Monday, May 21, 2012

A Little About Assessing Students

I believe that what I am teaching and why I am teaching it should be as transparent as possible to both students and parents. I hold students accountable for the work they produce and the effort that goes into it. I tell them clearly what is expected of them and then mark accordingly. For my fairytale unit this year, I included a basic rubric for general expectations and a marking sheet in each student's folder. I am able to mark as we go, giving a comment when needed and the students can easily see where they are at and how their work holds up against the expectations.  

In our district we grade on a 4 point scale that looks like this:

N - Not meeting expectations
A - Approaching expectations
M - Meeting expectations
E - Exceeds expectations

Students aim to be at the M level on the scale. This scale works well for report cards as it clearly lets parents know where their child is in terms of learning outcomes and expectations. That said, the Meeting expectations can be a bit tricky as a student can be just meeting or fully meeting and still have the same mark on their report card.

Students rarely get Exceeds expectations overall for a subject as it means that a student is working well above the Meeting expectations level. A full year or more above. Probably the most common place to find an E in early primary is in reading. There are often a few students who have taken to reading like ducks to water and are reading well above grade level in grade 1 or 2. These students are given an E in reading for grade 1 or 2 but have that same mark drop down to an M by grade 2 or 3 when the other students have caught up. This can be confusing to some parents who expect an E to stay an E and end up in the next year's teacher's class asking why their child is no longer Exceeding. An E on a report card does not mean that a child will always be an E. It means that the child is exceeding expectations at that time.

If you stop and think about all the people you know in your life, probably most of them would not be exceeding expectations in all areas of their lives or for all of the time. Most of us go along in life meeting expectations for our jobs, families, co-workers etc. Meeting expectations is good. It is where you want to be. It means you are doing your job. Doing what is expected of you in an efficient and timely manner. Getting the job done. You can be counted on to do what you say you will do. This is good. This is a productive member of society. There will be times when one is moved to go above and beyond expectations and that is great. And society needs people to have passions, to have areas in their lives that they try to do more, be more. But chances are that those people who exceed expectations are not doing it in every single area of their lives all of the time.

When I stop to think about my daughter and her school years thus far, I realize how little many of the grades mean. Will it really matter if she got an A or a C in Math 8? No. What I have always looked at and counted as more important than the grade are her marks for work habits and effort. Does she try her best? Does she keep going when it is hard? Can she work independently asking for help when needed? These are the attributes that are going to make her a successful and productive member of our society. Not her marks in Math (which are consistently on the lower end of the scale and which is a subject she hates) or her marks in Social Studies (which are consistently on the high end of the scale because, wonder of wonders, she actually likes social studies!)

And, yes, I know what some of you are thinking.They need to have good grades to get into university. This is true. However, there are plenty of highly successful people who went to community college first and then transferred into a university or, for that matter, who went to different types of learning institutions altogether like technical colleges or trade school. Society needs a lot of different kinds of people with a lot of different kinds of skills to be successful. Many of the jobs that will be available when my daughter finishes her post-secondary education haven't even been invented yet! I believe that in the years to come, it won't matter so much what schooling anyone has so much as whether they are problem solvers, independent thinkers and capable of getting along with others.
In my blog hopping this morning I came across a teacher who has the students self assess after a lesson so that she can get a quick idea of where they are at and who will need immediate support to complete the lesson. And I thought, "What a great idea!" Her name is Alison Eber and her blog is called Eberopolis . In her district they grade students on a scale of 1-4. This corresponds nicely to our 4 point grading system in primary.

The scale in her district looks like this (picture taken from her website) :

with Novice being a 1 all the way to Expert being a 4. Expectations are that students are striving to be a Practitioner or a 3.

I am going to tumble this idea around in my head for a little and let it percolate. I know that it would be a great visual and really easy ways for students to quickly self assess and for me to get a quick count of students requiring immediate support after a lesson. It also really shows how learning is a continuum. Saying that someone is not meeting expectations does not necessarily send the message to that person that they will eventually meet the expectations with continued effort. If you think about any of the trades like woodworking, plumbing etc., where one starts as a novice and through effort, practice and hard work becomes an apprentice and then eventually a practitioner and (perhaps if one has a particular talent for that trade) an expert one day, you can see how through time and effort one can work through the levels to be at the meeting expectations level and how the language supports this transition from stage to stage.

Maybe I will try using this vocab with the plant unit we are just beginning and see how it works out. I mean, it makes total sense to me but will it make sense to a 7 year old? I think it is worth a test run. Will keep you posted on how it goes!

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