It’s Labour Day weekend. I’m sitting in my living room wearing a big sweater and getting a bit high off the scent of vanilla and cinnamon from the apple crisp I’m baking. It was 32 degrees two days ago but fall is here now. I know this because I bought a pumpkin spice latte this morning.
Anyway, now that I’ve set the scene, I’ll get to the point. I had my first “back to school” day on Thursday. No kids, but we had a full day of PD involving a scintillating recorded powerpoint presentation (complete with bullets, narrated slides, and improper apostrophes) on CAS reporting practices, memos mandating ugly shoes, reminders about field trip paperwork, and… discussions about cell phones and assessment practices. And this is when I realized that I don’t actually work with the teachers that I talk to on Twitter.
Now don’t get me wrong. I have awesome, dedicated, professional colleagues. But sometimes I forget that we don’t always have the same concerns, philosophies, and passions. Sometimes I get caught up in a passionate discussion about assessment policies (yes, I know. I’m a geek) and the person I’m talking to is smiling and nodding and then slowly I see her face glaze over and I realize I may have gone too far. I also have to remember that just because I’m passionate about something doesn’t mean I’m right. I think I’m right, but I could be wrong, and even if I’m not wrong, that doesn’t mean that I won’t learn something by listening (with an open mind) to someone who doesn’t share my beliefs.
Even when they say cell phones need to be banned.
Even when they say technology is distracting and unnecessary.
Even when they say if we have to deduct late marks to prepare students for university.
All that being said, I’m looking forward to an exciting year. I get to go see Damian Cooper in November, I’m presenting at two conferences, I’m starting my master’s, and apparently I’m helping to coach cross country. I’m not really sure how that last one happened.
The only downside I see is this ridiculous health and safety policy banning pretty much every pair of shoes I own. I don’t understand how standing in front of a class of 17 year-olds and walking down the hallway suddenly became activities that require rubber-soled steel-toed shoes. I’m usually a very rule-abiding person. That may have to change.
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.
I prefer the term “geek” but in this case I am a nerd. At least I’m in good company. Thanks to my pal and colleague Heather, I got to go to the lovely town of Glencoe this past Friday and see assessment guru Damian Cooper.
Damian Cooper is so passionate about the topic of Assessment for Learning that he literally bounces around the room while he’s talking. I for one particularly appreciate the fact that he comes from a secondary English background and that he’s not so far removed from the classroom that he doesn’t understand the all of the “in the trenches” realities that teachers deal with on a daily basis. He also doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. I found myself hanging on his every word.
He identified what is for me one of the biggest struggles with the assessment in Ontario: the ministry says it supports the idea of assessment for learning, but its policies and procedures don’t provide the support teachers need to implement these ideas. If we really believe that work habits such as punctuality, attendance, etc. are important, then they need to have some weight behind them. Learning skills need to show up on transcripts–otherwise they have no teeth. If a student can’t be given an academic penalty for not submitting an assignment or not submitting it on time, then there needs to be an appropriate behavioural consequence–again, something with teeth.
The part that I’m still not entirely clear on is this issue of deadlines. I understand that some students need more time than others to complete assignments. But I also understand that if I’m told I can hand something in between October 1st and October 15th, I’m going to wait until October 15th, even though I’m intrisically motivated and understand the importance of receiving teacher feedback in order to improve. I’m okay with not deducting marks for late work, but I still think there needs to be a real perceived penalty in place for not meeting a deadline, and I think that as long as students are required to complete a credit within a specific time frame and as long as teachers are required to submit “marks” at regular intervals, we need to keep deadlines. I also think teachers need the flexibility to extend deadlines or provide individual extensions depending on the circumstances of the student. I hope Mr. Cooper wouldn’t disagree with that. I’m very tempted to email him and ask.
I would also like to ask him some more specific questions about designing down and the Ontario curriculum for secondary English. Specifically, I’d like to know what he considers the Big Ideas to be for specific courses. As I’ve probably said before, it seems much easier to come up with a Big Idea for a subject like history than it does for English.
And yes, I did get him to sign my book, but so did Heather. So there.