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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BURNout vs. BOREout

Someone online asked about routines last week or so, and I chimed in with my stock take about my own experience with things getting old, etc. and how the daily routine repeated weekly hasn’t worked out well for me in the past. A short while later, a friend gave pretty much the opposite advice. We’re both usually on the same page when it comes to prep and concern for burnout, so I was momentarily perplexed. Then it hit me: not only to teachers have to avoid burnout, but there’s also “boreout,” my word for stifling the joy in one’s day (for whatever reason). Both have the same outcome, which is leaving the profession at some point with a F^% it attitude. Quite plainly:

  • Too much planning = burnout
  • Too much of the same thing = boreout

For me, routines lead to boreout. I’ve done the Monday = X, and Tuesday = Y thing, but I haven’t had a daily school schedule making that possible for years. Last I did, though, the Monday “talk about weekend” thing got old. I’m not even talking about purely student interest, either. I got bored with it myself. I even get bored by the end of the third 84min. class plan that I teach straight in a row every other day, which is actually the fourth time I’ve taught it (i.e., four sections of Latin 1; one on A days, and the other three back-to-back on B days. Yeah, just put me to bed already, right?). It turns out that I’m prone to boreout just as much as burnout.

Daily routines and not-routines have a common goal. Both seek to avoid stressful, time-consuming, unnecessary planning. My friend has daily routines to reduce (eliminate?) all that. If Wednesday is always a quiz, Wednesday is always a quiz, right? For me, though, one thing I’ve run into is how even with a daily schedule, every Wednesday isn’t always a Wednesday. In fact, about 20% of the school year is irregular according to every calendar I’ve ever worked with given all the random days off, PD, snow days, testing, etc. That means one out of every five classes just…doesn’t happen. This displaces the routines and has caused me additional planning in the past. For example, if Wednesday is quiz day, and there’s no school Tuesday, it might not make sense to quiz anything.

Irregular weeks aside, even having a 2-week rotating activity schedule got old for me. I prefer a Talk & Read structure to every single class, as well as the “1-day-plan-ahead.” That is, each day, I look at a list of activities, noting what we haven’t done in a long time, etc., and plan for the following day. To be fair, I do roughly jot down the week’s possible agenda, or what I might want to do on Wed/Thurs, but it almost never quite stays the same once I get to the day before.

This also helps me be super-responsive to the class’ needs. For example, I did The Monitor Assessment recently and noticed far more incomprehension with one book’s chapter than the previous one. As a result, I adjusted by planning something to address all that in the next class. If I had the routines, and were expecting a quiz on Wednesday, that would’ve been harder to change things up. In sum, whatever time I spend picking out an activity or two for the next day and setting it up—which is usually 5-10 minutes—isn’t a problem for me. That certainly helps me avoid burnout, and has the benefit of keeping boreout at bay.

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.

Quick Competition: Most Points Wins!

Here’s a competitive reading activity I came up with on the fly the other day. You could consider it one of those “sneaky” re-reading strategies, almost like an annotation task, but more fun. It’s no frills, has an element of chance (like Lucky Reading Game), and adds a novel twist to reading any text. Here are the instructions I project:

  1. In your notebook, write down as many X as you can, in English.
  2. When the time is up, we’ll review, and you get a point for each detail the teacher calls out.
  3. Most points wins!

What’s “X?”
Anything you want. We just read about Sagittarius from sīgna zōdiaca Vol. II, so X was “facts about Sagittarius.” Students feverishly read through pages to scoop up details.

What Details Get Points?
Anything you want. In the zodiac example, I set a timer for 5 minutes, then started reading back from the beginning, making up points as I went (e.g., “If you wrote down something about Sagittarius being the 9th sign, give yourself a point). Just like The Monitor Assessment, I also gave points for details as a way to check comprehension.

What Do Students Win?
My go-to reward is “glory and honor,” which honestly is enough for students. Besides, they get a laugh out of the fanfare knowing I won’t try to bribe them into playing games with anything other than winning as the purpose.

Check Your Understanding: Return of the Quiz?! Kinda…

It’s been years since I’ve given a quiz. I know that seems crazy coming from a teacher, but there are just so many other ways to get evidence of learning, like The Monitor Assessment, that I haven’t had to bother with quizzes much at all. When I did give them, they were sneaky ways of reading and rereading. In other words, all my quizzes were input-based. This meant that the learning experience (i.e., of receiving input) took place during the assessment. In the literature, this is known as an UNOBTRUSIVE assessment, whereas an obtrusive one would be when there’s an abrupt stop to input and interaction so testing can occur. This is bad. It literally takes away time from learning, an no one wants (or needs) that. A couple examples of obtrusive assessments would be like pulling kids into the hall for some speaking test while who-knows-what is going in the classroom, or holding a “unit test day” that’s really just 20min of testing, then free time or busywork for those who finish. With unobtrusive input-based assessments, however, the learning (i.e., receiving of input) continues, and it’s not a complete waste of time.

I enjoy not wasting time. Don’t you?

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Skip The Quiz: The Monitor Assessment

You wouldn’t expect to read a Magister P blog post and end up doing more work, would ya? Naw, and this doesn’t disappoint. The Monitor Assessment should help a little with what is yet another exhausting year teaching, but be sure to keep it once we’re on the other side.

  1. Instead of creating, administering, and scoring quizzes, have students do some kind of read and translate in pairs or small groups, preferably in preparation to a team game. My go-to right now is the Lucky Reading Game, which you can read about somewhere here.
  2. Walk around and monitor the groups, making note of any incomprehension.
  3. That’s it.

Firstly, yes, this is most definitely an assessment because you assess comprehension, and can jump in to make language more comprehensible, which is immediate feedback. Secondly, no, don’t bother grading this assessment! Not every assessment needs to be scored and then dropped into the gradebook. In fact, definitely don’t do that.

I’ve maintained that the only adjustment language teachers need to make is to provide students with more input, which should be happening anyway, so assessments don’t change much. That’s still true. However, The Monitor Assessment can provide insight into which kids need more support (e.g., more comprehension checks, or direct questions during class), as well as give us an overall sense of how comprehensible our texts are, especially a day or two later, acting almost like a delayed test that shows what stuck. I suppose, then, that The Monitor Assessment can be a handy tool to catch ourselves from moving too fast, and be more responsive and deliberate with vocab. In that sense, these are adjustments that can only help the necessity of providing input. Of course, if texts are at- or below-level to begin with, The Monitor Assessment will confirm that, and no further adjustment needs to be made, anyway! Oh, and the beautiful part?

No prep.

That’s right. This assessment is 100% prep-free since you already had a text to read for the team game, right?