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!

I am a Nerd

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. 

Assessment and Evaluation Blues

Feeling angsty about this topic. Decided to blog it out.

For a recap of the situation that has given birth to my angst, read my previous post.

I understand current theory about assessment and evaluation. I’ve read Wiggins and Stiggins and McTighe and Cooper. I’ve written and spoken–with great certainty–about designing backwards, “not rehearsing it if it’s not in the play”, and assessment for learning vs. evaluation of learning. So why is it that when I sit down to put together a sample summative assessment task for grade 10 applied English (a course that I’ve taught a number of times) I get stuck? It’s driving me crazy.

In an attempt to figure out why I’m stuck, I’m going to be metacognitive (and slightly schizophrenic) here and outline my process and then try to figure out where I’m going wrong.

I pulled out the curriculum expectations and studied them to try to get a sense of what the big ideas are in the course. Ah, well here’s the problem with that: There are too many expectations! I know that, which is why you have to use your professional judgement to decide what those big ideas are. Right. And how did that work for you?

Not very well. They’re all very vague (which should be a good thing because it allows for more professional judgement) but it makes it pretty hard to pull out a big idea. For example, here are the overall expectations for the Oral Communication strand:

1. Listening to Understand: listen in order to understand and respond appropriately in a variety of
situations for a variety of purposes;
2. Speaking to Communicate: use speaking skills and strategies appropriately to communicate
with different audiences for a variety of purposes;
3. Reflecting on Skills and Strategies: reflect on and identify their strengths as listeners and speakers,
areas for improvement, and the strategies they found most helpful in oral communication situations.

What do I do with that?

Well here’s what I did with that: I tried to figure out what how you could create an essential question for each of the strands, but before I could do that, I started to think, “Hey, if it’s an essential question, shouldn’t it cross strands?”

So I looked at the other strands too and came up with something like: What rights and responsibilities do we have as both consumers and creators of information?

I was quite pleased with that question. Then I started to think, how is this an essential question for 2P English? Isn’t it an essential question for all English courses? That was a little paralyzing, so I tried to move forward and thought, what does it look like to use that question to guide the curriculum planning?

Well, quite frankly, it’s not a very engaging question. It puts a very preachy spin on everything, and when you go back to look at the criteria for an essential understanding, I’m not sure I could say that it IS essential for a 2P student to understand that they have rights and responsibilities as consumers and creators of information.

When I went back and looked at what the 2P English teachers thought were essential for their students the list included: being able to support opinions with facts, write a proper paragraph, cite their sources properly, etc.. First of all, those are all writing expectations and writing is only one of the strands in English. Second, they’re all skills. What’s wrong with that? Isn’t that what we want from our students?

English isn’t just about skills! That came as a bit of a revelation to me after spending that last 9 months looking at literacy skills. I have a slight case of tunnel vision. If we reduce English to a skills course, we suck the soul out of our discipline. Why do people read? Why do they write? Why do they speak? Why do they create? It isn’t just to develop skills. It’s about power and personal expression and a desire to make and see connections.

But how do I justify that as an essential understanding? By the end of this course, it is essential for students to understand that communication is what makes us human. That’s a pretty heavy cross to bear. Yikes!

What I’m stuck with now though, is the summative task for 2P English. What do I want the students to understand and be able to do and what will the evidence be? I have mindmaps and half-completed charts with coded expectations and big questions covering my desk and I’m no further ahead. Why is this so hard?

Sigh. If you’ve got this figured out, please tell me.