Tuesday, March 30, 2010

A's, B's and 1-2-3's

picture from just a geek

One of the ideas brought up by Robert Marzano and his cohorts at ASCD is the use of a four-point grading scale rather than a traditional A-F grading scale. This sort of a switch causes all sorts of headaches when its time to print report cards, particularly when parents are not fully informed about what these numerical values mean. Things get even more difficult when mixing four-point mastery grades with traditional letter grades on the same report card. Is it really worth the trouble?

In order to come to a conclusion, you really have to consider why a four-point mastery scale is so different from a traditional grading scale. With a traditional grading scale, most schools assume that:

A means “Excellent”

B means “Good”

C means “Average”

D means “Below Average”

F means “Failing”

There are several big problems with this scale. It attempts to associated a single letter-grade with a single descriptive statement.

Fair enough, but what does a C really mean in your class? In order to paint a thin veneer of numerical gravitas onto our letter grades, we place numerical cutoffs on them. For example, earning 70% of the total possible points in a class will result in an C, yet how these points are earned varies from teacher to teacher and subject to subject. Outside of a course that adheres to the dreaded bell-curve, a “C” almost never reflects anything close to average performance. In fact, I find “C” to be a really interesting grade, because there are so many ways to earn it. You could get C’s on every test and assignment and earn a C on your report card. You could also get A’s on your tests but fail to turn in any of your assignments and get a C on your report card. Finally, you may score D’s and F’s on all of your exams but turn in every assignment along with some of that magical extra-credit and get a C on your report card. That’s three very, very different ways to earn the same letter grade yet report cards make no effort to explain the difference.

The problem here isn’t about letters, numbers, and percentages. It’s really about what grades have come to represent in our educational culture. Traditionally, the only thing our grading system truly tells us about students is how many points they managed to earn during the course of the semester. Every other conclusion we draw from traditional grades is highly suspect. The advantage of using a mastery-scale is that there is far less room for individual interpretation of the scores. Mastery-level grades imply the following:

Level 4: The student is able to show understanding of a concept or perform a skill that is more complex than what was explicitly taught in class.

Level 3: The student is able to show understanding of a concept or correctly perform a skill that has been explicitly taught in class.

Level 2: The student is able to show basic understanding of a concept or correctly perform a skill at a basic level. More complex skills and concepts require assistance from the teacher.

Level 1: The student shows no understanding of the concept, nor can the student correctly perform the skill at a basic level without considerable help from the instructor.

These scores are very specific about what the student has proven they understand or shown that they can do. This does not mean that such a system is perfect. You need a clear and concise list of learning goals before you can start grading on such a scale, and you also need a very good set of assessments in order to produce scores that truly indicate student achievement. In the end, however, you may be surprised at how simply changing the way you assign grades to your students transforms everything else about your classroom and your instruction. In my own experience, the changes have been profoundly positive for nearly all of my students.

Friday, March 26, 2010


picture from laurenfarme

As teachers, we often try to make changes in the way we run our classrooms in order to improve student achievement. In May, just before school lets out for the summer, I make a list of things about my classroom that I would like to improve. I then try to brainstorm ideas about how to get these improvements to happen when school starts up again in August. For a decade I would make these lists and, typically, try to address problems with relatively minor changes in direct instruction or the way I calculated student grades. I would tinker with late-penalties for missing work, extra-credit opportunities, pop quizzes to keep kids on their toes, and big test-review packets. In the end, the changes I made rarely did a great deal of good.

It wasn't until I started to look at some of the truly foundational principles of my teaching that I discovered ways to make truly important changes. Instead of tinkering at the margins, I began to replace some of the bedrock foundations of my system of teaching. To this day I still make constant adjustments to the way I do things, but I try to always keep three non-negotiable principles in mind whenever I design curriculum plan lessons, compose activities, and write tests.




These are simple ideas and you might think that most teachers already follow them. Unfortunately, the tried-and-true methods of grading, writing tests, and planning units are often at odds with these principles. Accepting these three ideas means taking a hard look at every single thing you do in your classroom, many of which are typically taken for granted. For example, I used to assume that students knew what would be on my exams. After all, I had been teaching the material for weeks. If they had been paying attention, they should know what was going to be on the test! Once I sat down and truly looked at the way I communicated with my students, however, I realized that I never actually gave them a consistent set of goals for any given unit. I simply let the unit unfold, expecting students to see the goals as we went along. This doesn't work, because students are not going to have an easy time pulling a few specific goals out of six weeks of activites, lectures, worksheets, and projects.

Here's a bit of homework for you! Take one of your units and try to boil down the information into a short list of learning goals. The goals should be specific, testable, and easy for students to understand. A goal is defined as something students must be able to understand or a skill students must be able to perform at the end of a unit. Your list should not exceed 5-6 items.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


Welcome to my blog! This is a place where I voice my opinions about education, teaching, and the future of our public schools. I will also share things that I have learned about teaching over the years.

I am writing this blog as a professional teacher rather than as a political commentator, and my own political views will be kept out of things as much as possible. I would like to see a revolution among teachers, but I am not talking about a politics. Instead, I am talking about pedagogy. I would like to see more teachers taking a critical look at the foundational assumptions upon which most of our traditional teaching practices are built. While some of our age-old ways of teaching are based upon solid evidence of success, there are far too many common teaching practices which fly in the face of psychological research.

Many of the things I will be talking about are not my own ideas, nor are they particularly new in the world of education. Much of what I have been implementing in my own classes over the last three years comes from the work of Dr. Robert Marzano. For some time now, Marzano has tried to sift through the enormous volume of published research in education in order to present teachers with the strategies that have been proven the most effective. Reading his book The Art and Science of Teaching was the start of my own teaching revolution after ten years of doing things the old-fashioned way. I am not a paid spokesperson for Robert Marzano, but I think he is one of the most important voices in education reform around.

My ultimate goal is to get teachers to talk about pedagogy in a critical, professional manner. In the end, even if teachers disagree, such dialogue is a necessary part of establishing a strong professional community.