Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Are Grades About What Students Earn or What Students Learn?

Conversations about grading practices can be difficult to approach.  Few schools or school districts have established common grading practices.  One district working to develop common practices came to the realization that, Grading is one of the most private experiences for students and teachers in the learning process.  (Erickson, J. 2010) 

No matter how uncomfortable the conversation may be, school leaders in systems without common grading practices should be having conversations with teachers about the impact of grading practices on student success.  Establishing grading practices that are equitable and support student learning requires teachers to challenge their beliefs and think about what grades represent.  Grading practices that promote equity focus on what students learn.  Grading practices that are equitable do not focus on behaviors such as organizational skills or the students access to support systems.

One of the first steps of implementing common grading practices in a school system is to develop a common purpose statement that is agreed upon by all staff.  Schools with firmly entrenched practices may want to take a scholarly approach to this issue by researching current best practices, engaging in book studies and providing opportunities for professional debate and dialogue such as socratic seminars or philosophical chairs.  It is important to acknowledging how difficult it is for teachers to let go of past practices and to provide a safe path to change.

Teacher judgement is a large factor in grading. Assisting teachers to develop belief systems and practices that help them make good judgements focused on student learning benefits the student and the teacher.  Grading systems wont change without thoughtful and deliberate conversations.  Grading practices are mired in belief systems that cause discomfort among teachers.  Teachers may struggle with change because to change you have to effectively admit that your previous practice was not effective and that is not a comfortable state for some.  Teachers are professionals who want to excel in their job and feel competent.   Admitting you are not sure can be scary. Teachers may not know what the new way of grading will look like and how to go about implementing the changes.  Guiding staff through difficult changes in a way that helps them safely challenge their own beliefs and integrate new ideas will yield positive results for students.

The book, Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck (2014) is a great way to start a discussion with around grading practices.  This book inserts actual stories and humor to explain how Duecks grading practices have evolved over time.  It illustrates how strategies that work effectively are often found because you attempted a strategy that failed. This non-threatening approach makes it easier for teachers to be willing to take risks and try something new. 

School systems striving for equity must address the issue of grading.  Inconsistent grading practices make it difficult for students who struggle with navigating systems.  This can hinder students progress towards on-time graduation, students own beliefs about themselves and even college admission.   The college admission process is extremely competitive.  It is important that we know we are not keeping students out who have the ability to earn and do well even if they dont show the behaviors we desire.  Lets work together to make grading about what students learn.

Erickson, J. A. (2010, March). Grading practices: The third rail. Principal Leadership, 10(7), 2226.

Dueck, M. (2014). Grading Smarter, Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn. ASCD.

Sally Lancaster Ed.D.,
Everett High School
Everett School District

Does using Technology in the Classroom Enhance Student Engagement?

Research on classrooms that have put constructivist teaching and learning models into practice indicates that technology can enhance student engagement and productivity.   More specifically, technology increases the complexity of the tasks that students can perform successfully, raises student motivation, and leads to changes in classroom roles and organization (Baker, Gearhart, & Herman, 1994; Dwyer, Ringstaff, & Sandholtz, 1990; Means & Olson, 1995). These role changes--with students moving toward more self-reliance and peer coaching, and teachers functioning more as facilitators than as lecturers--support educational reform goals for all students. 

Technology also can help students develop positive cooperative learning relationships, enabling them to work together while researching topics and creating presentations. In such relationships, students help each other learn. Students with special needs may require more coaching in computer-based activities, but they benefit from the experience of learning with and from other students.

The Toppenish School District believes this whole heartily and has implemented a K-12 STEM program using Project Lead the Way (PLTW).  Project Lead the Way offers a different approach to learning and teaching. Through activity-, project-, and problem-based curriculum, PLTW gives students in kindergarten through high school a chance to apply what they know, identify problems, find unique solutions, and lead their own learning.  This engaging, rigorous program provides tools to empower students and transforms the classroom into a collaboration space where content comes to life.  

Students at Garfield Elementary make
container to keep ice cream cold
Last year, Garfield Elementary School was one of 42 schools across the United States to be chosen to pilot the Project Lead the Way Launch elementary program.  This was especially exciting for the Toppenish School District to finally be able to extend the successful PLTW curriculum from the high school and middle school levels into the elementary.  PLTW Launch gave K-5 students a chance to love STEM at a younger age. Through PLTW Launch, students learn important, future-changing lessons, like it’s okay to take risks and make mistakes, and it’s great to employ critical thinking.  Garfield teachers incorporated GLAD strategies into the program to bring comprehensible input for comprehensible output for our large population of ELL students.  Second grade students created a container to keep their ice-cream frozen and third graders built airplanes that flew using mini I-pads to design their model.  The modules are aligned to Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core State Standards for Math and English Language Arts, and of course the content is highly engaging for students. 

Toppenish Middle School students
designed, built and program
robots for Robotic Tournament
Toppenish School District believes that technology in today’s classroom needs to promote learning activities in which students work in small groups rather than in isolation.  Technology need not be solely designed to teach basic skills, but rather real-world applications that support research, design, analysis, composition, and communication.  Traditionally, schools have not focused on technology as a means to support engaged learning.   When computers are present in schools serving at-risk students, they usually are used for drill-and-practice programs on basic skills rather than as tools to support students in designing their own projects (DeVillar & Faltis, 1991).

The Toppenish School District has invested in teaching our students rigorous and engaging content in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The goal of the STEM initiative is to give our students a wide variety of opportunities to engage in their education by challenging their thinking in math and science.

Anastasia Sanchez
Director, State & Federal Programs    
Toppenish School District