What Message are We Sending?

Autumn Sun

At this time of year, the inevitable happens.

Autumn Splendor

The splendor of autumn in Wisconsin is replaced by barren trees and morning frost on windshields.

Trick or Treat

Parents disguise their children as superheroes and princesses and send them on a quest to replenish the family candy bowl.

The World Series ends the baseball season, which means I lose a favorite excuse to avoid my To Do list.

And the first quarter of school comes to a close, leaving students and their parents anxious to read report cards.

Throughout the early stages of the school year, I have carefully monitored the progress of my students–with success attributed to community building, differentiated lessons, and standards based learning and grading. Students have overcome obstacles to own their learning in much the same way as highlighted by Rik Rowe in his recent post, “Student-Centered Learning.” My juniors, in particular, are learning to take risks while facing academic challenges, knowing they have continuous opportunities to show their learning.

In World Literature and Composition, we recently completed reading Shakespeare’s The Tempest–difficult content to comprehend. Formative assessment at the end of Act I indicated many students were in the beginning stages of comprehension. The majority of the class relied on editor’s notes and my translation to make sense of the language. As I differentiated instruction and assessed progress throughout Acts II and III, more students shifted from beginning to developing and even proficient in the standard of comprehension. We recognized progress from “not yet” to “almost there.” By the end of Act IV, all fifty juniors “got it,” inviting the possibilities of higher-level thinking in their independent analysis of Shakespeare’s themes. With such autonomy, students could create authentic outcomes with their learning (details in a future post). This year’s public service announcement projects were memorable. Students also crafted personalized essential questions for research paper topics. They were confident and ready for summative assessment.

As we discussed opportunities to showcase learning, I had to remind my classes that their online “average” (required at the midterm) would be replaced as soon as they produced summative work. Grading is not based on percentages and is certainly not averaged. Learning is continuous; first quarter is simply a snapshot of midsemester progress. Final grades are reported as mode or most recent evidence of proficiency. As the mental calculators processed my words, there were nods of gratitude as well as the typical looks of mistrust.

“You mean that quiz from Act I will no longer count against me?” Yes. Students were in favor of the message, yet unconvinced with what I was explaining. Slowly, I repeated a frequent message:

Back to School Night - Google Slides

So why did I have to interrupt the momentum of our celebration of knowledge to discuss grades again?

This is an honest question from a teacher in a respectable high school which has been graced with the wisdom of Dr. Tom Guskey; separates behavior from academic performance when reporting grades; eliminates zeros in the gradebook; does not allow extra credit; posts visible learning targets in every classroom; identifies formative, benchmark, and summative assessments; provides opportunities for corrective assessment; sends staff to educational conferences; differentiates professional development with choice of sessions for all educators; and believes in reaching every student, every day.

The answer is simple: we have not committed to standards based learning, grading, and reporting. With all the necessary pieces in place, hesitance to transcend traditional practices counteracts any progress in becoming a true culture of learning.

Students continue to feel the anxiety of punitive grading practices and respond by playing the points game. Garnet Hillman shares a perfect example of teachers with good intentions but a contradictory message in her recent post, “The Oops Card.” Concerned students keep asking if activities count, and, if so, how much something is worth. My response is consistent: it all counts. Everything we do counts–not for points, for learning. I will not disrespect my students with menial tasks and busy work. I challenge classes to question my intentions when I do not provide an acceptable rationale. If we struggle to make a lesson relevant, we need to question its worth–even be willing to ask students what would make the learning relevant. Why mask the vulnerability which makes us human?

Students see learning targets as teacher objectives, rather than what Fisher and Frey identify as learning purposes–to not only communicate what they are learning, but why they are learning it. After students make meaningful connections to these purposes, we need to find accurate ways to assess each target against the standards. This is where our students face gaps from one class to the next. In classes where assessments are still labeled as “Unit 1 Test,” one percentage grade is recorded and no learning is communicated. If the assessment is separated by specific learning targets, students know which concepts they understand and where more learning is needed.

There are other mixed messages as well. Assessment is either formative or summative. We have added “benchmark” assessments, which could be used to communicate progress at a specific point in time; however, it often becomes an excuse to use grades to hold students accountable during the learning process (up to 40% of the grade in some classes). What message is expressed when a student earns A’s on summative assessments but cannot mathematically get an A in the course? Or even worse, what does it say about instruction when a student with 100% on all formative and benchmark assessments only manages a C and D+ on unit tests but ends up with an 83% B for the quarter? True story…

Is student learning our priority? Even if I have to repeat the message, justify my intentions, and share student success, learning will continue to be the emphasis in my classroom. Until we commit to a unified system of standards based learning, grading, and reporting in our district, our culture of learning remains in its formative stages–“not yet” proficient. I hope we may reassess without penalty.

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