Cameroon 2009

Cameroon 2009

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Averaging grades? Just stop.

There is simply no acceptable reason to average a student's grades earlier in a course with those received nearer the end.

Every student deserves multiple chances to demonstrate his or her learning.  This may be through two or more different assessments that assess the same outcome(s).  It may also take place using redos/retakes of the same assessment (the teacher may require acceptable evidence that the student has undertaken subsequent learning before the redo).  It's not always easy, but it might also involve providing the student with an alternative form of assessment - better yet, that alternative is suggested by the student.

In either case, how can a teacher justify averaging the student's earlier "on the way" evidence of learning with later evidence that the student has progressed?  No matter how you slice it, that's punishing the student for not learning fast enough.  Why would we care if it takes a student 2 weeks, 5 weeks or 15 weeks to learn something?  What matters is that they get there.

Let's address some practical issues that might get in the way:

  • Most importantly perhaps, common "grade books" encourage or practically mandate averaging grades throughout a course.  So?  If the practice is wrong, it's wrong, and while these grade books may be a practical barrier, they're not insurmountable.  In an earlier post, I published a spreadsheet that we created and use instead of a traditional grade book.  We'll share with anyone who'd like to contact me.  In addition, though we didn't find any stand-alone software that didn't automatically average throughout a term, our division is moving to PowerSchool as our student management software next year, and we understand that the capability to sidestep this averaging is built in.  If it's not, we'll sidestep that and find another way.

  • This leads to accepting the role of teachers' professional judgment in determining a student's grade.  If it's not by averaging, how do we determine a student's final standing for a particular outcome?  The answer is to trust to teachers' judgment.  This determination should be based on the most recent and most consistent demonstrations of student learning.  It should "triangulate" that data with the teacher's conversations with the student, and with observations of the student's learning outside of formal summative assessments (though these latter should be primary determinants).  There should be no "math" involved in determining a student's learning for an outcome.  In determining an overall grade for a course, these outcome by outcome judgments will be appropriately weighted and combined to give that overall grade, but that's the only occasion for using math in grading.
  • Administrators, are you uncomfortable with relying on teachers' professional judgment?  We put teachers in charge of students and their learning every day.  If these teachers can't be trusted, then we need to take responsibility for that, work with them to improve, and/or find better teachers.  We also need to acknowledge that teachers influence grades, profoundly, every day in their teaching, and every time they create an assessment toward that grade.  Teachers can move grades 10, 20, 30% or more up or down simply by changing the assessments themselves. That's silly, but it's true, so let's not put teachers in a straightjacket, even if it's sometimes of their own making.
  • Percentages - how does a teacher exercise that judgment to pick a number between 0 and 100 to characterize learning?  The answer is that they don't.  We use a simple 4 point scale (again, described in an earlier post, and based on the province's report cards).  3 if the outcome has been met as prescribed, and 4 if the student exceeds the outcome or is extraordinarily proficient.  2 if the student has a "basic" but not yet all the way there level of learning, and 1 if it's just somewhat acceptable.  0, or better, "not yet" is used as a placeholder only, not a grade to be averaged.  We only convert to a percentage twice in a semester, for the sake of the report cards, and then only by provincial mandate.  No reasonable person can say they can discern the difference between 76% and 78%, and let's stop pretending that we can.
  • What is the role of a final exam or other form of final assessment?  Well, it's a great opportunity to give a student that one last chance to demonstrate learning, if we do as we should, and assess each outcome separately from every other.  Our senior math/sciences teacher gives the exam to students in pieces, one outcome per piece.  Students choose which outcomes will comprise their final exam  in advance, as they know where they stand at all times in their learning, and choose these outcomes based on those which can stand to be improved upon.  This way, students are not required to reassure the teacher that they have learned that which they have already amply demonstrated.  They get to focus on the learning that is most important at that point instead.  Also, the final exam/other has no set weight.  Why should it?  Suppose a student has struggled with trigonometry throughout the course, has a breakthrough and "gets" it, and proves that on the final exam.  It doesn't make sense that this should only count for 30 or 40% of the final grade.  The student has learned it, as surely as the student who got it right from the beginning, and should be credited fully with that learning.

There's more, of course, and we're all getting at it in our #sblchat's and other forums.  There are a ton of good resources for learning more, online and in print.

The bottom line is that I don't believe this is really open to debate.  If we are averaging students' grades and giving significant weight to early-on demonstrations that they haven't yet learned something, then we are at fault.  That's not how it works in the "real world", so let's just fix this practice, once and for all.  

Saturday, March 15, 2014

I'm struggling...

  • with the dichotomy between those (of us) who push for child-centred reform in education, based on children's interests and passions; and those (of us) who remind us constantly of the reality of difficult, disinterested students who seem to remain so despite the best efforts of those teachers.  A year of Twitter has led to a ton of growth, but also significant frustration with those (of us) who sometimes preach without having to practice.  Humility in the presentation of alternatives to traditional paradigms is needed to prevent a hardening of position when teachers try out new ways of doing things, only to encounter unacknowledged difficulties.  Suggesting that "this will solve all your problems", even if it's not stated explicitly, sets others up for failure when success is hard to come by.
  • to reconcile the huge promise of new technologies with the realities of insufficient funds to provide equity between students, and to provide consistent access, training and so on.  Also, there is the seeming disappearance of students almost right into their devices during breaks, lunch, and any other downtime they have.  It sure feels like something human is being lost, even as I myself have experienced the potential of learning with others from around the world. I know there are answers, and have some faith that we'll get to a better place with this, but it's scary sometimes as we're going down this road.
  • to understand how staff (and not only teachers) who are no longer in this business, this vocation to make a positive difference in the lives of our children can continue to occupy a position that others would so gladly embrace, if only they were only given the chance.  It isn't necessary to be actively toxic to hurt our kids: it only takes a lack of caring, not spending time with them or being available to them, not doing the unseen preparation, to cause harm.  To be sure, there are a majority that are absolutely wonderful, often (mostly?) unsung.  It's also true that life sometimes gets in the way, and we (administrators) need to support staff through those times until they are ready to resume a wholehearted dedication to the welfare and growth of our students.  But, some have chosen, consciously or perhaps even subconsciously, to see the education of children as a casual pursuit and effort, saving their best for the rest of their lives.  That's just not good enough, not for this vocation, not for our kids.
  • and other things - perhaps another post.
We (I) know that struggle is a part of the bargain in caring.  It's a good thing.  But it's not an easy thing!