Giving students a license to fail?

In Transforming School Culture, Anthony Muhammad says,
"Children are not mature enough to understand the ramifications of academic failure; therefore we cannot leave achievement to student interest alone.  In this country, we require individuals to be age 16 to drive an automobile, 18 to vote in an election, and 21 to drink alcohol, yet we regularly give children "licenses to fail" at a much younger age when they do not exhibit immediate interest in academics..." (p. 25) 
In my standards-based grading system, students may re-take parts of the "test" and their newest level of understanding will always replace the old, however the decision to put in the extra time outside of class is up to the individual student.  Is this practice still giving students a "license to fail?"  

When, as K-12 educators, can/should we say, "The responsibility of learning is ultimately up to the student."  In high school?  Never?  The day before graduation?

How do you know if they know?

I was asked to present at a professional development day for several school districts in Eastern Iowa.  My presentation is entitled, "How do you know if they know?  Re-examining assessment through the lens of learning" and will describe the theory behind my current grading and assessment practices.  The theme of the day is the Iowa Core Curriculum and I believe my assessment practices mirror at least some of what is being framed as a movement here in Iowa towards "assessment for learning." 

Regular readers of this blog know that I no longer report a single score for a test, but instead report students' understanding through multiple learning targets.  Homework and quizzes are viewed as feedback opportunities rather than summative assessments.  Students may re-take parts of the "test" and their newest level of understanding will always replace the old.

The slides below will be used at the session and make the most sense if you view it full-screen along with the speaker notes. 

In addition, the packet with an outline of the presentation and a few selected Educational Leadership articles that all session attendees will receive is available here.

Finally, I created a small website with links to additional commentary on standards-based grading and suggested further reading.

An "un-technology" response to a technology conference

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended my first education technology conference. ITEC lived up to my expectations of meeting up with so many people I've been following via Twitter. A fellow edu-blogger, Russ Goerend, and I made the trek together to Coralville, Iowa and within several hours had introduced ourselves to at least half a dozen tweeps. The sessions were not earth-shattering. Russ posted some thoughts on this aspect of the conference on his blog.

"Why is it so easy to skip the "cool tool" sessions? Because I've already heard about them through my PLN. As much of a buzzword as it is, having a strong PLN (online and off) is huge. I think it's once people have that PLN established that we can move past the "cool tools" phase and get some real work done."
His tweet sums also it up nicely:There were a few sessions focused on "cool tools" such as Moodle, Animoto and iPod Touches. Did the participants come out of those sessions with some new technology knowledge? Probably. Will it change the way they teach and students learn? Probably not.

Evan Abbey commented on his blog about an ironic take away from this technology conference as tweeted by Seth Denney:An anecdote from the conference supporting this idea was a session led by a technology director discussing his district's implementation of Moodle as a learning management system. He talked about his successes, struggles and future aspirations for the first thirty minutes of the session and then began showing the audience some of the courses the staff has created thus far. He asked the audience to identify common themes as well as ways his staff could improve their courses (a welcomed opportunity for interaction in what is typically a passive opportunity to sit and listen). Some audience members noted the differences among courses. Some only had the syllabus posted while others had their entire course in digital format. Up until this point, seemingly every person in the room had been WOWed by this district's endeavor. I waited a bit and then raised my hand.
"The tool hasn't changed the way these educators teach. They've just transferred their worksheets to pdfs and made them available to download for students."
The presenter acknowledged this observation and the entire tone of his session changed. He admitted his utter disappointment in the Moodle roll-out process. I had the chance to talk with him in the hallway after his session. He was at a loss because he was under the impression that a new tool had the power to change his staff's teaching practices. His sentiments parallel a recent tweet by Bill Ferriter:
"Technology is not automatically good pedagogy. Instead good pedagogy is just made easier by technology."
Literacy, PLNs and good pedagogy all have something in common: a distinct "un-technology" emphasis. I've quoted Larry Cuban once before...
“It is not about technology; it is about learning” (2001, p. 184).
...and I quoted him again in my own ITEC breakout session. I came away from this conference having gained more meaningful relationships with my tweeps, but also an even more cynical view towards "the solution to education's problems is more 21st century technology in the hands of our students and educators" movement. Wesley Fryer summed it up a few weeks ago on his blog,
"While it certainly is true 'kids are into technology' today, it is a fallacy that providing these technologies to teachers in the classroom will automatically result in better learning experiences for students."
When will those in charge of our "technology" conferences get it, too?

Tackling Grades

In Ahead of the Curve, Ken O'Connor says,

"Grading as it has been done traditionally promotes a culture of point accumulation, not learning. It encourages competition rather than collaboration. It often focuses on activities instead of results. It makes all assessments summative (assessment of learning) because everything students do gets a score, and every score ends up in the grade book. " (p. 127)
O'Connor also admits that eliminating grades is probably not going to happen anytime soon, so we, as educators, must work within the system to change the way we report student learning.

Recently, I've been working diligently to change the culture of the classroom to one more focused on learning and report grades in a standards-based fashion. It is admittedly a drawn out process and I'm far from the ideal. The more books and articles I read, the more assessment and grading seem like a giant running back coming full steam at my puny physical frame.

How are you tackling grades? Do your grading practices promote points or learning? How are you frame assessment as a learning tool in your classroom rather than as a reporting mechanism? Leave a comment below.

Breaking the "norm of silence"

In Building Leadership Capacity in Schools, Linda Lambert mentions the need for educational leaders to sometimes break the "norm of silence." The n.o.s. looks something like this:

"I won't talk with you about anything you're uncomfortable with."(p. 54)
I admit that this has been my attitude towards some (but not all) of my colleagues regarding many of the ideas written about on this blog. Looking back on this practice, I am ashamed to see the change that "could have happened" but didn't due to my silence. For example, I have been mulling over a way to change homework grading practices for several years. It led to the assessment and grading revolution my regular readers know I have been working through and sharing via this blog. I remember when my math education colleagues finally were convinced that posting homework answers on the board for students to see anytime as they worked through the problem sets was a good idea.Why am I, still to this day, ashamed to share my ideas about assessment reform with my colleagues? This hit home several days ago when I sat on a panel of "veteran teachers" speaking to a group of pre-service educators at an evening class. One student asked the question, "What is one thing you would change about the educational system? I suggested that the way we grade and report student progress needs quite a bit of fixing and I had some ideas on how this might be done, but would only share them if there was enough time at the end of the Q&A session. After my colleagues on the panel discussed NCLB and "too much paperwork" as their pet peeves, I could only smile. Was that any surprise to these pre-service teachers? I'm guessing any current introductory to education textbook mentions the pitfalls of NCLB, but grading?!

Sure enough, a brave middle-aged man asked me a follow-up question about grading towards the end of the time allocated for the teacher panel. I boldly laid out an assessment-for-learning rich classroom with a reporting scheme based on learning targets rather than specific assessments. By comparing my system with the traditional grading system, it was easier than I thought to gain the attention and respect of these pre-service teachers. It seemed so easy. Maybe it was the follow-up email from one of the students wanting to know more about this "anti-grades" idea? Maybe it was the conversation with a colleague in the parking lot after the panel about how he might work towards this ideal? I do know that my "assessment secrets" should no longer be purposefully be hidden in a box.

What's stopping me from breaking the "norm of silence" with my own colleagues? What's stopping you from sharing all of the ideas you read, tweet and blog about with your education-minded colleagues?