I knew when I published an article in The Edmonton Journal, I’d receive some feedback. There were two letters from teachers to today’s Edmonton Journal that I’d like to address. If I understand the letters correctly, both teachers are grading things that I would make entirely formative. In a previous post, I did my best to describe the difference between formative and summative assessment.
Bonnie Vallevand from Edmonton writes:
Wow! I want some of John Scammell’s magic power in “making” students do their assignments.
Yes, if one teaches a class filled with university-bound kids, one will have “only a handful” of students to chase down for missing assignments. But a teacher might have a class of 35 where most of the students have learned attendance and assignments are optional. Or a class where the parents couldn’t care less or find it difficult to “make” an 18-year-old do anything he chooses not to do no matter how much they “insist.”
Bonnie, the only way to teach a class that assignments are optional is to give them zeros when they opt out. I don’t let kids opt out of the summative assessments, and I’m not a magician. I think I just give far fewer summative assessments than most teachers.
I taught all kinds of students when I was in the classroom. I taught University bound students and I taught real strugglers. I taught everything from Math 14 up to AP Calculus.
University bound students are motivated by grades (unfortunately at the expense of learning, in some cases). They might respond to a zero. I should point out that I have seen some top students try to strategically take a zero on a math assignment so that they can study for a Physics test they think is more important. They’ll work out the math of the effect of the zero grade and know exactly how it will affect their average. I’d rather show some flexibility in my deadline so as not to interfere with the Physics test, and get the math done too. Sometimes, in the real world, we have to juggle our responsibilities like that. A better lesson than letting them take the zero is teaching them how to be responsible and communicate with their teachers in advance of the deadline.
I also taught many, many Math 14 and Math 24 classes. These are our non-motivated students,many of whom exhibit behavioural problems and math deficiencies. I know exactly what these kids are like, and I love them. They are some of my favorite to teach. I can assure you that these poor students are not motivated by zeros. They are beaten down by the system and looking for an excuse to quit. They want to get by doing the least amount of work possible. They’ll gladly take a string of zeros, as long as their average stays above 50%. They aren’t shooting for honors. They are shooting for the absolute minimum amount of work they can do and still pass the class. My system is better. I have a small number of summative assessments that I insist they do. If they miss it, I do chase them to get it done, even if it means at lunch or after school. My boss does the same thing with my (always late) professional growth plan. She makes me stay late to get it done.
I don’t chase students for small stuff. I make them show me evidence of learning on summative assessments. Which brings me to…
Russ Purdy of Edmonton, who describes himself as a “High School Teacher and University Lecturer”, and writes:
Scammell says the deadline is an “arbitrary standard of behaviour and accountability.” Then why give students a deadline at all? Why not just say, “Solve the following four math problems. Sometime. Pretty please?”
Deadlines, gentlemen, are an integral part of the assignment. Of course deadlines are “arbitrary.” Society pays serious money to teachers to be arbitrary. It is a critical part of our job, what separates us from babysitters. It is based on society’s belief that we know more than the students and that we’ll act as though we do.
If we lack the courage and knowledge to set reasonable deadlines for assignments and then even-handedly evaluate students on what they can produce in the time allotted, then we are in the wrong occupation and an embarrassment to those who call teaching a profession.
I suspect Russ and Bonnie are both chasing kids to hand in things I would never bother chasing them for. In my class, the four problems Russ describes would be formative. If a student didn’t do the four problems, It would affect his grade only in that he would have wasted an opportunity to receive feedback about his learning before the summative assessment. I suspect far too many teachers still think everything has to be “for marks” so that students will do it. It’s not the case at all. Even my Math 14 and Math 24 students do things that aren’t for marks.
We need to break away from the mindset that we need tons of evidence recorded in our grade books. Get your courses down to 5-10 high quality summative assessments. You don’t have to be a magician to get kids to do those. All you need is the flexibility that Bonnie refers to, and a supportive administration.
The biggest change I made in my practice over the past few years is the number of summative assessments I was giving students. I used to be proud to have 40 marks in my grade book. I thought it meant I was doing a great job of assessing. All it really meant was I was spending a lot of time chasing students to do small things that should have been formative. Now my evidence gathering is built around a small number of high quality summative assessments. The little things are formative. Not doing a formative assessment has a natural consequence for a student. He loses the chance to learn and improve his performance on the summative, when we get there.
Reducing the number of summative assessments made it so much easier for me to get the evidence I needed from my class. Instead of chasing 4o students for 8 things each, I only had a handful who had missed a summative assessment. It made my life a whole lot easier. It wasn’t magic at all.
I can’t tell from his letter whether Russ still teaches high school. If he does, he really needs to check his curriculum. He says we need to “evaluate students on what they can produce in the time allotted.” There is so much that is so wrong with that statement. I’m only going to address the deadline aspect of it. Nowhere in my curriculum do deadlines appear. The only hard and fast deadline in my curriculum is the end of the course when I have to submit my grades to Alberta Education. My curriculum says kids need to be able to solve exponential equations. It doesn’t tell me they have to do it on a certain day. It really doesn’t. Honest.
Consider three students writing an exponents unit exam in September.
Student A – Writes the test and gets 80%
Student B – Writes the test and gets 12%
Student C – Skips the test.
Later on that year, I reassess exponents.
Student A – Writes the test and gets 92%.
Student B – Writes the test and gets 92%.
Student C – Writes the test and gets 92%.
Who gets the higher grade in my class? If you answered A, your belief is a reflection of what I believe to be the single biggest problem with high school assessment in Alberta. I have a post coming up on that one.
The correct answer is “none of the above”. There is no deadline on learning written into my curriculum. All three students have shown mastery of exponents. Their grades are the same.
Teachers, read this blog. Every single word on it. It will change your life.