standards.
Right now, unfortunately, you can’t be sure. If my daughter comes home with 40% in Math 10, I don’t know what that means. It might mean she is bad at math. It might also mean she is good at math, but didn’t do all the things her teacher asked her to do. We need to clear this up, because the interventions I need to take as a parent are very different. In one case, I need to get her some math help. In the other case, I need to kick her butt.
We are not giving kids free passes. We are not giving kids free passes. We are not giving kids free passes. The grades they get will be earned. They can earn a zero. But we define an earned zero as demonstrated lack of knowledge. Undemonstrated knowledge is not assessable.
We need to assure the public that the grade assigned represents performance compared to the curriculum. We didn’t artificially lower it by inserting zeros that weren’t earned, and we didn’t artificially inflate it by giving bonus marks or other rewards. The grade represents our best guess as to how well the student mastered the material in the course.