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 constantly revise 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.

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!

Literature Circles and Classroom Management: Getting kids to buy in

If you’re looking for answers from an expert, stop reading now and pick up Harvey Daniel’s book. I’m just throwing out some thoughts.

One book or multiple books?

While I’ve certainly had success using literature circles with a whole class novel, Daniels says that the whole point is that “[w]hen, with artful teacher guidance, kids get to pick their own books for reading and friends to read with, they can experience success, not frustration.” He goes on to say that “doesn’t mean we don’t also study some well-chosen whole-class books, but we alternate them with titles of choice.” (Daniels, “What’s The Next Big Thing in Literature Circles”)

So maybe trying to use literature circles as a way to cope with the language in expected practice defeats the purpose of literature circles.

How do we group them?

The idea is that students buy in because they have choice. Teachers can direct, guide, limit that choice using their professional judgement. Same with groups. It’s probably not a good idea group kids according to ability if they’re not likely to be comfortable with those kids.  I like the idea that came from the Tribes program for selecting Tribes which had each student write down at least two names of people they would like to work with and then teachers formed the tribes, trying to make sure the student was with at least one person they liked.

I know this sounds like a lot of work, and yes students need to learn to work with people they don’t like, but literature circles are supposed to be FUN. They’re supposed to promote accountable talk too.

That’s all for now, but I’ll post stuff later on instruction and assessment.

Expected Practices in Literacy and Numeracy

Scary title huh?

Just in time for Halloween!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m referring to a document that should have been distributed to each teacher in TVDSB last year. It outlines the specific direction schools are supposed to take in order to improve literacy and numeracy.

There’s a little phrase in this document sent down shivers down the spines of secondary English teachers across the board, and the phrase is this:

“It is expected that all teachers should eliminate novel studies which focus on the use of one class novel irrespective of students’ reading levels. Students should read text at their independent level during novel studies.”

What does this mean exactly?

I know a lot of teachers were looking for clarification on this, myself included. 

What do they mean by novel study?

Does this mean I can’t teach No Great Mischief to my 4Us? 

And then the questions got really complicated:

One class novel? So what? I have to teach seven different ones now? At the same time?

Independent reading level? So I can have one kid do a novel study on The Outsiders and another do a novel study on Ulysses and they can both get level 4s? 

If a kid can’t read at a grade 12 level, what is she doing in a 4U class?

Deep breath here, folks.

I have problems with the language in this document too, but I don’t have a problem with what I see as being the spirit behind the language. And I think the general idea is this: we don’t want to see a grade nine applied student become disengaged, or fail a course entirely, because a huge chunk of his mark was based on some reading comprehension questions written in 1973 and published in the back of Of Mice and Men. That being said, I think that such a situation is rare. I heard many offended teachers remark that they felt like the board was assuming that the term “novel study” meant that teachers were simply assigning reading and assigning comprehension questions. 

The whole “independent reading level” issue was very contentious as well, and frankly, I don’t even know what to say about it right now.

I think there are a couple of core issues at the heart of this though, that we really need to think about:

1) Do we teach novels? Or are novels the tools that use to teach the curriculum expectations?

  • This is really hard for English teachers, because although I think many of them would agree with the second question, we have very strong ideas about “The Classics”. 
  • It’s also an issue of time and practicality. No one wants to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch, and moving away from the “novel study” as I grew up with it, has huge ramifications for classroom management and assessment. We need support for this (I think that’s my job. Gulp!)

2) Do we use novel studies to assess reading ability?

  • If so, then having leveled texts and assigning the same mark is not fair. 
  • If not, then can we use leveled texts to achieve the same goals?
  • Are novel studies the best vehicles for improving our students abilities to think critically?
  • Aren’t we really just concerned about this in terms of our senior academic classes?

3) Finally, do we really want clearer wording from the board on this?

  • The word used here is “should.” All teachers “should” do this. But I can see situations where depending on a hierarchy of needs in the classroom, this may not be top priority. 
  • If there isn’t clearer wording, then I think teachers, department heads, and principals get to use their professional judgement in deciding what a “novel study” is, and how they will address statement in their own classes, departments, and schools. And I think they’re really in the best positions to do this.

They’re just words, my friends. Words, words words. We English teachers are awfully good with making meaning from words. Let’s do that the best way we know how, while keeping in mind the goal: Helping our students achieve success in whatever ways we can.