Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Standards Based Grading and My Classroom Practice

Grades. Assessment.  The pile of papers staring at me, just waiting for me to put little marks on them, then enter some more marks in the computer, so that kids and parents can ignore, celebrate, or argue  about (with each other or with me, depending on family culture).

Doesn't it just feel overwhelming sometimes?  And I feel like I have a pretty good handle on it!!! (Click here for information about what goes in my gradebook, here for how I grade reading and listening quizzes, and here for how I grade writing.)

I recently attended a 2 day seminar on Standards Based Grading with Rick Wormeli. (It was awesome.)  I am not at all new to his work and ideas, and I have spent time with proficiency based grading (a la Marzano- two full seminars).  I am also enrolled in an edX course (offered by the MIT teaching and learning lab) about Competency Based Grading.  Since the term ends in a few weeks, I am looking at end of term grades, my grading practice, my assessments, and trying to make sense of my new learning.   So, this is more of a personal blog post, with less practicality and more reflection.

 In no particular order, here is my attempt to process what I came away with:

Schools conspire against learning. Yes, well, this is so patently obvious it almost doesn't need commentary.  If I could just teach, and be free of the arbitrary nature of so much of my job, I would be a better teacher and I think the kids would acquire more.

Never sacrifice sound pedagogy because someone above you isn't there yet.
Yes.  Yes. A MILLION TIMES yes.

Sorting or cultivating? Is one better than the other?
Isn't that language super judgmental?
Are we here to sort or cultivate students?  I think I am here to cultivate students. So what am I doing that is sorting? Is sorting a negative word? Thanks to my colleague today who pointed out that it doesn't have to be negative.  When I differentiate, isn't it sorting?

Is it sorting to put a judgement on a product (an assessment, a project)?  Wormeli argues yes.  He argues that judgement does not promote learning.  But that assumes that students have control over their own learning, which is true for learning that involves the explicit system (math, science, other subjects) but not true for the implicit system of language acquisition.

I believe that giving feedback isn't going to affect their acquisition, especially not at the levels I teach (mostly 1 and 2).  Giving feedback on what they can control- that is, behavior that supports language acquisition...well, now we are getting into compliance.  And that is messy.

On another note: if I am teaching to cultivate, what about tracking students?  (My school has two tracks of math and Spanish.)  This brings up a lot of personal stuff for me because my experience with school was terrible and consisted of virtually no differentiation until there were honors classes that I could go into.  (I dropped out of public school and went to college at age 16.)  Now that I teach honors classes, I strongly believe that I am serving the kids better by splitting them up by proficiency, and meeting them where they are at.  But this is a very unpopular view, and I can see why.  I am going to have to put that one aside for now.

Compliance or competency?  MESSY!  
Compliance vs. Competency: It is MESSY.
Some of my peers and trainers argue that we should never grade for compliance (engagement), because that has nothing to do with their competency. And what about neuro-diverse students?   Others say that we should not grade their competency because they have no control over it, but we should grade what they can control (behaviors that support language learning), which is basically compliance.

Assessment is where we live our values. This resource, from the indominable Tina Hargaden, comes at just the right time.  But it brings up some difficult questions for me.  Am I grading too hard? Am I accurately assessing their proficiency levels?  Am I falsely inflating or deflating grades?  How do I know what proficiency levels look like?

Because if I am being honest, according to Tina's rubrics, I grade WAAAY low.  But I am consistent within my department, and within myself.  This is important to acknowledge, and a thought that I come back to again and again.  Scott Benedict's trainings on assessing freewrites helped me solidify this.  For more information, check out his work at Teachforjune.com.

I am already using standards based grades, and I think that my grades finally (mostly) represent what students can do and understand.  Whew. What a relief.  I have worked SO hard on this. And this is the best year so far, in that my students' reported grades really do seem to reflect their proficiency, not their organization or compliance. Sure, I can improve, but I feel like I am on the right track.  Even if I am trying to squeeze into my school's 100 point averaging system.

If I believe that students have no control over the rate at which they acquire language, I should not be grading them. Period. Full stop.  
Ouch.  And yes.  But reporting what they can do is valuable, both for them and for me, and required in the school system.  And I do like to see what they can do, and so do they.

Corollary: If students can't control what they acquire, why am I spending so much time and effort on this assessment stuff?  I mean, weighing the pig more often does not make it fatter.  
Oh wait. Because this is actually part of my job. Hmm.  Refer to my first point.  However, it does give me some peace thinking that my goal to load up the input, create a community where students feel valued, recognized, and successful, and where I love to go every day (because I have the time for self-care and self-reflection), is actually where my time should be spent.  And the majority of my assessments *should* be input-focused.  (Thanks to Lance Piantaginni for helping me see the value in input-based assessments.  After all: more input is always a good thing.)

I am so grateful to not be tied to a fixed schedule of summative assessments that are worth a certain percent and are unrecoverable.  However, I *am* still tied to getting enough grades in the grade book.  And "citizenship" as a grading category. (Can you hear the scorn dripping from my voice? This is one school requirement that really chafes at me.)

The assumption that students can control their language acquisition is incorrect, and the assumption that giving them descriptive feedback will help is just plain wrong.  Sorry, Rick.  
It might not be wrong for subjects like math etc. that rely on explicit learning, but the nature of second language acquisition is different.  Thanks, Bill VanPatten, for helping me get real clear about this.  So I am not going to spend a ton of time giving them feedback.  The payoff isn't that great for the time spent, especially when I could spend my time taking care of myself so I can better connect with kids, or finding interesting, compelling things to talk about with them, or trying to build my skills to speak so that they understand me.  Because those actions actually will help them acquire more.

Which leads me to some classroom practices that I am re-examining: 

Student Learning Objectives: 

Oh man, we love our objectives, don't we?  Many teachers have to have different ones daily, and track each student through each one and blah blah blah.  I am (once again) very grateful to work at a school where they are not required.  I developed them anyway, and every time I go back to teach a unit again, I look at them to decide if they still have meaning.  I think it is important that the kids know what the end goal is, even if it is very broad.  In fact, I hand them out to the kids to glue in their interactive-ish notebooks, and even post them as part of our starters.

In the first few weeks of the year, I ask students to self-reflect on their learning daily, usually based on the starter we did, and discuss what objective it was checking and what they can do to acquire.

But I stopped doing this around around October. I stopped because I would rather speak Spanish and ask how they are doing and just converse, not meta-process something over which they have no control.  Plus, twice a week, my starter is FVR/SSR, with no paperwork for the kids.

Another reason I stopped going over objectives was because the answer to "how will you move up the proficiency ladder" is ALWAYS more input.  I can remind kids of where to find that input (in class, on my class web page, during office hours, etc.) and that they can access it without anyone else, but the answer never changes.  And I felt like a broken record.  (There might be value in that though.)  It can be useful to have the discussion about the value of "practice", quizlet, and "write sentences". (That is, if it is input, it's great.  "Practicing sentences" or flashcards on quizlet , probably not.)

What I changed: After returning from the Wormeli workshop, I intentionally decided to refer to the objectives again in each class, and give the opportunity for self-reflection of progress.  My high-anxiety, high achievers really liked it.  Most of the others seemed to be confused and/or tuned out. And it took SO MUCH TIME!!

My verdict?  I think that I will continue creating and sharing objectives, and when the mood strikes, ask the kids to look at their progress and the objectives (through the starter), but it is not going to be a daily thing.  Maybe weekly?

Target structures, rubrics, and feedback:
I often ask students to write quick freewrites (10 minutes) at the end of the unit and incorporate the target structures from that unit. For first year students in 7th grade and Spanish 1B (8th grade) I decided that students being able to use the structures as practiced (3rd person) was proficient, as that was mostly what they were reading in the units, and seemed reasonable.  The application of using different endings to the words to talk about self and others seemed like an advanced goal, for writing. So that was my rubric.  I also graded more holistically on a modified ACTFL rubric (basically this from Martina.)   

Now, I have been using this target structures rubric for four years, and never loved it.  What if they use two correctly and forget the third?  Wormeli would perhaps say that I should disaggregate the grade for each in the gradebook to give a better reflection of their learning.  Well, that is great if you are working on different skills in a different subject,  but since I know that language is acquired in messy chunks, and the stages of development are fixed and also messy, and that kind of feedback won't help with acquisition, disaggregating seems like a poor use of (my) limited time.

 Wormeli says that descriptive feedback is helpful. I am doubtful about this assertion regarding language acquisition, but I do see the value in showing students where they did or didn't meet the expectation.

What I changed: I decided to ask the kids.  I took 10 minutes of class and just told them what I was thinking, and asked if the target structures rubric was helpful for them.  They said that they wanted to know which words they were using at what level.  I suggested that I just give them feedback- a checklist and grade them holistically on the ACTFL rubric.
This is the new rubric- this DOES NOT go in the grade book!

It was so smooth for me to grade in this last round of writing, and they commented how useful it was to see what they were doing right.  So that's a keeper!!!

Proficiency levels
Posters on my classroom wall
The last thing that I decided to change up this week was to spend a little bit more time in L1 talking about proficiency levels.

I spend almost a whole day at the beginning of the year having students work on an activity that introduces them to proficiency levels. (See examples below.)  I will write about what I do more specifically- I even have a video- but for now, suffice it to say that I explicitly teach about the ACTFL levels at the beginning of the year, and discuss with kids and families what their goals are (for June).

I also use rubrics with proficiency levels on them already, and I do talk to the students about what they mean.  But am I doing it enough?  This is what I wanted to find out.

Proficiency Project in the hall
I do this at the beginning of the year
(Novice High)
Novice Low
Intermediate  Mid

I decided that after giving a writing quiz, I would take the kids out to the hallway where I have their proficiency level projects hanging.  I asked them to re-read their quizzes and mark on the rubric where they thought they were, proficiency-wise, based on the rubric and the examples we did at the beginning of the year.

Like this adorable cat that doesn't quite fit into his box, kids taught in comprehension based communicative
classrooms don't fit nicely into ACTFL levels.

Now, there is a MAJOR problem with this.  If you have been focused on providing compelling, comprehended input in your classes, you can probably guess what it is.  ACTFL proficiency levels, originally developed for a non-educational context, don't play nicely with kids who get tons of input and start writing paragraphs almost immediately.  They tend to skip novice low completely and speed through novice mid, at least in my experience and understanding.   Depending on the teacher, they might start writing paragraphs in a variety of time frames.
Yes, it is usually messy, but as Tina Hargaden reminds us, novice and intermediate writers need a sympathetic reader.  (And remember, there is no such thing as an error, only an indicator of the developmental stage the learner is in. Again, thanks to BVP for reminding me of this.) So is their writing indicative of micro-fluency, and thus they are really not intermediate low or mid?  Tina has a strong case for the opposite- that teachers constantly rate their students too low.  I am still really struggling with this, and have been for years.

That being said, is this a worthy struggle for me as a teacher?  Does it *really* matter if my kids are novice high or intermediate mid? It is probably not going to change what I do.  I am still going to give them a huge diet of comprehensible, comprehended input, including fiction, non-fiction, academic language, adapted authentic resources, music, etc.

I mean, common language is great but totally meaningless if other teachers have different interpretations of these same words.


  1. Grade system should stop in the schools. We judge student's value from their skills not from grade. We should improve their learning skills. Typical Studentalso provide better learning techniques.

  2. Found your blog after you posted in an ACTFL group. I really appreciate your work. It's very informative and helpful.