SBG: On Point With Assessment, Behind The Times With Grading

But first…earlier this week, I shared a recent post on using portfolios to grade equitably, and some dude characterized me as a cowardly idealistic privileged and overeducated white savior who claims to have some solution to problems that minorities face. That’s a lot to unpack, and I’ll leave most of it alone. It’s true that I’m a college-educated white man, placing me in one of the highest privileged boxes possible. No one, though, is claiming to solve society’s inequity with a handful of grading practices in school. Perhaps more importantly, though, it’s downright naïve to think that teachers have no influence and suggest that they can’t do something about a broken system. Grading is a systemic problem, it’s broken, and we’ve known about that for over 100 years (Rugg, 1918). Many teachers should feel empowered to do something about it in the space they have control over: their classrooms (and possibly school).

I now just feel sad for that dude of so many words who wrote such uncalled-for ad hominems. I hope he finds a way to deal with whatever pain he’s going through. I’m gonna stick to using this admittedly privileged platform to share what I’ve been reading and learning about with a just-as-admittedly privileged background in education and a current Ph.D. pursuit. Hope you get as much out of it all as I have, and can use it to enact change wherever possible…

Standards, Assessment, Grading
We’ve been hearing about standards-based grading (SBG) for decades. It’s a massive improvement from whatever was going on in most classrooms prior to the 90s. Thing is, though, some educators have already moved beyond SBG in terms of grading. Ironically, standards-based grading is no longer the best option for grading! But that doesn’t mean it’s useless. We’ll get to that.

What’s been replacing SBG, though? It’s known as “ungrading.” But even in an ungraded system, teachers are still assessing. Assessments might not look what you’d typically expect. Or, they’re pretty much the same just with no points. Regardless, they’re certainly part of instruction as teachers and students focus more on learning content (and not points, scores, or grades). And a big part of that is standards.

Focusing on content probably involves standards in every case, even if a teacher doesn’t formally have a system of standards. That is, whatever the teacher expects of students, and whatever it takes to learn the content, could be and probably already is expressed as a standard, somewhere. Standards are a good way to organize learning. Within this framework, then, standards have a big role to play, just not in grading…

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Equity In Portfolios

Averaging scores benefits only two kinds of students: those who show understanding consistently, and those who come into the classroom already understanding the content. If by chance the inequity of that is unclear, let me explain…

Let’s start with every other kind of student, like the one who comes into class with less understanding—for any reason outside of the teacher’s control—broadly described as being less-privileged. A less-privileged student with lower understanding will have lower scores than a more-privileged student who already has more understanding. This is a fact. As the year goes on, the student with lower understanding certainly has the potential to learn content and get higher scores. However, when all the scores are averaged, the less-privileged student will have a lower grade even if making large gains over time.

Pause here.

Now, consider the kind of student that averaging benefits: one who comes into the classroom already understanding content and who starts off with high scores, not low ones. As the year goes on, this already-successful student will have their high scores averaged, and end up with a higher grade than a less-privileged student even if making zero gains over time. This last point is a research interest of mine, and one that isn’t given enough attention when we talk about grading for equity. Whereas the common thinking with a standards-based approach is that it doesn’t matter how a student learns the content and meets the standard, only that a student learns the content and meets the standard, such thinking doesn’t account for any massive gains that still fall short despite conditions outside of school. Nor does such thinking address the already-successful student who can meet the standard with no effort at all. Granted, grading effort/participation is generally a no-no, but what message is being sent if a student can meet standards without learning anything? If they’re privileged enough to have knowledge and understanding, where does individual growth come in when you think of the lifelong learner that so many schools claim to produce?

Cue portfolios!

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Do Now/Activator/hodiē

For a few years now, I’ve been starting class with a calm, focused, 5 minute task for students to do while I take attendance and recover from our not-much-transition-time between classes. This is crucial. I greet students at the door—itself a high leverage practice that tells us so much about how a student might be doing that day and what their needs are—then, when official class time begins, I walk in, and project the task. I say nothing to begin. There’s no corralling, no raising my voice, no vying for attention. Students know that once the greeting is projected, it’s time for Latin. If anyone’s still in that “class transition” mindset instead of a Latin class one, I casually walk around, perhaps supplying them a pencil, pointing to our scrap paper area, or motioning towards the task, and we’re off and running with the start of class. This is part organization, part content, and part classroom management. N.B. this opening all takes place on my projected ONE doc. See this video from 2020 for more details. It’s basically stayed the same, even with in-person teaching.

What’s the task?
Nine out of ten times it’s to copy the date, weather, and a short greeting into notebooks added to throughout class, which serves as some optional portfolio learning evidence. This is the start of the weekly sheet/packet routine. While I no longer use weekly sheets, many things that used to be on them still end up in a student’s notebook, just with less structure and repetition. I like the flexibility now to include all of the weekly sheet content during a given class, or none of it besides the date. Last year, I added a note or two below the date, or some commentary about the school week’s or day’s agenda. This whole idea is really an indispensable way to firmly anchor the start of class, especially when there’s some kind of short task to get things going. Recently, though, I was thinking how to use this class opener for a more robust text. Nothing fancy, but there’s opportunity there. Here are my ideas for this year:

  • Magister P [discipulīs/classī Venetae/omnibus, etc.] salūtem dīcit
    Yeah, why not? If students have been copying “salvēte omnēs” all these years, might as well infuse some conventional Roman stuff each class. We rarely have characters writing letters to each other in class stories, but maybe we could start!
  • More weather descriptions & Q/A adverbs
    Instead of “pluit” or whatever, some commentary/question about rain would be a nice springboard for a quick discussion. In terms of adverbs, I’m thinking of drawing more attention to the Q/A posters by using phrases such as “mihi haud placet.”
  • Center piece: “describe the object, in Latin”
    Several years ago, I started Friday classes with a “guess what it is” or “what’s in the box?” kind of prompt. Drawing from that idea, I’ll either place an object on display, or put an image of something below the day’s greeting, having students describe what they see. This is a different kind of writing we don’t do much of, and I’m hoping that doing more of it will produce rich descriptions of items and characters in our stories.

The More You Hold Onto, The Harder The Shift

For this post, I had my favorite education topics in mind: grading and second language teaching. Just like the language teacher shifting focus to comprehension and maybe communicative purpose (and away from grammar, drills, paired speaking activities without purpose, etc.), any teacher shifting focus to learning (and away from grades) must change at least some of their practices for a successful and smooth rollout. How much change and what kind? The title says it all, but let’s take a closer look…

Principles & Assumptions
Key to shifting practice is adhering to certain principles and letting go of some assumptions. Otherwise, there’s not much of a shift at all. In fact, the more a teacher holds onto their old principles & assumptions, the harder it will be to make any kind of move. For a few years now, I’ve been recommending overhauling a few key practices so that new ones run smoothly. This is against common advice to just try something new little-by-little, I know. However, while that sounds appealing, in my experience the results are almost never what anyone wants. Consider the language teacher who adds tiered texts and embedded readings, yet holds onto measuring how well students identify verb endings. Sure, more-comprehensible texts is a step in a different (and dare I say “better”—gasp!) direction, but those grammar tests & quizzes under old principles will hinder the new practice.

It’s the same with grading.

If a teacher wants to try something new but holds onto aspects of their old system, there’s likely a conflict of principles, even if the teacher wasn’t aware of the old principles (which most often the case because no one really teaches teachers anything about grading). For example, attempting to teach for “mastery” while setting the gradebook to average scores creates a problem: the student who eventually masters content still has their previous, lower scores in the mix. That doesn’t make sense. While on the one hand, it’s appealing for the teacher to shift their thinking in terms of having standards to master, on the other hand the shift won’t fully be realized without adhering to the principles that make the shift actually work. In this example, the teacher would have to truly evaluate student work to make sure the most-recent learning evidence does show mastery, and have the grade reflect that. The computer can’t do that. Sure, it can automatically update the grade with a standard’s most-recent score, but that’s not the same. The computer doesn’t know whether the student had a bad day, or whether a really high score was a fluke. That’s why teachers need to collect multiple pieces of learning evidence and really know their students.

Of course, that’s if you bother with grades and points in the first place!!!!

From what I’ve seen and read in the literature, ungrading is where everything’s headed. We’ll have to wait until SBG is the dominant paradigm first, though, but I do predict more educators will recognize the ineffectiveness of and harm that grades do, just like what will eventually happen with grammar and language teaching.

So, what’s something you’re holding onto that’s preventing a smooth shift to something new?

2022-23 Grading: Process & Growth

I began writing this post even before publishing last spring’s grading update, knowing full well that the year’s experience would result in some tweaks. At the time, I wrote how my system was “90% of the way towards equitable, time-saving grading that shifts focus to learning.” I’d say my latest updates have brought me up to a solid 97%. For example, the variety of standards and evidence I was collecting was good, but I found that I didn’t need separate standards introduced at different times. Thus, we’re back to something more straightforward: Process & Growth, every quarter, completely self-assessed & graded by students, plus the following details:

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Year In Review: Updated Grading w/ Standards

My one-standard-self-assessed grading system of receiving input (re: Input Expectations rubric) has been working out just fine for several years now. “Fine” is…well…fine…but we as educators should be open to refining practices whenever we get new data, especially whenever “fine” has the opportunity to become something awesome. This year I was able to do something better, getting ever so close to that awesome. If what I’ve been doing could be considered 85% of the way towards equitable, time-saving grading that shifts focus to learning, I’m now at probably 90%.

These updates are the result of some research I’ve been doing using primary sources from Grading For Equity (Feldman, 2018), Fair Isn’t Always Equal (Wormeli, 2018), Assessment 3.0 (Barnes, 2015), Hacking Assessment (Sackstein, 2015), and Ungrading (Blum & Kohn, 2020), along with 20 or so additional research reports on related topics. Updates included introducing new standards one-by-one, and their values changed throughout the year. The system also moved from 100% self-graded to 100% teacher-graded. I’m keeping some of these updates for next year, but more on that later on. Let’s take a look at those standards, first…

Process
Process refers to the things students *must* do to acquire language. It’s basically what the Input Expectations rubric was all along years before. Rather than a set of bias-ridden controlling rules that have circulated the language teaching profession for some time, though (e.g., “eyes up front, nothing in laps/on desk, intent to understand,” etc.), there is no dispute that students need input, and there are only three modes of doing so: reading, viewing, and listening. That’s it, and there’s no way to distill it further. Since a focus on providing input requires plenty of time and energy, there’s not much convincing reason to do or grade much else. Therefore, my grading system aligns with the instructional design 1:1.

The processes found in the older Input Expectations rubric have been 100% of my students’ grade for years. Students self-assess how well they’ve been receiving input about four times per year, and that’s it. How do they receive input? Well, I’ve been working under the Look, Listen, Ask framework, but have now separated out the latter into a workflow of Respond/Show/Ask. If students Respond (target language takes priority, but English is fine), we’re good to go. If they can’t, students Show their understanding (e.g., gestures, expressions, etc.). If students can’t do either, though, then it’s time to Ask. This update has the benefit of getting more engagement from students without requiring some kind of “choral response” rule. Also, the students who can respond—but choose not to—start to realize it’s easier to do so rather than having me check their comprehension (because I didn’t get any data and no data is bad).

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Classroom Management (MGMT): Let. It. Go.

It dawned on me that I have zero management issues right now. Zero. Yeah, it feels like the Twilight Zone. In fact, the only classroom management issue close to what I used to experience years ago was something mask-related, and took place way back in the fall while I was covering for another teacher. But classroom management in Latin class? It has felt almost like an afterthought. How is this possible, especially after a year…”off”…with virtually (hehe) no problems?!

At the start of the year, MGMT was an area of my teaching that I felt was completely inadequate from lack of practice re: COVID and remote teaching. I certainly had what I used to consider “one of those classes” at the start of the year, but in hindsight, it still didn’t take much effort to manage, not really, and in February when I began writing this post it was hardly unnoticeable, and just not a thing at this point. Why is that?! Has my teaching fundamentally changed since 2018-19? Let’s look into that…

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Common Ground (Henshaw & Hawkins, 2022): First 30 Pages All Language Teachers Should Read

This post includes practical ideas I got from Florencia Henshaw’s and Maris Hawkins’ theory-to-practice SLA (second language acquisition) book. The preface and first chapter contain what’s probably among the best 30 pages a language teacher could read, especially one having little familiarity with SLA, and/or those who missed the Tea with BVP train, and While We’re On The Topic.

My context is teaching first year Latin in a small public high school in a large city. Latin is required. It’s the only language offered. So there. I teach beginning students who have no choice (i.e., this often means no interest or any prior knowledge), and many of them didn’t have a second language experience in primary or middle school. Since “novice learners have a long way to go when it comes to developing a linguistic system” (p. 138), my focus is hardly on any output. Output “helps with the skill of accessing that system” (p. 138), which the beginner is still building, so it’s not a priority. This doesn’t mean no one speaks Latin (students do!). This doesn’t mean there isn’t any interaction. What this does mean is that I’m not thrown off by all the “Get students speaking the TL in just five easy steps!” messages that lead so many language teachers astray. Neither are the authors, although they’ve included stuff in the book for those who might be dealing with an IPA-heavy department (Integrated Performance Tasks), or who might be coming from a more traditional program and isn’t quite ready to give input its due attention. Input is key. I’d actually feel the same if I taught second year Latin as well, and maybe even year three. This would also hold true for any language. That is to say I think all Spanish I & II, or maybe even Korean III teachers would benefit from the same approach: a massive focus on input.

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Skip The Quiz: Highlight Your Confusion

I took this idea from Kelly Gallagher, the History teacher who wrote the “readicide” book. At some point, he started having kids read current news “articles of the week (AOW)” in groups and told them to work together and “highlight their confusion.” I honestly haven’t though about this in a decade, then it just popped into my head the other day. I realized this could be another “skip the quiz” assessment that gives us just as good data, if not better. The task was simple:

  1. In groups of 3-4, read the text (i.e., this week the full Pisces myth from signa zodiaca: vol. III).
  2. Highlight your confusion.

I handed out one text and one highlighter per group. To complete the simple task, students read and interacted, helping each other understand the story. I collected them for use the next class. What I got was a list of words and phrases nearly all groups didn’t know, and a few here and there that each group blanked on. That’s all I needed to make the language more comprehensible, discussing the text the next day and having a short list of words/phrases to park on. Here, “park” refers to a strategy of asking questions and restating answers while focusing on a part of the text that wasn’t as comprehensible (i.e., unknown words). This provides micro-exposure to the words in question, making subsequent reading go more smoothly.

Key Observations & Pedagogical Implications

  • This was a major confidence boost for students who might have doubted their ability to read a text of about 400 words long. Even the most-highlighted packet turned in had no more than 10 unknown words. These were level-appropriate texts. If, however, the packets I got back were marked up beyond belief, that’d tell me the full version couldn’t be read with any ease—the majority of class time and effort unnecessarily spent arriving at comprehension, not starting with comprehension and doing something more with it, prompting a new text or new level of the text. This is more valuable data than any quiz.
  • Students read the story together, receiving input once. Then, we read the story together as a class, students stopping me when we got to a place they highlighted. We discussed the story’s meaning, as well as any etymological connections to the unknown words, and whenever possible, additional input was provided through Q&A. Therefore between a) the first run through in groups with their discussion & rereading while negotiating meaning (because I monitored student interaction), b) the rereading the next day, and c) hearing the Q&A, I wouldn’t be surprised if this 400-word story ended up providing over 1,000 words of input over just two classes. I’ve never heard of any quiz with that much input.