By Michaela Liebst
While reading Randy Watson’s comments last week regarding the new ELA competencies found in Navigating Change, I felt an emotion that I hadn’t felt in a long time. After a summer filled with anxiety over the looming school year, I finally had a jolt of…excitement.
Now I don’t pretend to claim that this excitement cured all of my angst about what educators are about to embark upon, but I do know that the competencies resemble an outline. And an outline can lead to a plan. And a plan is exactly the thing that my type-A brain wants more than anything in this world.
I don’t have plans for a lot of what will be coming up in the months ahead, but by being handed the ELA competencies, I can now start to visualize what my students will be expected to learn, regardless of being in-person, on-line, or a little bit of both. I can also start to understand that if the world reverts back to how it was in March, and I can only hold my students and myself accountable for a few key standards, I know exactly which standards those are going to be.
While gaining this structure and ability to place some guide posts in lesson plans is comforting, I also love that the competencies provide room for creativity and grace. Not once do the competencies come coupled with a script and mandatory way of teaching them. They may come with suggestions and sample lesson plans, but teachers are free to practice their creative freedoms to make the competencies come alive as they see fit. In my opinion, this document will be helpful, not just for the upcoming school year, but for years to come.
Because our emphasis this year will be on a few, condensed competencies, I wanted to take the time to emphasize that with the freedom surrounding implementation of these competencies also comes the freedom of assessment. With this being a year where less is more, it may be helpful to incorporate a Standards-Referenced Grading approach when evaluating student work. However, instead of calling it Standards-Referenced Grading, we can call it “Competency Based.” To make this type of grading even more appealing, Navigating Change has already provided you with the rubrics and “I Can…” statements necessary to utilize this type of grading system!
Below is a blog-post I wrote a year ago for my personal blog, highlighting Mary Harrison, a Wichita high school teacher, and her execution of Standards-Based Grading in her class. Mary has presented at KATE conferences several times regarding Standards-Based Grading and provides much expertise on the topic. Her experience can offer a lot of insight into a way of grading that may lessen the already heavy workload of teachers this year. Overall, combining the ELA competencies and Standards-Referenced Grading can come to the rescue this year by ensuring that our assignments are meaningful and that we are measuring the mastery of a student, not their effort.
Last year, Mary began using Standards-Referenced Grading as a way to fix the struggles and moral issues she was having with her grade book.
She was inspired to do this by two different types of students: The "Good-Citizen" Student and the "Absent-Minded Professor."
The Good Citizen is the student who always follows the rules and turns assignments in. He/she tends to get A’s and B’s even if they have a shallow understanding of the standards and content, but get rewarded because they play school.
On the flip side, the Absent-Minded Professor is the student who is a disorganized, hot mess. He/she never turns anything in, but they actually know their stuff and can carry out a conversation, making their intelligence obvious. However, they don’t turn assignments in, so they fail.
"I was so disillusioned by my grade book – what does what I’m doing as a teacher even mean if this kid with a deep knowledge of content is failing, but this one with a shallow understanding is not," Mary stated. In addition to fairness of students, Mary also realized that her grade book was random. She found herself asking "What do I feel like grading? If I didn't feel like grading it, it became a participation grade." Thankfully, her colleague stumbled across Standards - Referenced Grading which seemed to resolve a lot of Mary's grade book issues, and they decided to pursue its implementation together.
At first, both teachers had reservations about tackling such a task. A lot of colleagues at their school were against the idea and would frequently question their motives. In addition to the nay-sayers from co-workers, Mary and her teaching partner also had to find the courage to work their way up the chain of command within their district in order to receive permission to implement the initiative, due to it's novelty to both parents and administration. However, despite the work and the risks, they both felt that they "knew too much and there was no turning back."
One of my favorite quotes from Sal Khan, creator of Khan Academy, is that currently in education, the amount of time given to learn a skill is fixed, while the level of mastery for each student varies, when really, it should be the other way around. As teachers we should demand mastery from every student, but allow them the varied amount of time they need in order to demonstrate complete understanding. Thankfully, Standards-Referenced Grading is slowly guiding us in that direction. As stated by Mary, "Grades tend to ebb and flow especially when they are first learning a skill, but because they can re-try the grades tend to go up."
While Standards-Referenced Grading may feel impossible and confusing, it revolves around a pretty simplistic framework. Standards-Referenced Grading identifies specific learning targets for each grade level and within in each content. Learning targets are written as "I can..." statements for the students, so that it is clear to students what "mastery" of a skill should allow them to do. For examples of some of Mary's learning targets, see the files below.
Each learning target is then paired with a proficiency scale (see the files below). A proficiency scale is a continuum to show the progression of learning, and is what is used to assign student's their level of mastery for the learning target. Wichita's proficiency scales will range from the scores 0-4: 0 means student did nothing at all; 1 – even with teacher assistance student does not show any of the fundamental skills being measured; 2 – shows some mastery of fundamental skills that support the learning target; 3 - student is the meeting the learning target; and 4 - student is exceeding the learning target. The beauty of Standards-Referenced Grading is that if a student is earning a 1 or 2 on the proficiency scale for a specific learning target, they are able to retry as many times as they would like in order to improve their score. Therefore, mastery can happen at any time, allowing true learning and understanding to happen at the rate most suitable for the child. (See the files below to investigate the proficiency scales and “I Can…” Statements provided by Navigating Change).
Some readers may have read up to this point and thought to themselves, "Oh heck no. That sounds way too complex, and there's no way that this would work for my class."
To that, I would like to mention that Mary feels like this method of grading is more simple - it takes out all of the subjectivity and allows students to know before they ever start learning exactly how she’s going to grade them. "Since the proficiency scale says it all, I just have to say “you’re here and this is why” when providing students with feedback," Mary shared.
That's not to say that Mary hasn't had her fair share of struggles while trying to get students on board. Several students who are used to playing the game of school and getting compensated through good grades sometimes struggle with the adjustment.
"I had one student become very frustrated on her first grade for a learning target. She felt that since she worked hard, she deserved a good grade. My response was 'I’m not measuring how hard you worked, I’m measuring your understanding'. Because that student was able to try again and continue to improve her performance on that particular skill, I have seen so much growth in that student and her mindset. She now understands that this grade is just a communication of what I know at this moment in time, and if I keep at it I can raise the grade and my understanding."
Thankfully, Mary's courageous effort to integrate Standards-Referenced Grading into her classroom has paid off nicely. She is now a much more intentional teacher who feels as if her teaching and grades are connected and cohesive. "I am always thinking back to the learning target and am using that to guide my lessons," Mary states.
In addition, she feels like students have learned to take ownership of their learning. Because they are able to re-do assessments as many times as they would like, students are starting to see that they are in control of their learning and how they perform. Thus, student buy-in is increasing, which also leads to parent buy-in. "When I sit down with parents at conferences and explain my system, they all say 'This makes sense to me.'”
I asked Mary if she had any advice for someone who was apprehensive or skeptical.
The first thing she shared was that you have to be very intentional about which learning targets and standards you emphasize throughout the course of a school year. Mary's motto is "Depth over breadth." You can't have too many learning targets clumped together because "mastery is a strong word and so we're really going to have to dig deep and work on the learning targets that I've chosen." She shares that in schools with a transient population, this is especially important. If you have a student who has moved in half-way through a quarter/semester, you really have to narrow down what it is you want that student to focus on.
Second, Mary shared that she understands there is a lot of apprehension surrounding Standards-Referenced Grading and how it will impact Special Education students. While she does use the same proficiency scale for both her SpEd students and honors students, she assured me that there is still an element of subjectivity when it comes to using the scales to assign grades. "I sometimes use other considerations to evaluate – equity vs. equality is how I account for different skill levels, and I'm always taking into consideration what I know a student is capable of before I assign them their final rating."
It is my hope that by reading about Mary's journey with Standards-Referenced Grading, you will see how it could be worthwhile to incorporate this into your teaching practices this year. “Depth over Breadth” is truly the mentality to have as we begin the upcoming school year. With Dr. Watson’s urging to dig deep within the ELA standards, I would encourage you to ensure that your assessments are assessing mastery of these competencies. Whether it be utilizing proficiency scales, student “I Can…” statements, or more rubric-based feedback, this hyperfocus on the competencies will lead to a simplified grading system.
I want to wish everyone good luck with the year ahead, and I hope that this post provided you with some guidance for how to structure a school year that may feel a little unstructured at the moment! Finally, see the files below for examples of learning targets and proficiency scales from Mary Harrison, as well as “I Can…” statements provided by Navigating Change.
About the Author
Michaela Liebst is a K-5 Gifted Facilitator who has a passion for education and a soft-spot for English teachers. She believes that Standards-Referenced Grading is an exciting concept and hopes that grading for mastery instead of effort becomes the norm. She is also exceptionally excited about the Navigating Change document and where it may lead in the future. Finally, she is the editor of this blog and would love for other people to submit posts about their educational passions. You can find her on Instagram (@mliebst) and on Twitter (@michaela_liebst).
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