Along with a colleague, I met with our new division chair on Monday to discuss our Standards-Based Grading (SBG) plans, and I was happy to discover that he (chair) had personally used SBG for the first time last year, just like myself. He provided us with some excellent feedback on the form and function of our grading systems. As a result, I modified my system, initially planning to make mostly changes in form, but finally making significant changes in function, too.
You can find the result of my first attempt to align my SBG system with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) in my previous post. Here is my second attempt for the same unit on Newton’s Laws (called Forces in previous post):
The purpose of this document is different from the first, so the form is significantly different. This document — based on a very appealing form provided by our division chair — will be a handout to students at the beginning of the unit. Students will be responsible for monitoring their progress toward meeting standards, based on feedback from the teacher, following assessments. I really like this form, but I’ll probably use simpler spreadsheets for feedback from individual assessments.
Functionally, I decided that the standards in my first cut were not transformational enough. I made this second cut after going through the process of designing standards for the material that precedes this unit. The NGSS really doesn’t have any standards for the material that traditionally precedes Newton’s Laws in high school physics — introduction (e.g., scale, metric conversions, vectors) and kinematics. Some of this material may eventually be covered in middle school, but for now, in our district at least, it is the responsibility of the high school physics teacher to provide this necessary background for Newton’s Laws. So, I developed my own standards for the introductory material, using language from the NGSS (see my Foundational Skills unit here: SBG – Foundational Skills r2)
As a result of this revolutionary process, I decided to reduce the number of standards in the Newton’s Laws unit, and in my head I transformed the unit’s activities. I have a lot of work to do yet, but I believe that my unit will be significantly different from last year, in a good way. I also included a fairly detailed list to explain the expectations for each physics learning standard. The explanatory list for each standard includes Disciplinary Core Ideas, Crosscutting Concepts, Science and Engineering Practices, and/or Common Core (CCSS) standards.
In this second cut, each physics learning standard is more comprehensive than what I used last year, but I have begun to wrap my head around the process of applying these broad standards fairly. As our new division chair said to us, “All grading is subjective,” but this is where professional judgment comes into play.
Another big change in this second cut is the elimination of separate grading categories for Core Concepts, Scientific Practices, and Literacy, which is what I used last year. I’m still not sure about this, but having only one category, or really no categories, places the focus more squarely on physics.
Finally, you probably noticed the change in the grading levels – from a four-level system to a zero through five system. This change was mandated by a new policy at our school, which I learned about on Monday.
So again I’m asking, what do you think? Please share your ideas about the form and function of my system. Thank you for your feedback and suggestions!
Last year I took toddler steps into the world of Standards-Based Grading (SBG) by incorporating this methodology into two of my physics classes. This year I intend to use SBG with all five of my classes, a mix of regular level and honors. Overall, I was happy with last year’s results, and I learned a lot about how to make this year’s results even better.
One big change for this year is that I will do my best to align my classes with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which my district intends to fully support in 2014-15, including newly designed science classes from middle school upward. As a member of the district’s physics curriculum committee, I’m trying to get a jumpstart on alignment.
I found that the success of using SBG depends significantly on the granularity of the standards that are used at the unit level. Too many standards makes the process unwieldy, and too few makes assessment subjective. Also, I like to differentiate between core concepts and supporting standards, such as science practices or literacy standards. I discovered that I like a unit of instruction to have about six core standards, plus about this many supporting standards, which may be repeated throughout the course. I used the following weighted categories for determining students’ grades: Core Concepts, Scientific Practices, Literacy Standards.
As I try to align my SBG system with the NGSS, I find that the standards in the NGSS are much too granular for unit assessment. Here’s an analogy: Sugar comes in many levels of granularity. Sometimes sugar cubes do the job, other times granulated sugar, other times confectioner’s sugar, and even other times coarse decorating sugar. In my opinion, the NGSS are like sugar cubes: too big for most purposes. I think unit standards need to be closer to the coarse decorating level.
So, I’m taking a stab at writing unit standards that are aligned with the NGSS, and I’m seeking some feedback on what I’m doing. The students will be assessed against these standards both formatively and summatively. My grading scheme includes four levels, mimicking the levels that Illinois has used for the Prairie State Achievement Exam. The following image shows standards that I would associate with a unit that might be called Forces in high school physics:
As you can see, I took one of the NGSS standards (yes, redundant) — HS-PS2-1 — and linked seven core concepts to it. Students will not receive a “grade” on the NGSS standard itself, but rather on the seven sub-standards: HS-PS2-1a through HS-PS2-1g. I also included the Common Core Mathematics standards and ELA/Literacy standards that the NGSS document claims are linked to the NGSS standard. (The abbreviations are for use with our district’s online grading tool).
Here are my thoughts and questions:
I feel that I can adequately assess these seven core standards. The first one (PS2-1a) is actually a Science and Engineering Practice from the NGSS, but I included it in the core standards list to limit the number of weighted grading categories. I may use three graded categories: Next Generation Science Standards, Common Core Mathematics, and Common Core ELA/Literacy. Or, I may use four by adding a separate category for Science and Engineering Practices. However, I think four would be unwieldy. Perhaps all Common Core standards should be in one category. And, yes, I feel that the Common Core standards should be graded in a physics class.
This list included more mathematics standards than are manageable, in my opinion. I will have to pare down this list.
I wonder if I am including more core content than the NGSS designers intended. For example, is Newton’s First Law implicit in the standard? Should it be assessed at the high school level?
Am I trying to fit a square peg (the NGSS sugar cube) into a round hole (the traditional physics curriculum)? In other words, am I trying to dress up the NGSS in an old dress? Or simply, am I putting window dressing on … Oh, you get the picture. Should I be doing something more transformational to my existing learning standards? I certainly intend to do some transformational things to classroom activities.
What do you think? I am not really looking for wordsmithing, although it’s okay if you want to do so. I would love your ideas about the approach and the granularity of my system. Thank you for your feedback and suggestions!
In my previous post, I noted that I am reading the book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Thomas Newkirk, and I promised to provide an update on the author’s seeming assertion that there is a strict dichotomy between education researchers and successful, intuitive classroom teachers. Having just read the next chapter, I can say that the author has yet to return to this opening discussion. However, this chapter provides a very interesting discussion on the imbalance between writing and reading in the American educational system. I learned a lot about the lack of emphasis on writing instruction and how this started. And, I’ll say up front that I think the Common Core State Standards are headed in the right direction toward correcting this imbalance.
What is the current balance between reading and writing in American schools? The author believes that for decades too much emphasis has been placed on reading in both K-12 and higher education. This is due in part to many teachers’ opinions that grading (marking) student writing is little more than a chore, a view that may have begun with an 1885 essay by Adams Sherman Hill, who believed “the teacher needed to be vigilant in noting [students’] errors.” In other words, writing teachers were taught not to let any grammatical or spelling errors slip by unmarked.
However, Mr. Newkirk argues that an increasing number of people are writing, even as it appears that fewer people are reading. The “balance between production and consumption is changing.” This is due to various trends, including social networking and the increased use of narrative writing in reports to avoid liability issues. As a result, more people have become frequent writers, both at home and in the workplace. Even as teachers are placing greater emphasis on reading comprehension in response to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), Mr. Newkirk notes that reading comprehension is increasingly just one component of workplace literacy. Quoting Deborah Brandt, the author states that “reading is now more frequently embedded in acts of writing: that is people read in order to generate writing, they read from the posture of the writer.”
The problem is that current high-stakes tests assess what can be produced by a number-two pencil: Newkirk’s “curse of graphite.” Therefore, reading comprehension is isolated from the other parts of literacy. I think Mr. Newkirk is dead right when he says, “‘Comprehension’ as measured by standardized tests is actually an amputated activity — inert and isolated from the activity systems in which reading actually operates.”
This got me to thinking about the Next Generation Assessments (NGAs) that are under development in response to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), as well as the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). The NGAs require students to do precisely what Mr. Newkirk argues is an increasingly common part of our workplaces and social lives: we read to write. Here is an excerpt from a prompt for a model NGA for science assessment in 12th grade (reference lost/unknown, emphasis mine):
Your task is to research and analyze the growing conditions in your local area. This includes the typical climate, amount of precipitation, and type of soil. Using this information, research plant species that are well-suited to these environmental conditions. Then, design a garden using a variety of plant species. The garden can be either a fruit/vegetable garden, or a flower garden.
Make a color diagram of your garden design that labels each included plant species. Then, write an explanation that justifies the inclusion of each selected plant species, based on the environmental conditions in your area.
And, here is a sample English Language Arts performance task for middle school students (Scholastic, 2011). It’s still very classroom-esque, but at least it gets closer to real world literacy than a multiple choice test of comprehension:
Task 1: Find 3 – 5 texts on the theme of moral courage. Take notes on those texts.
Task 2: Synthesize what you have learned from the text about moral courage into an essay on the topic. Cite specific examples.
Task 3: Research and write about a historical figure or a person you know who exhibited moral courage.
Task 4: Write a brief reflection about what you learned from these tasks.
I understand that there is a great deal of angst and rhetoric about the Common Core. Listening to some complaints, you would think that the proponents of the CCSS are asking teachers to lock students in a room and test them 24/7. I too worry about the invasiveness of testing programs that are headed our way. However, as a science teacher and someone who spent ten years in the “real world” outside of education, I feel that the goals of the Common Core are nothing but excellent. The focus on skills and knowledge that are applicable in the workplace, as well as college, is right where it should be. I applaud these changes that the CCSS envision.
Clearly, No Child Left Behind placed inordinate value on only one part of the skills that make a student literate, but if the author is correct, classroom instruction tended to do the same thing long before NCLB. It seems to me that the CCSS addresses this imbalance by adding significance to writing and tying all the pieces of literacy together into a coherent whole. The author ends this chapter with a spirited, cogent argument to include writing across the curriculum. Although Mr. Newkirk is deeply suspicious of education reform, I think he would be pleased by the balance that Common Core strikes between reading and writing.
Scholastic (2011). Common Core State Standards Implementation Planning Guide. Scholastic Inc.
Consider a spectrum of educational practice. Place controlled experiment on one end and intuitive classroom practice on the other end. Do most educational researchers and classroom teachers reside at opposite ends of this spectrum, giving it a dumbbell appearance, or are educators liberally found all along the spectrum? This question comes to me because I am reading the book Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones by Thomas Newkirk. I just finished the first section (chapters 1 and 2), but the author has at this point set up a rigid dichotomy between educational research and actual classroom practice. I would like to know if this dichotomy really exists.
Mr. Newkirk begins with a brief history of education to provide a context for the discussion. He walks through the familiar notion that early twentieth century education evolved toward a factory model of efficiency. Just as a reminder, this transformation in the history of U.S. education involved applying the “science” of the factory to the profession of teaching. The factory model created a hierarchy of roles, with planners (the “scientists”) distinct from practitioners (the factory workers). The efficiency fervor of the time sought to apply this model to education by creating a hierarchy of researchers separate from classroom teachers.
In the ideal factory model, educational researchers, who use controlled experiment to determine “gold seal” practices, provide teachers with plans that are coercively applied with rigid adherence to scripts. The problem, the author argues, is that research results are abstract, and classroom practice is situational and too complex. Furthermore, the author believes that educational reformers think of teachers as too independent, even willful and childish. The intuition and situational experience of teachers is viewed by reformers as “luxuries we can no longer afford.”
Today, the factory model is outdated, but instead, education is compared to medicine. The author states that reformers ask why education can’t be practiced like the “science” of medicine. As with the factory model, researchers should be discovering the best practices, and teachers, like doctors, should be following a strict list of procedures for teaching, diagnosing problems, and assessing outcomes. There is no room for teacher professionalism and intuition. However, the author argues that not even experienced medical professionals — neither doctors nor nurses — really work in this manner, although novices must do so until they have gained a body of experience.
Now, in my field of physics education, Physics Education Research, or PER, is held in high esteem. It appears to hold a holy status in the minds of some in academia, although I cannot say if PER is as highly regarded by high school teachers. If the fervor with which some proclaim the value of “modeling instruction” is any indication, I would say that many high school teachers have also gotten PER religion.
On the other hand, the author seems to imply that successful classroom teachers, on the whole, are super-intuitive creatures who fly by the seat of their pants all day, ever attuned to the ebb and flow of the classroom and individual students, relying wholly on experience, and deeply distrustful of standard methods, “best practices,” and “gold seal lessons.” He seems to think that teaching is all art and little to no science. He gives a tiny space to the idea that research should inform classroom practice with trends and should “provide a conceptual language, which can help in the framing of instruction decisions,” but he appears to be headed toward telling teachers that their suspicions are right: you should reject educational reforms, reject the rigid practices of research, and go with your gut. Sure, try some of the ideas that research gives you, but your intuition is your best ally and you knew all along what really works best.
But, I am wondering. Is there really such a deep divide between educational research and classroom practice? Are classroom teachers really giving only lip-service to the application of research-based methods? Or, do educators exist all along the spectrum between abstract research and ad hoc, intuitive practice?
I think that I am a fairly reflective practitioner, and I value what educational research tells me. I attempt to put “research-based” methods into practice, allowing for modifications that must be made to fit my classroom, my classes, and my students. Isn’t this normal?
Or, then again, maybe I’m interpreting the author incorrectly. I’ll let you know where the author goes from here.
Have you heard any of these statements before?
Our students can’t read the textbook.
My students can’t write logical conclusions.
My students can’t spell, can’t write complete sentences, and can’t find a comma to save their lives.
Some of my students are doing just fine. Why didn’t the rest of them learn?
Why didn’t my students learn this in language arts class?
Why didn’t they learn this in middle school?
Why didn’t they learn this in elementary school?
Why didn’t they learn this FROM THEIR PARENTS!?
THEY aren’t teaching students how to read anymore.
THEY aren’t teaching students how to write anymore.
THEY have lowered their standards.
I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to read.
I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to write.
I shouldn’t have to show my students how to take notes.
I shouldn’t have to teach my students how to make a logical argument.
No one taught ME how to read a text book.
No one taught ME how to write a lab report.
No one taught ME how to make an argument.
It’s __________’s fault (TV, poverty, the family, culture, NCLB, RTTT, etc).
Sounds pretty depressing, huh? Well, let’s talk fun for a moment.
One of the fun things that I got to do over spring break was reading − lots of it. Besides reading The Two Towers for the nth time, I also read a fantastic book called Real Reading, Real Writing − Content Area Strategies, by Donna Topping and Roberta McManus. I’ve skimmed this book in the past, and I’ve used one of the recommended writing strategies, but I so wish that I had read it cover-to-cover before now. I would be teaching differently today, if I had.
Along with providing a heaping variety of tools for improving the reading and writing skills of students in content areas like science and social studies, the book also starts with a valuable discussion about teaching philosophy in general. It addresses the important and frustrating statements with which I began this post. Most of us have heard these statements. Many of us have made these statements. Real Reading, Real Writing comes right at this attitude with a big YEAH? So what? What are YOU going to do about it?
The authors ask you to face some hard facts:
The authors state, “It’s so much more comfortable to brand someone else as the culprit than to look inside and see what we could be doing to make the situation better.” I love this! Stop whining, buck up, and start doing something about it. The authors then provide a realistic strategy and usable tools for moving past the frustration for both teachers and students.
So, what’s a science teacher like me to do when my students can’t read or write at acceptable levels for success in science? The authors suggest that teachers replace their testing posture with a teaching posture by adopting a coaching strategy. Well, I’ve heard this before, and it sounds all well and good. And anyway, isn’t coaching cheating? The authors raise the same objections, as well as many others. However, they break down the arguments and provide many practical tools for taking on this strategy. The authors come across as reasonable and sensible voices in the call to teach reading and writing across the curriculum. For me, it is finally more than a vision.
IT’S SHOW AND TELL
“We must not just tell but show our students what it is we want them to do, how we − the mature adults − read and write in our specific content areas, and how we strategically control ideas and information within them.” Again, I’ve heard this before, but who has the time? I have all this content to cover, right? The authors − one of whom is a middle school science teacher, so the book has a strong focus on science teaching − acknowledge this problem and address it head on. They acknowledge that teaching reading and writing WILL take more time. At first. Then, you and your students will be able to proceed more rapidly through your content, with greater success in terms of learning, for the remainder of the school year. In fact, one author can pinpoint the day of the year when she and her students will be able to put learning into overdrive.
DO, LIKE A COACH!
The authors suggest a three-prong approach to teaching the players, I mean, the students:
They describe what this looks like in a REAL school, including a generous helping of conversations between REAL teachers and REAL students. They show how teaching your students to read and write, while teaching all the science you are obligated to teach, is not only possible, but also rewarding.
This book gets beyond answers to the questions of which technique, which initiative, or which trick-of-the-trade will make the difference. Rather, the authors address real questions like, “Are we guiding our students to write and speak appropriately for the tasks at hand?” All fads/initiatives/etc must be evaluated in the light of real questions like this.
As I wrote this last paragraph, I realized that it too sounded rather theoretical and pie-in-the-sky. So, what can I do on Monday to help my students do better in my class and in future coursework? Actually, I have already started. This past week, my students and I began the final quarter of our year with some new approaches to learning. I created some practical reading tools using the models in Real Reading, Real Writing. I introduced topics in new ways with sensible tactics to engage students before, during, and after content delivery. I had fun! My students responded positively, along with some groaning about having to do more real work for themselves.
As I said to my students, you are probably wondering why we didn’t do this at the beginning of the year. Well, I simply didn’t know how. I’ve heard the theories (in the everyday usage of the word), and I’ve been part of the school initiatives. However, until now I’ve rarely heard any practical approaches or sensible voices in the push to improve the literacy of our students. I wish I had, and I wish I had started this year with these tools in hand.
Nevertheless, I’ve told my students that we’re going to do a lot more reading and writing between now and the end of the year. I’m going to do what I can to get them ready for next year and beyond, when they MUST read complex texts for learning ON THEIR OWN. There is the side benefit that they will be better prepared for their state-mandated ACT test in a few weeks, but I made it clear that this is NOT the reason we are doing this. This is for their future. This is for their REAL learning.
I needed an exasperating situation to wake me up from my blogging slumber, and the ruination of my nieces’ science education is it. I was reminded today of this sad state of affairs by Bruce Alberts in his editorial, Trivializing Science Education, from last week’s edition of the journal Science (subscription required for access to full article). Mr. Alberts explains that “science” has been reduced to the ability to “regurgitate” facts without understanding. Good science education has been replaced by “rigorous” approaches that emphasize recall over curiosity and comprehension. To my great annoyance, my nieces are being subjected to this blunt, deadening approach to science education that Mr. Alberts describes. And, to my chagrin, I live too far away to spend one-on-one time with them in more authentic scientific pursuits. It’s such a shame.
My nieces’ 5th-grade teacher in Kentucky has taken away the joy of science with rote memorization of facts and processes beyond their understanding. Among other things, she has had them memorize parts of a cell and facts about the periodic table, just like Mr. Alberts mentions. In the 5th grade! Here are some excerpts from my sister’s description of their most recent test:
They just had a science test this Wednesday and I still have the “study guide” sitting around…So the questions on the guide were–compare and contrast a plant and animal cell–expecting them to memorize words like “organelles” , “chloroplast” and “cytoplasm”; list and define the 4 parts of animal cells, and the same for plant cells—so then they have to know stuff like what “chloroplast” actually does; the parts and jobs of the circulatory system; parts and jobs of the digestive system; compare and contrast vertebrates and invertebrates; describe the difference between reptiles, mammals, and amphibians; the 3 levels of organization between “cells” and “organism” and describe the function of cells in each level; 4 characteristics that mammals share; 4 characteristics that arthropods share. YES, ALL ON ONE TEST (my emphasis)…A year ago they would have been incapable of memorizing any of that; just would’ve been like memorizing greek to them. I am very thankful to say they are definitely getting better at it.
My nieces’ teacher has frustrated them continuously this year. They used to like science class. Now, it is a chore that could change their attitudes about science forever.
While I seek for ways to circumvent this teacher’s unknowing plan to beat science out of my nieces (SUGGESTIONS ARE WELCOME), I am also forced to consider the science education of the students in my own district and, closer to home, the students in my own classroom. For years, I have been cognizant of the fact that science is “boring” or “not my thing” to many of my regular-level physics students. Each year I have attempted to improve the connection between their lives and the science we do in my classroom. Mr. Alberts’ article was a reminder of the importance of this effort.
However, Mr. Alberts also hints at how students usually come to love or dislike science at an age long before they reach me in their junior or senior years of high school. Too often, schools slay students’ love of science during the elementary years, just when curiosity waxes high. My district is currently redesigning our science curriculum, as part of a 7-year curriculum cycle, and I am on the curriculum committee. I consider myself fortunate to have this voice on the committee, even though the process is frustrating. I am encouraged that the committee has talked a great deal about scientific practices, skills, and cross-cutting themes, as championed in the Framework for K-12 Science Education. I plan to do my part to ensure that this vision doesn’t get lost in the nitty-gritty details of curriculum design and during the process of materials adoption.
At this point, our district is redesigning only the curriculum for grades 7 through 12. Undertaking a redesign of grades K through 6 will occur later, and will probably require a Herculean effort, as there is currently NO science curriculum for these grades. Due to NCLB, time for English Language Arts (ELA) and Mathematics has been maximized, and science has been pushed aside with other less important subjects, like history, art, and music. Science is simply left out of many elementary schools in our K-12 district. And yet, as Mr. Alberts notes, “When we teach children about aspects of science that the vast majority of them cannot yet grasp, then we have wasted valuable educational resources and produced nothing of lasting value.” In other words, a poorly designed curriculum is a waste of time anyway, so maybe no science is better than bad science. I suppose that I would prefer to deal with students that have no opinion of science, rather than ones that have had “all the enjoyment [taken] out of science.”
I can only hope that the effort we make in the 7 – 12 curriculum committee will carry over to future efforts at the K – 6 level. We must move away from the notion that “rigor” means memorizing lots of facts. We must instead nurture students’ natural curiosity and help them build the skills and practices necessary for successful investigation, problem solving, and communication in science. Our success at the 7 – 12 level, and my students’ experience of science as juniors and seniors, depend on it.
I haven’t actually heard anyone say recently, “Those who can’t, teach,” but the sentiment appears to be alive and well in our society. To this sentiment, I think that I can also add the admonition, “Those who can, don’t teach!” as in, if you are successful, don’t bother thinking about entering the profession of teaching because it isn’t worth your time and frustration. “You are worth more than teaching.”
Let me state outright that I don’t hold with this new, apparent attitude. I have, instead, been on the receiving end of that last bit of advice, as I navigated the career change from electrical engineering to high school teaching. I was reminded of this disheartening advice from a friend by comments posted on a recent article in the Washington Post, Why an army colonel is retiring early — to become a high school teacher. One comment in particular, by a former middle school and high school teacher, nonetheless, really irked me. Jop57 writes, “Might I suggest coaching at the local high school and taking an adjunct teaching job at a nearby community college. This way, youbcan [sic] still connect to the youth in a [sic] environment in which they will listen and at the college level your wealth of experience and leadership will be appreciated. You seem like a wise man…a word to the wise is sufficient.”
I agree that teaching high school students is difficult, and they are often unmotivated, but isn’t it the teacher’s job to motivate them? I am not always successful at this, and I am often dissatisfied with the results, but I believe that it is my job to help my students become motivated, and when necessary, to act for systemic change that provides my students with a more meaningful (and useful) experience. It is appropriate to warn someone thinking about the teaching profession that it is hard, frustrating work, and that students today may not be like what one remembers of students in the past. However, how can a teacher warn someone that they don’t even know to avoid teaching at the K-12 level because they have the skills to do something better.
Have we as a society abdicated our role of teaching our youth? Have we concluded that Those who can’t, teach is not only the real truth, but even our preference? Have we given up on today’s youth altogether and decided to ride out the collapse of our nation until we ourselves die and don’t have to worry about them anymore?
If Jop57 truly believes that the best way to connect to youth is through teaching at the college level and coaching, then I am glad that he or she is no longer teaching middle school or high school, because it appears that this profession is not the right place for them. However, we as a society must stop advising the best and brightest among us to avoid teaching because we think they are worth more than that. These are the people that our youth need. They are the ones with the intelligence and skills to turn around our schools, or perhaps more correctly, to right the course of our society, of which schools are a part and in which they are floundering. Kudos to Colonel Yingling for his courageous decision to leave his safe position and large salary in order to enter the uncertain and less lucrative — financially, but not emotionally — world of K-12 education.
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