Assessment and evaluation conformity woes: a partial solution?

My stance on this subject is about as secret as it is neutral. I do not believe that teachers should have to use the same assessment and evaluation strategies simply because they are teaching different sections of the same course. To say that this practice ensures fairness may be accurate (although probably not) but this practice does not ensure equity. Here’s what often happens with this practice:

  • evaluations are determined well before students’ needs have ever been assessed
  • junior teachers are made to feel that they have to use the assessments of senior teachers because “they know better”
  • little to no differentiated based on student needs, strengths, or interests

In a perfect world, department members would find plenty of time to collaborate and constant revise this evaluations, but we all know how challenging it is to find this time.

So in an effort to please the powers that be who insist on uniformity across sections* I’ve come up with a plan:

Using our computerized grade book program, “Markbook,” we can assign different mark sets. In the past, I created a Term mark set, a Final Exam mark set, and a Course Culminating Activity (ISP, CCA… etc. Choose your acronym) mark set. Each mark set was weighted according to the percentages we use to calculate the final mark.

  • Term: 70%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

(These numbers are determined by our board)

So now, all I’ve done is add one more mark set. Ready for it?

Here we go!

  • Formative: 20%
  • Summative: 50%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

See what I did there? It doesn’t solve all the problems and of course we still need to be striving for at least the “appearance” of uniformity, but… now it doesn’t matter if teacher A records 15 different formative assessments and teacher B records 4 formative assessments; the summative assessments will be worth the same because of their weighting.

See this is where things were getting tricky in our department. We agreed that major assessments would be the same, (well… I didn’t agree but I don’t have a choice in the matter) but we also agreed that formative assessments could differ depending on the class (I did agree with this). But if Teacher A had 15 different formative assessments and Teacher B only had 4, then Teacher B’s summative assessment would be worth proportionately way more than Teacher A. Trying to get all the weightings to line up in Markbook is just ridiculous and doesn’t allow for much freedom in designing formative assessments UNLESS you do what I did.

So is it a perfect fix? No. But at least we can clearly show that regardless of the types and variety of formative assessments (or “rehearsals” if you like), the summative tasks (“performances”) are still worth the same percentage of the overall mark.

The only real challenge with this is that in the very early progress reports, the marks will be skewed (although, the are anyway). So we might have to play around with the weighting of the mark sets in the early stages to give students and parents a more accurate understanding of their progress. By midterm, however, we should be able to use the actual weightings.

We’ll see how this goes! Let me know what you think of the plan, or if you’ve tried something similar.

 

 

*… for perfectly understandable reasons, I should add: Students and parents complain when there is a perception that one teacher is “marking differently” than another teacher. The perception is that students in one  class are not receiving the same treatment as students in another class. Now, having students complete the same assessment doesn’t alleviate this problem; it just helps with the perception.

A Lesson From “Cheaters”: Ethics and Standardized Testing

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Gosh I love when teachers are in the news, don’t you?

So by now you may have heard of the 10 Ontario schools that are facing allegations of cheating on EQAO tests.

I feel torn about this issue because on the one hand the last thing I want to hear is another story in the news that makes teachers look unprofessional. And I just love how every news agency makes it sound like teachers were all intentionally and maliciously cheating, when in many cases, the teachers may not have been aware that what they were doing was considered “cheating”, especially when doing things like allowing students access to dictionaries is generally just considered good teaching. On the other hand, this story raises an important issue for me and I think it’s an important issue for a lot of teachers:

I am so sick of our province’s love affair with standardized tests that provide a very narrow and artificial snapshot of our students’ success in literacy and numeracy. During my short tenure as a learning coordinator, every school that I worked with had a goal that involved improving EQAO or OSSLT scores–which makes sense in a way because those are goals that are measurable, and I’m sure that there is also pressure from superintendents to make these an integral part of the school goals. We all report to someone.

But why oh why do we put so much stock in a test that gives us such a narrow range of information? Does the grade 10 literacy test or OSSLT (for example) really tell us whether or not a student is literate? There is so much more to being literate than colouring in the correct bubble for a multiple choice reading response question or filling the requisite number of lines for a “series of paragraphs”. The test is not in any way representative of what we are told is an effective method of assessment or evaluation. It is the complete antithesis of differentiated assessment. And because of this, teachers have to spend time teaching students how to respond “correctly” to these types of questions rather than focus on the curriculum–or, god forbid, critical thinking.

Are teachers under pressure? Absolutely. Are kids under pressure? Are you kidding? Is it any great surprise that in some schools, some teachers feel compelled to provide students with dictionaries or give them practice questions from previous years’ tests?

Now I’m not saying I condone the behaviour of the teachers if they did indeed knowingly break the rules, but I can understand it. There’s nothing worse than seeing a student, who you KNOW is capable of answering a question correctly if only you could direct them to re-read the question, bomb an entire question that may mean the difference between passing or failing the OSSLT. But I’ll sit there and suffer in silence because I can only say what’s in the script and I don’t have any interest in appearing in the blue pages of the Ontario College of Teachers magazine.

Maybe what we can learn from these incidents of “cheating” is that EQAO testing is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which being the fact that this form of testing forces teachers to suppress everything they know about what it means to be a good teacher.

My thoughts on “Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools

Confession time.

I am a nerd. I love talking about assessment and evaluation. I love reading about it, debating about it, writing about it, thinking about it, planning for it, and sometimes doing an interpretive dance about it. My favourite A and E guru is Damian Cooper who I had the pleasure of meeting last year thanks to my good friend Heather Jakobi. I like him because while his philosophy is grounded in all the best research into good assessment and evaluation practices, he is practical enough to recognize the challenges and limitations that teachers and administrators face in their day to day lives.

My basic assessment and evaluation philosophy is this:

  • The primary role of assessment is to promote student learning
  • Assessment should inform and drive instruction
  • You need to begin with an idea of what students must know and determine what sufficient evidence of this achievement will look like.
  • There are many different ways to demonstrate learning and students need to be exposed to a variety of assessment tasks and when possible and appropriate, be given choice.
  • Students need to develop an awareness of how they learn best and should learn how to effectively self-assess.
  • Students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate they can meet expectations
  • We should not use academic penalties (deducting marks) for behavioural/learning skill issues

I could go on. And I often do. But I think those points cover most of my thoughts about this topic. The last point on that list is a contentious one, and one that I have not always believed. I used to say, as many teachers and parents do, if teachers don’t deduct “late marks” then students won’t be properly prepared for the realities of college/university or the work world. But here’s the problem with that:

The college/university argument: Our students do not all go on to post-secondary education. Also, educational philosophies and mandates of post secondary institutions are not the same as those of elementary and secondary institutions. We shouldn’t emulate practices that we don’t feel are beneficial to students in order to “prepare” them for bad pedagogical practices they might encounter in the future. That’s like saying to a hockey player, “I’m not going to give you pointers for improving your slap shot because in a real hockey game, you’re not going to have me there to coach you.”

The work world argument: The previous analogy that I used works for this too. But also consider this: While it’s true that you may get fired for not submitting a project to your boss on time, it’s a faulty analogy to compare this to school. In the work world, you perform a service, and in return you receive money. In school, completing assignments is not providing a service, and grades are not money. The purpose behind completing assignments is to learn and demonstrate your achievement of specific curriculum expectations. Grades are not rewards, but an evaluation of how well you’ve achieved those curriculum expectations.

So here’s the problem: many students and their parents view grades as rewards for hard work. Parents praise students for high grades. Grades are requirements for admission to colleges and universities. Until we have a society that values descriptive feedback over percentages, I really don’t see how this can change. So, in many cases, the only penalty that is meaningful to students is the deduction of grades for what is in reality a behavioural problem.

Now some might argue that we need to have meaningful behavioural consequences then for failing to submit assignments on time (or at all!). The aim of these consequences would be to help students learn the importance of meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with disruptive behaviour and other types of classroom management issues, it might be a tough sell to tell teachers that they also have to assign lunch hour detentions to the students who didn’t submit their homework assignments. Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to say the consequence of not doing your work is that you will sit with me until you have done your work, but it’s just not always practical. That being said, I am considering assigning a lunch hour detention early on in a given course to students who fail to complete a homework assignment or other small formative task to see if it sends the message that “not doing the work” is not an option.

All right, so now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s get to the point.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has just released a document called,“Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. The policy document is meant to guide school boards in developing their own A and E policies. The biggest thing that I think teachers are going to jump on and perhaps do a happy dance about is page 43. On page 43 at the end of a long list of suggested interventions for late and missing assignments it suggests:

deducting marks for late assignments, up to and including the full value of the assignment.

This calls for a dramatic chipmunk moment

Now let’s move on.

That strategy is at the bottom of the list for a good reason, and since many teachers will laugh gleefully at that final strategy and ignore the next page, I would like to add that the document has a very interesting bit of text after the list, where the ministry seems to try to justify the change of heart. Here’s what it says:

There are strong and often divergent opinions on the issue of how to deal with late and missed assignments. Many stakeholders, including many parents and students, believe that marks should be deducted when assignments are late and that a zero should be assigned when a student does not submit an assignment…. Proponents of this view believe that unless students face academic consequences for non-performance in school, they will not learn to be accountable to themselves and others and will not be prepared to meet the requirements of employers or of postsecondary educational institutions.

But wait! There’s more!

On the other hand…

See. You had to know that was coming.

…many experts in the field of assessment and evaluation discourage deducting marks or giving zeros for late and missed assignments, arguing that such measures do not make students change their behaviour or help them succeed in the long run…

You get the picture. So here I am reading between the lines: “People who argue that we should deduct late marks don’t really know know what they’re talking about because they’re not experts, but they are taxpayers so we need to listen to them.”

Hmph. I’m not so sure how I feel about that wording.

Here’s what I think:

Until we have a system that does not require teachers to report within strict time frames, and until post-secondary institutions value learning skills as much as grades, we will have an imperfect assessment and evaluation system and teachers will have to do the best they can and use their best professional judgement when it comes to determining grades. I think sometimes that will mean doing things that don’t always jive with what the best educational experts promote as best practice.

What is most important is that we remember that as teachers our primary goal should be to promote student learning. We’re teachers, not evaluators.

One more time!

Canon Fodder

cannon

I considered giving this post the title “So like…why do we have to read this anyway?” but I’ve been waiting to use the title “canon fodder” for a while because I heart puns. I get it from my dad. I also heart my dad.

At this time of year, we start discussing changes we want to make to next year’s courses, which I love. I had a great conversation with a colleague about the role of literature in the secondary English classroom. How do we decide which texts we use to teach with? (Texts with which we teach…. ack! This is informal writing)

When I first started teaching I would have said “Well I teach Hamlet and Life of Pi in grade 12.” I would never say that now.

Well I might, but I wouldn’t mean it.

Look at the curriculum documents that form the foundation of what we teach in Ontario. There is nothing in the document that says “Thou shalt study the English Canon.” It also never says “Thou shalt study Shakespeare.” It does mention Shakespeare as an example, but that doesn’t mean a teacher is obligated to teach Shakespeare. Still I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an English teacher who says that (at least at the academic level) students should never study Shakespeare.

Over the years I’ve learned to rethink the way I approach my teaching and I’ve come to realize that there are multiple entry points for getting at the curriculum expectations. This is especially important when it comes to thinking about how we can provide more opportunities to include differentiated instruction and assessment. I think sometimes as English teachers, we get it in our heads that we MUST teach________, without stopping to ask ourselves why. What is it that text A allows us to get at that text B doesn’t?

In my ENG4U class, one of the core texts is Life of Pi. In the past, The Stone Angel has also been an option but both my colleague and I agreed that we prefer Life of Pi (our department head wants us to use the same texts, and we weren’t ready for literature circles yet). That being said, I’m not a big fan of Pi. To me it feels like a great concept for a short story. I’ll leave it at that. But I don’t need to love the book to use it to teach with. Now we’re talking about bringing in Three Day Road, The Stone Carvers, and Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil so that we can have literature circles and provide more choice. I think this is fabulous in so many ways (don’t get me started on my Joseph Boyden crush). josephboyden

My teaching partner is totally on board but initially we talked about the possibility of getting rid of Pi in the 4U course and she was very concerned because she felt that Pi allowed us to teach tolerance for world religions and appreciation of other cultures. Now I would argue, and I did, that Three Day Road certainly allows us to do the same thing. On the other hand, is that the right criteria to use when selecting texts?

I refuse to be some sort of authority on “literahtchah…” (say it out loud… again… there you go, see what I did there?), even though some may argue that that’s part of my job as an English teacher. And I don’t think I should force my students to adopt my taste in books. I think we should expose them to as many different texts (and TYPES OF TEXTS…. we’re getting there) as possible. So I think this is a step in the right direction. Expose the students to new ideas, give them some guidance,  and let them decide.

Now what?

rockstar

Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.