Sunday, 30 October 2011

My BC Education Plan Wish List: #1 Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

With the arrival of BC’s Education Plan, conversations have begun about what this is going to look like, and how we could possibly implement this in our schools.  I have been thinking a lot about issues which need to be done well in order for this plan to be a success.  I fear that good theories may be used for bad practice if this plan is not implemented with care, thoughtfulness, proper funding, and consultation with teachers.  Appropriate class sizes will be vital as well if students, parents, and teachers are going to have opportunities for detailed dialogue about students’ progress and goals.  There are many questions about how this plan look.  Over the next few weeks, I hope to individually address a few items which are on my "Wish List" for BC Education.

Wish List Item #1: Meaningful Reporting and Holistic Assessment

I have been reading a lot about technology and family involvement as I browse through online conversations around BC’s Education Plan.  As a result, I am concerned that there will be movement toward having all teachers post grades online using spreadsheet programs which average out assignment scores to provide a final mark.  These programs are popular because they appear to be modern tools which give parents a clear picture of student progress throughout the year.  I do not believe that such programs are the most effective nor innovative way to assess.  The perception (and often the practice) with online spreadsheet programs is that students earn “points” for each assignment they complete.  In some cases, students earn a point for each correct answer they give on an assignment/test/homework all year long and all of these points are totaled and averaged for a final percentage grade.  We should not be punishing students for learning more slowly by averaging marks throughout the year, but should be teaching them that improvement is possible and helping them to identify areas of personal strength and weakness.

Our job as educators should not be to rank and sort students based on average marks.  Rather, we should identify key skills that students should master and assist students as they build these skills.  As a result, percentage-based marks on secondary school report cards should be abolished during this education reform and online spreadsheet programs should not be used to determine final grades.  The more I think about it, the more ridiculous it is to place a child’s mastery of learning outcomes on a 100-point scale.  Are there really 100 different "levels" that students can achieve, overall?  In primary grades, students receive anecdotal reports.  In intermediate grades, students receive letter grades without percentages.  I have never heard a good explanation for the difference between a mark of 82% and a mark of 84%.  Not to mention that percentages do not tell parents areas in which their children succeed and struggle.  I understand that letter grades are desirable to parents, universities, and would be necessary if students transfer out of the province, but percentages are not necessary and promote obsession with numbers and statistics, not meaningful learning.  I have never heard a primary student ask, “Is this for marks?” or “How many marks is this worth?” but those are common questions in secondary school, even on the first day.  Let’s teach our students to learn so that they can improve specific skills, not for points.

As I wrote in a previous post, I do not agree with the spreadsheet/averaging method of grading and have moved toward a more holistic view of assessment.  BC’s Education Plan appears to provide an opportunity for portfolio-based assessment.  I am not opposed to posting feedback for parents and students online, but that feedback must be meaningful, clear, and leave room for students to improve later on.  I would prefer to provide anecdotal feedback to students and families during the term and discuss letter grades at the end, when clear progress has been documented through the development of a personal portfolio.

Information I have read about BC’s Education Plan seems to promote more flexible assignments; it appears that students will meet learning outcomes through activities, assignments, and research on topics of their choice.  I have been blogging a bit about the interim reports I am preparing and believe that it would be possible for somebody to develop software which allows teachers to quickly and easily enter specific learning outcomes and students’ progress with these.  My interim reports are works in progress, but I can visualize how more detailed online reports could look.  With an outcomes-based software program, parents, counsellors, and administrators could log in and see how students are doing with key concepts, but know that these are “in progress.”  Students would know that just because they are “minimally meeting expectations” in September does not mean that they will not be “fully meeting expectations” in June.  Teachers could update students’ individual profiles as they demonstrate their ability to meet specific learning outcomes, and as they demonstrate improvement.  This could occur at different times of the year for different students.  Final reports would be based on students’ most recent and consistent work, not an average of points from a spreadsheet.  Ideally, students would develop personal goals and track them on the same program, allowing parents and teachers to support these goals.

As meaningful assessment and personalized instruction require more interaction between teachers and students, I would like to see smaller class sizes established alongside the implementation of BC's Education Plan.  This is necessary so that teachers would be able to regularly conference with students about their progress and provide them with opportunities to build skills.  As a teacher who tries to conference with students about their projects and marks, I can say that I do not currently have time to meet with each student as often as I would like to, nor do I have time to have in-depth conversations with all of my students when I do meet with them.

I have MANY more thoughts, both positive and negative, about BC’s Education Plan and will add to this "wish list" another day.  What are your thoughts on assessment and reporting under this new plan?

My Related Posts:
5 Years Later: Assessment
If you could design a report card, what would it look like?
Continuing The Reporting Experiment

Related Posts from Others:
Death of A Grading Program
Giving Grades is The Easy Way Out
For The Love of Learning
Grading Dependence
The Case Against Grades

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Continuing the Reporting Experiment

I received a lot of positive feedback on my previous post about reporting during the job action.  Thank you for the tweets and e-mails linking colleagues to the post.  I'm glad to see that I'm on the right track with these thoughts about reporting.  I remain determined to use this job action to report in a more meaningful way now that I do not need to spend time with BCeSIS.  As I did in my previous post, I would like to note that I am communicating with parents using methods approved by my union, and am not breaking job action guidelines.  I have absolutely no desire to "work around" the job action and, while I have not been accused of doing so, feel that it is important that I clarify that here for those who are getting conflicting reports in the media about what teachers are and are not allowed to do.

Since my last post, I have decided to send out interim reports ASAP due to what I have seen in the media and an increased number of parent e-mails.  (I'm glad that parents are checking in, by the way!)  I want to assure all parents that their children are still being assessed during the job action.  It is also important to clarify that the first term does not end until the beginning of December, so this is an informal "check in" like the one we would have had at parent-teacher conferences last week.  As this is informal, these interim reports will not include a grade but will provide a look at how students are doing overall.  I am going to print these reports, copy them, and fill them out as I conference with each student.  In December, I hope to type comments directly into reports, as stated in my previous post, but I won't have time for that with these reports.

After my previous post, Denise e-mailed me a rubric template that her school uses.  I loved the rubric idea and designed my own to include in these interim reports.  I decided to use three categories: "Not yet meeting expectations," "Meeting expectations," and "Fully meeting expectations."  I had originally added "Exceeding expectations" but realized that, after seven weeks, not many students are yet exceeding, but they will be by the time the term comes to an end.  For the purpose of an informal check-in, I think that three categories should be fine.  Thank you, Twitter for connecting me with helpful teachers I've never met in real life!

At the top of the interim report, I am including a letter to communicate with parents that this is an informal report, that I will provide a grade at the end of the term, and that I will definitely contact them sooner if I have concerns.  It seems that there is a lot of miscommunication about assessment during job action, so it seems wise to communicate with parents as soon as possible so that they know what to expect from me this year.

I had a great conversation with my Family Studies class about assessment, this week.  (More thoughts on how I assess here.)  They really like the holistic assessment style that I am using; some were in classes with Matt in past years, so they were familiar with the style.  "It's more fair" was the common comment I heard.  Holistic assessment IS more fair!  Why would I average a mark out if a student learned something slowly, then mastered it later on?  Some were anxious about marks for university entrance, so I am including a note about grade 12 marks in interim reports going home to grade 12 students.  Some students wanted to know if I am allowed to send these interims and report cards, or if I am breaking the rules.  I hadn't realized that the perception may be that I am breaking with job action by sending reports home.  As a result, I edited my interim report drafts and included a statement about the job action and the fact that our union has encouraged us to continue communicating with parents.  I'm so glad that I talked to my senior students about this as it helped me to clarify the perceptions of students and the general public.

Below are my interim report drafts.  Please feel free to provide me with feedback and suggestions.  I'd love to hear from you before I make these "official" next week!  I have linked to them in Google Docs format so that the most current version will be published below as these are still in draft form.  I am still working on the wording in the various boxes and will likely revise all of them before Term 1 reports are issued in December.

Please note that the format doesn't look great because these are "published" Google Docs, not PDF files.  They look a lot nicer in MS Word.

Family Studies 11/12 Interim Report Draft

Social Studies 9 Interim Report Draft

Planning 10 Interim Report Draft

Foods 9/10 Interim Report Draft

I have not yet developed an interim report for my Leadership 10/11/12 class yet, but will likely be sending a letter and a copy of the course outline home once I have finished this project with my other courses.

Monday, 10 October 2011

If you could design a report card, what would it look like?

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Though BC teachers are not producing report cards this fall, we have been encouraged to communicate with parents regarding student progress.  At first, I was frustrated by comments from the BC Teachers' Federation which stated that teachers would continue to communicate closely with parents.  I love it when parents check in with me about their child's progress, and feel that it is vital for parents to be involved and informed about what is happening in the classroom, but felt overwhelmed by the idea of communicating with 200 parents without a formal report card.  While an elementary school teacher may be able to speak to parents as they pick their children up, and compose a short e-mail at the end of each term, reporting to parents is much more challenging in a linear secondary school.

As job action continued through September, I began to think of a number of concerns:
  • How can I report to 200 parents, without using the online spreadsheet programs which are not suited to my assessment philosophy?
  • Should I only respond to the parents who contact me by phone or e-mail?
  • What will I do if I get 150 e-mails and 50 phone calls?
  • Will I have time to respond if 45 parents request a meeting with me?
  • Can I trust students to accurately report their progress to parents after student-teacher conferences in class?
  • Are parents aware that, if I have a concern about attendance and progress, I will contact them?  (I have already exchanged e-mails with a number of parents and will continue to do so when concerns arise.)
  • While I love the idea of sending a few positive interim reports home, and try to do so each term, will I have time to do that this year?
  • Are we supposed to rely on the fact that a large percentage of parents will not contact us, therefore making our reporting time more manageable as we meet with parents, return phone calls, and respond to e-mails?  If so, is it good practice to ignore the parents who do not initiate communication with teachers?
While I like to inform parents about student progress throughout the year, I do not use grading programs which allow parents to log in to review marks, as I don't want to perpetuate the idea that assessment is simply giving points for correct answers and averaging them out over the term to determine a final grade.  I blogged more about my assessment philosophy here and this article also explains my feelings about these programs.  I use spreadsheets to track assignments, but do not base final marks on averages throughout the term.  Marks are based on the student's most recent and consistent progress.  When I have concerns, I send an e-mail or make a phone call to a parent.  On occasion, I mail written interim reports.

When report card season approaches, I often feel frustrated because, while outcomes-based assessment is being promoted by a number of well-regarded education professionals, and district-based pro-d sessions, it is much easier for teachers of 200 students to enter numbers into BCeSIS, choose a work habit, and insert a generic comment.  Why isn't there a program which provides us with the opportunity to send parents meaningful assessment and class updates, without the "spreadsheet" format?

After thinking about my questions and concerns, I realized something HUGE.

The BC Teachers' job action has provided me with an opportunity to report on student assessment in any format of my choice.

Why didn't I think of this sooner?  No BCeSIS!  No deadlines!  No obligation to post 200 percentages at once!  This is awesome!

While I have the opportunity to add attachments to formal report cards when they are issued, I have never had the time to consider this option as I always feel swamped with other tasks around report card time.  With no formal report card deadlines, I will have the flexibility to issue more meaningful reports over a longer period of time.

It is important for me to note that these reports will be for teacher, parent, and student use only and will not be sent to administrators, in accordance with BCTF job action guidelines.  My union local has confirmed that letters from teachers, checklists, percentages, and letter grades may be sent to parents as long as they are not completed on official school forms and do not look like report cards.  It is not my desire to undermine the job action.  Rather, I am taking the time that I would have spent using BCeSIS (a reporting program I dislike) and using this time to create a more meaningful and effective report.  In the spirit of the job action, which reduces our involvement in administrative tasks, I feel that this is an appropriate use of time.  We have been encouraged to continue communicating with parents; in this case, I feel that parents will receive better communication from me than they did before job action, as I am not spending time creating formal report cards using a soon-to-be-extinct reporting system.

Our office staff is still mailing out paper interim reports, and job action permits us to send these, as well as e-mail updates to parents.  I am now planning to send home paper (or e-mail) interim reports, created during term conferences with my students.

Here are a few things I would like to incorporate as I design these interim reports:

1) The reports will not include percentages.

I hate percentages.  Student A has 82% and so does Student B.  On paper, they are "equal" but, in the classroom, each brings unique strengths and experiences unique challenges.  Both may receive a mark of 82% and a "Good" for work habits, but this does not sufficiently explain their progress.  As well, what is the difference between a mark of 73% and a mark of 76%?  I have no answer for the question and have never heard one that satisfies me.  "BCeSIS averaged the mark to 76%" is not a sufficient answer, in my opinion.

Through the current reporting procedures, we have conditioned students and parents to expect percentages in secondary school.  Why do secondary report cards need to differ so much from primary comments and intermediate letter grades?  (That's a question for another blog entry!)  While I would prefer to issue "gradeless" reports, I realize that parents and students will want to see some sort of report of progress.  As a compromise, my interim reports will include a letter grade, but no percentage.

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I did choose to include percentages in reports at the end of December, simply to avoid receiving 200 e-mails asking, "What is his/her percentage?"  I also worried that the lack of percentage would be perceived as "lazy teacher during job action," not a shift in assessment philosophy.  That said, students seem to be responding well to the idea of holistic assessment, as they know that they can improve throughout the term and year.  I realized that this helps them to see me as somebody who is helping them to move to the next "level," not somebody who is constantly judging them and holding mistakes against them.

2) The reports will involve my students.

As I had already decided to use portfolio-based assessment this year, these interim reports will be completed in conferences with students.  At the end of the conferences for each class, I will proofread, press "print," and take the reports to the office to be mailed.  If I have time, I may e-mail some of the reports home to save paper.  As I always do, I will need to plan my lessons carefully so that students are engaged in self-directed activities during grade conferences.  Students will be asked to fill out self assessment forms, which will give students a chance to think and articulate their views prior to our meeting.  I find that the self-assessment forms help us to focus our conference discussions and save time, particularly in larger classes.  I hope to do this again around mid-February.  While I would like to report in this format more frequently, I have a feeling that time will not permit it.  As I think about this, I am beginning to think that reports prepared during student-teacher conferences will be more meaningful, and more enjoyable for me, than a few hours with a cup of tea and BCeSIS.  I will be able to include comments from students' self assessments in the reports.  (Thank goodness I can type quickly!)

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I was able to do mid-term conferences with students in most classes but, by the time those were over, it was getting close to the end of the term.  I prepared reports based on my conferences, written student self evaluations, and updated student work.  Next term, I hope to spend more time conferencing with students. The conferences themselves were very valuable; a number of students communicated things that I wouldn't have learned otherwise.  It's amazing how many students have experienced test anxiety in previous years and are willing to share that one-on-one but might not admit it in front of the class.  More knowledge about my students has helped me to structure my courses.

3) The reports will inform parents about what is happening in class.

Parents will be directed to my course website so that they can view the course outline.  As well, I will include a short paragraph for each course, regarding current and upcoming activities.  This is more in line with the elementary school format, but I like it.  Parents often comment that they don't have any idea what their teens are doing in school.

As well, I will mention that, if I have concerns about a student' attendance and progress, I will contact home more frequently.  I don't want parents to feel that they are being left in the dark by job action or that their child may fail a course without any warning from the school.  I always communicate with home regarding absences and academic concerns; this will not change but, without formal reports, it is more important to let parents know that this is the process in my class.

Parents will also be invited to e-mail me if they have questions or concerns but, after receiving these written reports, I hope that it will decrease the number of meetings requested and e-mails received.  While I love communicating with parents, I need to consider the time involved if each parent requests a phone call or meeting and hope that issuing these reports will be a proactive way to address concerns about teacher-parent communication during job action.

4) The reports will focus on achievement of key outcomes and concepts.

I'm not sure how I will format this yet, but I like the idea of including a few key concepts or skills from the term on each report.  I might include a "Fully meeting expectations," "Meeting expectations," etc. checkbox beside each.  (Elementary school report cards seems to be closer to my preferred format.)  I have to consider the time involved, but I do love the idea of explaining where the grade comes from, using a few key learning outcomes, rather than simply inserting a percentage into BCeSIS.

**OCTOBER 2011 UPDATE: I created a rubric for four of my five courses.  Drafts are posted here and were tweaked and edited as the term progressed.  I am finding it a long and time-consuming process to create the "perfect" rubric but I have to accept that this is a process and hope to have a high-quality report by the end of the year.

As I continue to think about my "ideal" report card, I wonder if I am creating an unnecessary, time-consuming project for myself, but I am excited to give this reporting system a chance.  I can conference with students, and create reports, in one or two courses per week.  A lack of formal deadlines allows me to spend more time reporting on a course, if required, and reduces the "end of term" assignment completion rush I typically see from students.  I think it will work.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, or samples for me, I would love to have input from other teachers.  Our Term 1 reports would have been issued before Christmas Break.  I am hoping to finish with this project by the end of November, at the latest, and will post an update when it is complete.

I would also love to figure out a way to update parents electronically, without composing 200 separate e-mails.  I have a few ideas, but would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions.

Update: The next part of this adventure is described here.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

How do you discuss Remembrance Day?

With Remembrance Day just over a month away, I have begun to brainstorm ways to address it in my classes.  As the generation of World War II veterans decreases each year, students have a limited personal connection with the wars of the past.  On occasion, I do have a student with a personal connection to a current member of the Canadian armed forces, which brings a great perspective to the discussion.  This year, I would like to take a break from our Social Studies 9 unit on the French Revolution and encourage my students to reflect prior to Remembrance Day.

A few years ago, I brought in some poems and songs to discuss with my English 9 class.  I included a few poems by Sassoon and Owen, among others.  We also listened to "Fortunate Son," as I have fond memories of dissecting the song when I was a student in History 12.  Finally, we discussed the controversy about Jack Johnson's "Crying Shame."  Students often think of Remembrance Day as a holiday to remember veterans in past wars.  "Crying Shame" was a great way to get them thinking about war today and where modern warfare may head in the future.  We discussed the various wars, and the poets' attitudes toward war in general, their country, and the cause they were fighting.  The class was really engaged in the activity and we wound up spending the entire class talking about the poems and songs.  Freedom of speech and ethics in war were big discussion topics.  Students began to think about the concept of hating war, but believing in the cause that soldiers fought (or are fighting) for.  They were challenged to think about what causes and circumstances would cause them to go to war.  We talked about the impact of previous wars on our quality of life and the wars occurring in the world today.  The students and I shared stories about people we know who fought in, or were impacted by, World War II.  A 75-minute class was definitely not enough once students started asking BIG questions and discussing their opinions!  This was a great opportunity for students to see poetry as a practical form of expression, and analyze its impact.

How do you address Remembrance Day in your classroom?  Do you change the way you address it, depending on the topic?  Do you find that discussions have changed as time passes, now that fewer students have surviving relatives who fought in World War II?