Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Grades are a crummy way to measure student learning and progress, or my activism began with school

Here we are at part deux of my blogging about the nutty educational system we have here in the US. Last time I talked abut Standardized Testing (ST) and how that "termite" has slowly and steadily eaten away at the foundation of our country's schools. Today I'd like to chat with you about grading systems and what is happening on that front.

I will start by saying that the school board on which I sit is dedicated to looking at this system and making things more efficient and reasonable, FOR STUDENTS. I am thrilled at the prospect of deep revisions therein. We are quite simply looking at standards-based learning and measurements. There is a problem with things in the status quo, well several. I will unpack those here and we can discuss.

Problem #1 Colleges

When a student decides to go on to a community college, technical college, or a four-year college or university, there is a selection process the admissions folks use that is based upon things like SAT scores (although many are abandoning this as being artificial and fairly useless) and GPA. Grade Point Average is a measure not of potential but of past achievement. It is a number that is averaged, showing no nuance, no target areas of strengths. It is not a true picture of the whole. Like ST, GPA is a flat-earth way to look at astudent's potential and sustainability. GPA is made up of the basic arithmetical process of averaging. (one of the words I cringe under is "average" for a number of reasons) Ten measurements, add them, divide by ten. Bada-bing! The average.
To make it even more appealing, come up with a "value" or point for each letter grade received. Add those together and do the arithmetic. GPA. An A is 4 points. If a student gets all A's the GPA would be 4.0 right? Not really. An A- is less of an A than an A.

(SIDE NOTE: colleges (undergraduate programs) use GPA too and graduate schools make their decisions based upon these dinosaur measurements) In college I took a Shakespeare class wherein the professor announced he did not believe in A's and no one would therefore be getting an A. So, there went my 4.0. No chance for that. My fellow students could get a 4.0 GPA just by avoiding this professor's classes (unless they were female, blonde, and buxom).

Back to public high schools and GPA:

Problem #2 Advanced Placement and Honors

Another problem with using GPA as a standard of grading is that if a student takes certain classes (Honors or Advanced Placement) and aces these, she/he might end up with a 4.something-else (higher than 4.0) in that class. That means that perfect is not really perfect. For "advanced" students," more than perfect is the goal. All A's might be judged as not very good in that case. Meeting all the graduation requirements with A's becomes "less-than." Bottom line is that colleges do look at GPA and that fact presents a problem for school systems which want to eliminate number and letter grades and move toward something more descriptive and encompassing, some plan whereby teachers write more of a profile of the student as a learner. This is one giant elephant in the room when changing grading policies is discussed by faculty, administrators, and school boards. Let' say a school district decides to change to a narrative evaluation. How would that translate to a GPA that colleges could use to decide admissions? How, indeed.

Problem #3 Parents

Let's face it, we are used to grades, both letter and number. From time to time, or in lower grades of elementary schools, we have gone to SUN grading: Satisfactory, Unsatisfactory, Needs Improvement. What a firestorm of protest that induced! Parents feel comfortable looking at report cards with letter or number grades — and maybe even a key for describing what the number translates to as a letter. In my high school an A was 93%. In many schools, 90% is an A. Hmmm, so my A was worth more? How did my future colleges look at my A in comparison to someone else's? (yes they asked for a grading scale too). My point here is that assigning numbers and letters is artificial but we like that, just like we are comfortable with "butter spreads" rather than the butter itself. My father was all over my report card each quarter. He looked at each grade and made a judgment about what my life was going to be in the next quarter based upon that. (I was once told to quit Girl Scouts and concentrate on my studies because I got a B). Lest you think my father abusive and controlling, I should say that he was actually a bit more on the paranoid side, worrying that I'd have the hard life he had if I didn't do well enough to lift myself out of the manual labor life and into higher education. He was smart enough to know that education is the silver bullet, and he wanted me to have the best chance possible. By the way, I did quit Girl Scouts but not for that reason (the Troop Leader made her own daughter patrol leader... nepotism... and that was unacceptable to me)

At any rate, parents are comfortable with and can understand A's and F's and percentages. What they fail to consider perhaps is that those letters and numbers don't show anything other than what was calculated based upon a limited number of measured assessments, and an average at that. Those numbers could and often DO get skewed by external factors, even environmental ones (the room was hot, there was noise outside, the student didn't feel well the day of the test, etc. I used to verbally joust with my father over grades. He'd say what a great job I'd done, what a great report card, and I'd say to him "well... what does it mean? How do you know what I know? Do I actually KNOW things or did I get lucky on the tests? I pressed him for a definition of those A's and B's. A's were exceptional he said, A's meant I was smart he said. Bah, I said. Bah, I still say.

I need to insert a bit of a victory here. After I achieved my BA in English/ Writing from California State University at San Bernardino, I went on to graduate school at Vermont College of Fine Arts, seeking an MFA in Writing. I was amazed and delighted to find out that there were to be no letter or number grades attached to my work. I would, instead, be receiving an evaluation written as a narrative that would describe the projects I'd undertaken, the scope and engagement, the breadth of my reading, the writing I'd do my work ethic, and whether and to what degree I'd met my set goals. Weaknesses were to be pointed out with suggestions for direction, revision of plan, and problems I might avoid in successive semesters. A look at these evaluations and I'd be able to get a clear picture of my work and my results. Oh, and I need to add that self-review/evaluation was an integral part of the end-of-semester formula. The self-eval included a bit of goal-setting for moving forward. I could look back later and see whether I had stayed the course or veered and whether that was a good thing or not so great. Nothing was remotely vague or "standardized" about this system. I smiled at the way my desire for more reasonable grading was being met here. I only wished my father was alive to see that. OK, I wanted to gloat a bit.

Problem #4 Students

People who are promised rewards (or promised a withholding of rewards) for doing or filing to do something tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do. The reward, positive or negative, outstrips the activity. I suggest that the pleasure of doing, the pleasure of accomplishing is way more important. But then, how does one measure?

Studies in sociology have shown that, contrary to the conventional thinking, people who have been led to think about what they will receive for engaging in a task (or for doing it well) are apt to do lower quality work than those who are not expecting to get anything at all. In short, we do better at what we WANT to do, regardless of reward/punishment factors.

These findings are consistent across a variety of subject populations, rewards, and tasks, with the most destructive effects occurring in activities that require creativity or higher-order thinking. This effect produced by the extrinsic motivators known as grades has been documented with students of different ages and from different cultures. The findings are rarely cited by educators or administrators or school boards. It is another elephant in the room, or more accurately in the oatmeal.

Studies have shown that the more students are induced to think about what they will get (need to get) on an assignment, the more their desire to learn evaporates, and the less well they tend to do. I think this points to one of our better angels: we are strivers for the sake of striving, doers for the sake of doing. But those who inhabit the ivory towers insist on casting aside intrinsic values for extrinsic ones.

What I noticed, anecdotally, was that students were becoming "point-gatherers" and losing sight of the greater goal: actually KNOWING things. I didn't see this so much in high school. We were only slightly induced by grades (I wasn't much as I said before, preferring to know things and wanting to know more things than my peers, which is also a bad motivation overall). When I was in college finishing my BA in English/Creative Writing/Poetry, I saw the point gathering had escalated to unreasonable proportions.Some of my fellow students were obsessed with asking (begging) for extra credit work as early as the first week of classes. Aaaargh! I heard professor after professor say, nope...just do the actual work on the syllabus and you won't need extra credit. These students rarely did well on the assigned work and gained anxiety and stress as a result of worry over the points. This stance was befuddling to me. It was in no way logical thinking. Again, I was interested in KNOWING things (but certain that this obsession for being "the best" in any given class would LEAD to the points and grades I sought. I made myself sick of myself here. I was not being authentic in my approach. But, I still had as my prime mover the KNOWING. I was able to get back to my authentic self in grad school when there were not grades and there was not an ounce of competition. It was ALL about the work. I had found my safe place where values met outcome.

Then I took up teaching college English. Oy. Back to grades and point gathering. Back to anxiety in students and in me. I felt guilty "giving" an F, perhaps more guilty "giving" an A. It seemed so fake, so contrived, so unfair. But we work within the systems that hire us. So I undertook a radical method of point gathering. I assigned each student all their points the first day. All were perfect. Huh? Of course their job became KEEPING the points. At least I was being creative. At least I was showing the students an unbiased bit o' love. Hmmm. How did that work? Not so well. For some students, the idea was so foreign they couldn't cope. They didn't understand that each test would have a minus-something at the top and this represented points they lost. They wanted to know what that meant in terms of A, B, C, etc. They wanted extra credit right away. Oy again. I persisted in this, as I thought it might teach them to treasure and protect what they had. For some, this lesson was logical and worked. For others, it made me look like some kind of strange weirdo. Point taken.

Since 1893 we (the US) have been pretty much having onto a Titanic of a system. Slowly, since figuring out the No Child Left Behind was actually leaving everyone behind, schools and departments of education have been realizing we need a drastic overhaul of the system. Enter stage left: standards-based (think: proficiency-based) learning and grading. If we're careful (praying loudly here) we may end up being like my graduate program. Oh be still my pounding heart. "Make it so," as Capt. Picard of Star Trek used to say.

How will this animal function? you ask. How indeed will we have transcripts colleges will understand enough to accept our kids to post-secondary studies? Simple. Many many colleges already accept home-schoolers (looking at WHAT they have learned, sans the traditional grades). It will be a far easier shift for colleges than it will be for parents of points-gathering students. Here is the deal:

Let's say you are a student working in any subject area. You will have a plan for yourself that will include standards needing to be proven as met per particular subject area. Your plan will include small steps (foundational learning) and bigger ones (moving from general to specific learning targets within that subject area) that will lead to your demonstrating that you've mastered the subject to a certain proficiency. It's a "build upon the foundation" kind of thing. You (student) will KNOW what it is that you KNOW, and you will KNOW where you need help or time or effort. No competition with others, just with the material and yourself. Grading will be something like this: 1. not proficient, needs intervention or extra help 2. some proficiency (not mastery, but gaining ground with the subject matter) 3. mostly proficient (mastery at a reasonably high level of understanding) and 4. Proficient (mastery at a high level of understanding and application).

One of the beauties of this kind of learning plan (and its grading system) is that the student becomes an owner of the process and the outcome. Every student can have this kind of success. And because the key to mastery is mastery, not averaging, a student who works more slowly or has a bad day/semester/even year, is not penalized by dragging that not-so-stellar part of learning with him/her forever. Once mastery is reached, it is reached, no matter the route it took or the time.

I realize that I am merely skimming the surface herein. It is not my objective to take this lightly or to suggest that it will be an easy change. Not at all. All change is a bit fearful for many, a TREMENDOUSLY fearful thing for some. It is, however, a WAY to begin to shift the paradigm. It is a door opening and fresh air rushing in. It is hope that an antiquated system proven to NOT be working can be overhauled to begin working. School systems and district which are already doing this report successes. They report much higher levels of student engagement and we all agree that one of our biggest problems is retention and low graduation rates. Kids are BORED, feel "done to" rather than "worked with." If we only fix this part and keep kids engaged as stakeholders, we are miles ahead.

So... my suggestion here is this (in 3 parts):

1. encourage your school boards to consider standards-based learning and grading

2. tell your kids you are more interested in what they KNOW than their grades

3. think of your child as an explorer rather than a student, an explorer on a journey to knowledge and success and self-esteem.

I think that's enough from me for now. Let me hear from YOU.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

How Standardized Testing Made Me an Activist, Part I

I begin this blog with an homage to the talk given by Capt. Porter (USN) and Col. "Puck" Mykleby (USMC) at this years Camden Conference. If you listen to their speech/presentation, "A National Strategic Narrative," you will find sense, forward thinking, and clarity of purpose. I have listened to them and find that what they said about developing a national strategic plan spot on for what we must do in our educational strategy. And we must do it now before we further screw over our kids and their future (and ours). I am going to analogize what they said with what is going on in our schools and what we might do to (as they put it) "stop swimming in oatmeal." I refer to them frequently and their ideas have spurred on mine and are the platform for mine.

I will say right off that I am making the points I make in this blog post not AS a member of my local school board, but BECAUSE I serve on my local school board. I do not speak for the board, but I do speak in part TO that board as well as to every person who cares that we are the best people we can be.

This topic (Standardized Testing) has been on my mind for many years, since I was a Junior in high school to be exact. When I sat for the PSAT, it occurred to me that my scores might not mean very much in the real world. I understood that this was, in essence, a "pre-test" for the SAT which I'd take in a few months hence. I started thinking about the value of this kind of testing and what it would actually mean in terms of how well I would do in college, how well I would do as a citizen of my society after college. I concluded that the testing had a big fat ZERO to do with either. But, being a big rule follower, I was going to test when "they" said test, and I would do my best. Rule follower that I was (am?) is part me as a student, person, citizen. Well, I had a brilliant day that day, felt fine, had eaten breakfast, was wearing comfortable clothing, the sun was shining, the room was not too hot or too cold, and I liked the teacher who was proctoring the test. Oh, did I mention that I was a happy young woman with a great family, had not had a tiff with my mother that morning, was not grounded or had not just broken up with a boyfriend? In other words, the stage was set for success on all fronts. All systems go. I was motivated to do well, and I did (well not so great in the math part but that is another story).

Fast forward to the SAT a few months later:

I had a headache. I'd just started my period and was cramping like crazy. I was nearly late for the test due to oversleeping due to cramping all night the night before. My mother and I had a big fight that morning because I got up too late to eat breakfast due to oversleeping due to ..... okay. You get it. Not the optimal situation for a big standardized test. So how did I do? I did OK, but not as good as on the PSAT. I was completely upset by that when the results came in, because I figured my chances of getting into a good college and maybe getting a scholarship were less than perfect. I found myself totally resentful and angry at the testing system and at an educational system where a test could determine that much of a person's future. Even on this small a scale at this early age, I began a kind of activism that is my mind-set today). What I did NOT worry about at the time was whether my scores would have some kind of flashpoint effect on my classroom teachers. (more on that later in part II)

I began to have ongoing and stimulating arguments ( verbal tussles) with my father over testing and grades. We got into it on a nearly weekly basis on the topic of what tests actually do to show my success as a student/learner. I insisted that what I knew could not be well-measured by testing, especially by standardized testing. What if, I argued, the test asked things we hadn't covered? What if it only asked things we had covered? Wouldn't the result be false in either case, a false failure or a false success? How many tests might I need to take to get a range? Why on earth would reward/punishment be based in any way on these tenuous results? I argued that "achievement" was bigger than that. It was also during high school (well, probably around 8th grade) that I began a life-long battle with my father over grading methods. I saw this a big picture, poorly framed. I cringed each time report cards came out, worried that the "grades" would not please him. I didn't care what the grades were intrinsically, but certainly wanted my father's good opinion and that extrinsic factor was certainly at the fore each quarter. How many A's were enough for him? Of course he said the typical paternal thing: "if you are trying your best (as determined by whom?) whatever grade you get is good." Ha! His opinion was that "trying my best" translated to A's and B's in all classes, with a C possible in Math. My side of it was (is) that letter grades, number grades too, are artificial measurements of what we want to know about a student's progress in school. These are even less to do with what they know. More on this part later (Part III).

I digress. But just a little.

Back to the Camden Conference and its connection to standardized testing (henceforth referred to as ST):

It is true (sadly) that our schools are deep into swimming the oatmeal. Crazy nutty programs/plans like NCLB have thickened the oatmeal and made it a horror of a meal for our kids, teachers, schools to be force-fed.

The whole thing is leveraged off the militaristic notion of force and power (the government, school boards, testing agencies) use their power to force a program which only measures disasters and threatens school closures, teachers losing jobs, and withdrawal of federal monetary support. What? Really? This latest Draconian flavor-du-jour is turning the education of our up and coming citizens into mass paranoia, without any positive result in terms of our schools/kids actually doing better. We still STiNK as a nation in terms of the inverse dynamic of money spent to learning acquired (as measured by ST)

We need a Grand Strategy. We must re-frame the conversation RIGHT NOW, and everything we decide must be based upon opportunity and not on some kind of risk-threat concoction, which is what we have now. How so? you might ask.

Here is a simplified answer:

RISK: For students, ST is tied to progressing onward throughout the K-12 system, to graduation rates, to post-secondary work, and definitely to self-esteem. We in the ivory towers get to decide who is "at risk" by using ST, who is "gifted" by using ST, who is "in need of intervention" by using ST. For teachers and schools, we tie success to ST. We decide which schools are those same labels, again by using ST.

THREAT: We are sucked into a vortex of blame by ST, indeed some drum-bangers for NCLB would have us consider which teachers might lose their jobs, which may need "intervention," and which administrators need to be "recycled" or replaced — again by ST scores. In my opinion (I'm not alone on this), Michelle Rhee has done more damage to the national conversation on education in the 21st Century than any other person. She is Maxwell's Silver Hammer on teachers and schools. Rhee positively salivates over the idea of razing the system and starting over. It is all about controlling the risk-threat variables. It's all about control, period. Control through shame and blame.

But I'd rather let an expert tell you. You ought to listen to Dr. Diane Ravitch (the anti-Michelle Rhee). She is much more in the know than I am, but we are essentially saying the same thing. ST does not work. It will never work. "No, no, and absolutely not" is her mantra. Listen to this interview wherein she states that what kids are "learning" through ST is how to take tests. The curriculum is ST rather than being measured by ST.

So what now?

I agree with Col Mykleby and Capt Porter that the grand strategy for re-visioning our national presence in the world is about development of a national narrative, development of the story of who we are as a people. In the case of our country's very broken and uselessly over-funded money pit of a plan for education, we need a national narrative of who we are as promoters of an educated citizenry. They make an excellent point (Mykleby does) that we need citizens, not residents. We are not renting. We are buying. We need to involve all of us in the process. Because I do not have kids K-12 age now, ought I just take myself out of the picture? No. I actually care that the future is populated by thoughtful, reasoning caretakers of the world, of this country. I ought to care. I ought to want the best possible education for them and generations after them. When I hear people grousing about their property taxes going up to "pay for someone else's kids" I see red.

Having said that, there is a growing number of education advocates who believe that we need to stop tying educational opportunity to property taxes and, instead, fund education and support education with national resourcing and local implementation. We need a national narrative on education that places sustainability and productivity under the values umbrella. FYI, I am defining sustainability here as Porter and Mykleby do: an organism (country) that remains diverse and productive over time. Sustainability and productivity are qualitative views, not quantitative views. The purely quantitative view is wholly about "measurable results," i.e. ST.

What we need to develop is a broad view of enduring interest. Enduring interests lead to "doing" and doing leads to progress, i.e. sustainability. It is a non-linear way of looking at the world. We need a non-linear way to see things. The linear view has no end in sight. No end in sight is dangerous, as it both procrastinates our planning and leads to apathy and discouragement. American Exceptionalism, which is one of our points of pride as a nation, is not that we are naturally smarter than others, or naturally deserving of all good things over others, but is really more about the development of strengths and talents and ideas over time. These strengths, talents, and ideas form a picture of us, but are not the whole picture. We have come to prize the idea of our exceptionalism as our righteous influence in the world. It sticks in the national craw when we hear where we fall educationally compared to other civilized nations: Finland, Australia, Canada, etc. We hate the fact that we are sinking harder and faster every year on those lists. Standardized Testing rears its ugly punitive head again! We need to stop the madness, get out of the oatmeal and stop caring about the lists. We need to focus instead on the development of sustainability and productivity under a value system that fosters individual and national progress. We need every person who claims to be a citizen rather than a resident to stop looking at education as a pay to play system. Formal education ought to be world class and free. We need a national and local narrative that is "written" by all of us, to the end that no one feels left out of the conversation. We need to "get" that influence is best accomplished by reason and principle, not by bullying or coercion. We need to encourage students to the point that the narrative of who they are and where they are headed is "written" by them with our help. We need to begin to focus on momentum, in a non-linear way.

We need to involve students and teachers and parents and administrators in an ACTIVE process to re-vision our systems, locally. We need to include in our thinking the notion of credible influence, which focuses on strengths as a vehicle to rehabilitate areas of weakness. Dr. Mary Meeker (Structure of Intellect) pioneered that concept in her pioneering work, the Upside Down Classroom.

She asserts that every person is comprised of weaknesses and gifts (abilities) and that the weaknesses can be lessened if accessed via at least two well-developed gifts or abilities. She identified 26 areas of ability possibility. A good example of an ability which can be tapped into in order to problem solve is a strength I have in the area of "visual closure." This ability strength allows me to play Wheel of Fortune or do puzzles or figure out geometry. If I am weak in an area (algebra) and have trouble with the cognitive part of formulas, my abilities in kinesthetics might be a way in... I can perhaps build formulas out of lego and "get" the concept. If I am an auditory learner, I might need to record lessons to hear later. If I am a visual learner, listening to lectures won't help me but seeing the text will. If I am a kinesthetic/visual learner, I may need to take lots of notes (engaging hand and later eye). Tell me how ST will measure this. It will not. Teachers in the classroom notice not what kids are learning but HOW they are learning. They are trained to shuttle kids into experiences that allow them to engage positively with materials and concepts. How does ST do this? It does not.

Some of you are likely saying (right now as you read) Well, ST will discover what the weakness are and give teachers a clue to interventions. NOPE. ST will only find out what kids did not put down on the test that day and at that time and under those circumstances present on that day. We are swimming the oatmeal and drowning. We need to be bold! We should endeavor to reflect our best values, live up to our best traditions, and engage in common sense in planning and implementation of ideas.

To that end, we should just stop ST and rely upon our professional educators to know what is working and what isn't. These folks are in the classroom with our kids on a daily basis. They serve as facilitators of learning (as a lifelong undertaking I would hope) and serve as models of work ethic, work habits, critical approach to problem solving, etc... the list of their involvement is long and illustrious. In Part II, I will talk in greater detail about what ST is doing as a threat to teaching and teachers.

In the meantime, contact your local school boards and tell them NOT to fund ST in your school district. Find out if (how) you can opt out of ST.

See you on the flip side.