Category Archives: Assessment

English Journal

English Journal July 2006I received my complimentary author’s copies of English Journal, July 2006 (Vol. 95, No. 6) in the mail today. It was very exciting to see my writing, complete with pullout quotes and minibiography at the end. I must say that it is very exciting for me to be published in a journal. It makes me feel so professional!

When English Journal published a call for manuscripts related to how teaching in private, independent, or parochial schools impacted what or how we teach, I immediately thought of my “Moral Perfection” unit. I had already learned about tikkun olam, the Judaic concept of “repairing the world” through social justice — doing mitzvot, or good deeds. In his autobiography, Ben Franklin undertakes a self-improvement scheme. He applies typical Age of Reason ratiocination to the task and reports his findings with the accuracy of a true scientist. I have always been fascinated with this selection from his autobiography, which is frequently anthologized for high school American literature texts. Franklin’s quest reminded me of tikkun olam, with the focus on repairing the self rather than the world. I asked my colleague, Rabbi Marc Baker (who since, unfortunately for us, has taken a position at our sister school in Boston, Gann Academy) if there was a Judaic concept similar to tikkun olam, but more self-reflective, repairing one’s own self. He told me about cheshbon hanefesh, which translates as “accounting of the soul.”

Once I began doing research, I discovered that cheshbon hanefesh was a concept first elucidated by leaders of the Mussar movement, a 19th century ethics movement in Orthodox Judaism. In fact, I discovered that Mussar leaders had been influenced by reading Ben Franklin’s autobiography, and even suggested keeping the same sort of record Franklin kept in his “little book.” This discovery, I think, surprised Rabbi Baker, who didn’t realize Franklin actually influenced the concept of cheshbon hanefesh.

During the month of Elul, which leads up to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, introspection and a sort of moral evaluation are encouraged in the Jewish faith. When teaching American literature chronologically, Franklin’s autobiography frequently falls during this time. In fact, this last year, I was able to have my students begin their “Moral Perfection” journals on the first day of Elul, which would be Rosh Chodesh Elul. During this month, it is important to self-reflect and repent in preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Keeping a journal lends itself very well to religious requirements during this time. It is a perfect confluence of Jewish faith and curriculum.

For the assignment, students read the “Moral Perfection” selection from Franklin’s autobiography. Students choose a virtue they would like to cultivate or a vice they would like to eliminate and for one week, they write reflectively at the end of the day about their success and failure. Students have the opportunity to be creative. Students have turned in some beautiful artwork and created professional-looking journals along with this assignment. I have even had one student (much to my excitement) do the assignment in a blog. I encouraged him to continue blogging, and I hope he has — I don’t think he felt comfortable continuing in that spot where his teacher could read it (and I can’t blame him for that).

There is nothing terribly novel about the assignment. I’m sure a lot of other teachers have done similar assignments with Franklin’s autobiography. What is novel is the close connection to Judaism. When I saw the call for manuscripts, I decided to write an article about the assignment because I felt it had a good chance of being published. Not, as I said, because my idea was so fresh, but because the concentration on how teaching this assignment, for me, was different in a Jewish school. Truthfully, it occurred to me that English Journal might receive few submissions centering on Jewish schools because there are simply fewer Jewish high schools than Catholic or other parochial schools. I admit that I felt English Journal‘s propensity for publishing articles connected with diversity and multiculturalism was in my favor, as well.

So there you have it — the story of how my English Journal article was born. If you want to purchase copies of this issue, visit this link. Look for me on p. 33.

The Trouble With Rubrics

I was poking around English Journal‘s web site to see if I could figure out when the July issue (containing my article) was coming out, and I found Alfie Kohn’s article “The Trouble with Rubrics” (PDF).

On one point, I agree with Kohn — I wish we didn’t have to assign letter grades to students, because they focus on the grade instead of on what I said was good and what needed to be improved in their writing. Grades aren’t going anywhere, however, and reformers who espouse the position that we should have no grades are generally viewed as crackpots who don’t want to be held accountable for what their students learn (or don’t want students to be held accountable). For what it’s worth, I don’t agree with that assessment, but our society is standardized-test driven.

What I don’t agree with is that Kohn sees rubrics as ineffective. Kohn argues the whole in assessment is often more than the sum of its parts. Often, students meet the criteria of rubrics, but their writing is still not good. I think when this happens, the problem is with the rubric. Rubrics should be written in such a way that they measure performance in a meaningful way. Teachers need to write rubrics that measure exactly what they seek to measure. I fully believe that many teachers don’t know how to create a good rubric. I sometimes have trouble myself. I know what I’m looking for, but how do I parse it out into different levels of achievement? Then, since I still need to give it a grade, how do I grade it?

I learned a new system this year that I will share with you. I use the Greece, NY rubrics that Jay McTighe introduced to us at a professional development session this spring. These rubrics measure five dimensions — Meaning, Development, Organization, Language, and Conventions — across six different levels of achievement. I personally think the rubrics are great. One of the problems I ran into with rubrics is math. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you work in a system that requires you to give numerical grades. The Greece rubrics allow for a maximum of 30 points (5 dimensions X 6 levels = 30). The problem comes when you have a student who, say, earns 25 points. We’ll say for the purposes of illustration that the student earned five 5’s — 5 X 5 = 25. However, 25/30 = 83. Wait a minute! The student scored very well on that rubric! A low B is an OK grade, but not reflective of the student’s true score. Jay McTighe showed us how to adapt rubric scores so that they are a more accurate reflection of the grade.

What you need to do is decide what the absolute lowest grade on a piece of writing should be. Most of us would not assign a score of zero to an essay. I decided that the lowest grade, if a student received five ones (the lowest level of achievement on the rubric) should be a 50. That seems fair to me — that is an F, which is indicative of the achievement of a student who received ones across the board. What this means is that the absolute zero on the assignment is not 0 points but 40 points. The difference between 100 and 40 is 60 points. As the rubric has 30 points, that means that each rubric point is worth two grade points. From there, I developed this scale:

  • 30=100
  • 29=98
  • 28=96
  • 27=94
  • 26=92
  • 25=90
  • 24=88
  • 23=86
  • 22=84
  • 21=82
  • 20=80
  • 19=78
  • 18=76
  • 17=74
  • 16=72
  • 15=70
  • 14=68
  • 13=66
  • 12=64
  • 11=62
  • 10=60
  • 9=58
  • 8=56
  • 7=54
  • 6=52
  • 5=50

So that means that student who earned 25 points on that rubric actually earned a 90 — much more indicative of the performance level of fives across the board.

The trick is to decide what your own absolute zero is on writing assignments and work from there. I have decided 40 is mine, so no matter how many points my rubric has, I can figure out how many grade percentage points each rubric point is worth. For instance, if I have a rubric with three dimensions and four levels of achievement, that’s a twelve point rubric. Sixty divided by 12 is five, so each rubric point is worth five points.

I think perhaps if rubrics are used in a way in which absolute zero is, indeed, zero, then perhaps Kohn has a point — they do seem punitive. But they don’t have to be used that way. I remember feeling like the proverbial light went on when Jay McTighe showed us how this could be done. Contrary to what Kohn says in his article, I think rubrics can be fair and can help students improve. I do not see them as a crutch — they are a way of demystifying something that is fairly complex — how to grade writing.

End of Year Dance

Man, I’m ready for this end-of-year dance to be over. The last couple of weeks of school are so hard. That sounded like stating the obvious. I’m under some pressure; partly, I can’t tell if it’s all in my head and of my own making, or something I should be really freaking out about.

I just spent most of the day writing final exams. That was frustrating, because I can already tell that even though the exams were fair and comprehensive — they covered nothing I hadn’t covered — I had little stabs of remorse. Oh, I know they’re going to have trouble with that one. Oh, that one might throw a few of them off. It isn’t my goal to trip kids up on the exam, but I also have to hold them responsible for their learning. The sad fact is, some of them didn’t meet me halfway and learn some of this stuff.

This time of year is inevitably frustrating, too, as I reflect on all the things I did wrong and the ways I failed instead of succeeded. There is a black pall that settles over the end of the school year. I just finished a re-read of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I feel for all the world like there’s a dementor sitting right next to me.

I wonder sometimes how many years I will need to teach before I feel completely satisfied with the job I’ve done. Does that ever come? And does completely satisfied mean “competent” or “accomplished”? I can’t even decide.

Some things I want to do better/differently next year:

  • Stay on top of portfolios and really use them effectively. The sporadic use they got this year was probably only minimally helpful to students.
  • Really work on lesson plans. I think a weakness I have is figuring out how to integrate all different areas of language arts together. For instance, how can I link teaching pronoun/antecedent agreement to a writing assignment that addresses and assesses their understanding of it?
  • The test experiment didn’t work. I decided to assess students’ understanding of literature through writing assignments (although there were reading quizzes). I did still test my 9th graders over grammar. But the fact that there were no “tests” with that big, scary label (despite the fact that I saw myself as assessing in alternative ways) led some students to take my class less seriously, I think. I don’t know. Maybe they didn’t. But I think they did.
  • I didn’t grade essays quickly enough this year and got bogged down by my workload as a result. It wasn’t until Jay McTighe’s March visit to our school that I discovered the marvelous, comprehensive rubrics used by Greece, NY Public Schools. They made me a much more efficient grader, but by the time March rolled around, I had already developed the reputation for being a snail. Slow assessment doesn’t really help kids improve much.

I’m sure I’ll think of other things to kick myself about. People I work with call that self-reflection, but at some point I have to figure out where the line between reflection and flagellation is.

Grade Inflation: A Student and Teacher Dialogue

Recently, I wrote a post in which I included the following lament about grade inflation:

I would say that my grading is tough, but fair. I feel as if I am in line with my school and department in that area. However, students expect to make A’s and B’s. In fact, students in Honors classes expect to make only A’s. It is frustrating for me to communicate to them that a B is a very good grade. In most grading scales, it means “above average.” The A grade means “excellent.” I don’t know about you, but not everything I do is “excellent.” This conveys a level of mastery that is impossible to achieve on every assignment in every class.

I received a comment from Anthony Ferraro, a 10th grade student (not my own) and we began a dialogue that I found very interesting. I think Anthony has some valid points about the complexities of grade inflation, and I invited him to contribute to this blog in the hopes of stimulating further dialogue. His contribution begins below in blue text, followed by my own. Afterward, we hope to hear from you in the comments.

First off, let me begin with a small disclaimer. As a student, I believe that the vast majority of teachers are trying their very hardest to benefit us in any way they can. They are our guides; our captains, and our friends. And while the majority of this post may seem as though I am berating and criticizing the top of the heap, the wonderfully idealistic teachers chock full of noble purpose and desire to help, I am only trying to point out an unintended consequence of their actions so that we may confront the problem as a community (clichéd, I know, I apologize).

When confronted with the dilemma of grade inflation, people – parents, students, and teachers – all seem to agree on the best strategy to go about combating it. To put it bluntly, albeit a bit simplistically, all parties involved want everyone else, simultaneously, to drastically alter their expectations. Teachers wish parents and students would stop expecting higher grades, not only when the student really isn’t up to par and therefore deserves a C in the already inflated grade curve, but also to make the students and parents instantaneously equate a C with par again.

As a student, the growing problem, however, is not the rising grade inflation. The problem is the lack of a universal acceptance of a standard, any standard. A teacher who deviates from the presently inflated grading scale — a scale which, as faulty as it may seem, currently exists as the standard grading scale — can affect a student’s life to a far greater extent than the teachers may think possible. A “C” is a killer on a transcript, especially given that an A, in today’s society, does not mean “excellent.” How can college admissions possibly discern between a C from a teacher who adheres strictly to the grading scale’s purported definitions and a C from a teacher who, intentionally or simply lazily (for it doesn’t matter at all), adhered to the modern grading scale. The first C states that the student produced work of average quality, but the second C states, particularly in public schools, that the student simply showed up for class. The effect on the interpretation of a student’s grade produced when the by-the-book C appears on a transcript can severely, if unintentionally, affect the student’s ability to apply to various colleges, because universities are working blindfolded. Their hands are tied, for it is neither feasible nor logical to somehow investigate and scrutinize each and every student’s application more than they have already. College admissions officers must make the most of the information they receive, and are therefore not weighing, interpreting, and deliberating the validity of any given student’s resume – they’re comparing it with another student’s. Particularly in disciplines for which standardized testing is not applicable, and assuming all other variables are accounted for, admissions will always take the student who, on paper, is the most qualified.

In today’s ultracompetitive college applicant environment, the acceptance percentages for all elite or even decent colleges are dropping. This fall indicates only a rise in applicants, not necessarily a rise in qualified applicants (meaning the quality of the student body isn’t shooting up at a proportional rate). However, due to grade inflation, “quality” changes. “Quality” grades are getting easier and easier to come by, and this hurts both the people who earned their A’s in, say, Ms. Dana Huff’s English class, where A’s are difficult to earn, and the people in her class who earned C’s. The people who earned A’s in Ms. Huff’s class are not distinguished from those who earned A’s in Mr. Apathy’s class, and the people who earned C’s in Ms. Huff’s class have been most unfairly divided from students in Mr. Apathy’s class. So not only are more and more students applying to more and more colleges, all students are becoming almost impossibly indistinguishable.

I guess my point is that one cannot simply fight grade inflation by stubbornly resisting its effects, because innocent bystanders can get knocked by the wayside, and hurting the people you really wish to help is in nobody’s best interest. I’d also wish to point out that standing by and doing nothing is not the best option either, for the issue must be addressed. We must work together to find a better solution, a solution that is feasible, a solution that can be agreed upon, and a solution where no harm is done. Both teachers and students deserve it.

Anthony Ferraro

I do think Anthony has some valid points. Not all C’s are equal, are they? However, I do think most competitive colleges know this. There are also other factors that determine admission, such as athletic ability, gender, race, geographic location, SAT/ACT scores, college resumes, college essays, and the like.

I think students in my class usually come out all right in the end, but they do earn grades commensurate with their performance on individual writing assignments. Students might, for example, earn C’s on essays, but bring their grade up through careful reading and subsequent good performance on reading quizzes or vocabulary tests and still earn a B or even an A in the end. I did have a student who earned a C on the first draft of his research paper last year. He was extremely upset about the grade at the time, but this year he told me that he appreciated the grade. He told me that he felt nothing he wrote up until he revised that draft was reflective of his full effort, and he said he has been doing good writing this year. I asked his current English teacher about his work, and he agreed that the student is doing good writing for his class.

Our culture has taught students that grades are the goal, when they are really a form of communication. I earned mostly A’s on my writing in high school only to receive a C on my first college paper. Not only that, but my friend had written a comma splice and I didn’t even know what that was. How could I avoid using one on my own paper? I didn’t understand how I could have earned a C. No one had found fault with my writing before. What I didn’t realize is that in comparison with my high school peers, I probably was a good writer. Did that mean I had no room to improve? Of course not. And that is still not true, for there is always room to improve. Whose fault was it? I can’t entirely blame my teachers, but I think that one way in which my education failed me was that I was compared with my peers instead of a standard, such as a rubric, which was designed to show me areas of strength and weakness. My C communicated to me that I had failed, when in my college professor’s eyes, it communicated that I had done adequate work — not good, certainly not excellent, but not poor either. My high school teachers did me no favors by drawing happy faces and A’s on my work. They didn’t help me become a better writer. They sent me the message that there was nothing I could do to improve. I wish I had learned what I needed to work on in high school, when it would have been easier and the consequences for taking risks with my writing less severe.

That is not to say, however, that I disagree with Anthony. I wish that we could dispense with grades altogether and use rubrics for every assignment, but I know that grades aren’t going anywhere. Grade inflation is indeed an issue that is hurting us all. It is going to take all of us to fix it, and it probably won’t happen overnight. To be honest, I’m not even sure what can be done, but I know it begins with the kind of communication and dialogue that Anthony and I have had over the last few weeks.

Grading to Communicate: The Research Paper

Well, as predicted, when I handed back final drafts of the research paper, there were some unhappy campers. As I explained in a previous post, students at my school are very focused on grades. There is a feeling of entitlement to A’s and B’s. It is frustrating because my personal philosophy has always run much closer to that of Tony Winger (“Grading to Communicate,” Educational Leadership, November 2005). In practice, however, I have not always been supported (not true of my current position) in using grades to indicate areas of strength and weakness. It makes me queasy to slap good grades on assignments that did not meet criteria, especially when students had rubrics in advance. I think sometimes students have unrealistic notions of their ability, and moving into a higher level class is sometimes a mistake. Sometimes, we need to be in a class at a level designed to meet our needs. Instead, students and parents are so focused on getting into College X that they challenge teachers who grade to communicate. This is very real stumbling block, and it’s one of the reasons teaching the research paper is so difficult for me.

I did have a moment this week that was one of those moments that all teachers really long for. It’s one of those moments when a student says he/she really learned something. And they kind of thank you for it.

A student I had last year told me the other day that he felt as if everything he wrote up until the final draft of his research paper last year was, to use his word, “crap.” He had earned a C on his first draft, and it was a real wake-up call. The impression he left me with was that he has been putting much more effort into his writing since then, and even though it hurt him at the time to earn that grade, he learned from it. In other words, that grade communicated something to him that is much more valuable, I think, that earning a meaningless A or B. He is going to be a better writer for it. And I happen to know he’s doing well in his English class this year.  I think, in his way, he was trying to thank me for helping him see how his writing could improve.

Grading to Communicate: Discussion

We had a faculty learning session during our weekly meeting time this morning. You might recall that we were asked to select, read, and think about an article on assessment provided to us.

Today we broke into groups based upon our article of interest. My group consisted of my principal, a Judaics teacher, a history teacher, and me. Our biology teacher popped in, too. One of the things I was wondering about what how my administration might feel about Tony Winger’s ideas — I suppose that question was answered.

My principal made the valid point that in our school, in a culture that is so grade conscious to the point that students will want to discuss and argue about a few points, how do we get kids to see the value of a grade that is reflective of their performance, that communicates areas of strength and deficiency? This is something I wonder about, too.

I would say that my grading is tough, but fair. I feel as if I am in line with my school and department in that area. However, students expect to make A’s and B’s. In fact, students in Honors classes expect to make only A’s. It is frustrating for me to communicate to them that a B is a very good grade. In most grading scales, it means “above average.” The A grade means “excellent.” I don’t know about you, but not everything I do is “excellent.” This conveys a level of mastery that is impossible to achieve on every assignment in every class. Yet I feel that I must have too many conversations with students justifying grades when I gave given, in most cases, copious comments and clear rubrics. I am not saying that I don’t have room to improve in communicating expectations, but I feel that at least as far as major assignments, such as the research paper, students are very clear about expectations. I think they don’t always believe I will adhere to the rubric, but that’s a different issue.

Grading to Communicate

As part of our professional development focus on assessment, my colleagues and I were asked to read from our choice of several articles (many of which came from the November 2005 edition of Educational Leadership, which focused on “Assessment to Promote Learning.” One article I found particularly interesting was Tony Winger’s “Grading to Communicate.” If you are concerned about the recent trend in grade inflation, I have to highly recommend that you read this article.

Winger proposes that teachers assess students in specific areas, such as formal writing, application, and conceptual understanding. The specific areas upon which each individual teacher focuses would vary according to subject matter, grade level, and individual course emphasis. Winger’s contention is that too often, students who do the homework are able to make excellent or above average grades — A’s and B’s — when their understanding is lacking as shown on tests or writing assignments. As teachers, we understand that the students’ true understanding and/or ability to apply or synthesize material is not what is reflected in their grades; rather, their work habits are the focus. As a result, we have a school culture that values the grade above the learning. Student assessment is not a reflection of what the student knows, but how well the student plays the school game. I think we have all had a student who demonstrates a firm grasp of the concepts we teach but has poor work habits that keep him/her from earning a grade commensurate with his/her true understanding of the material. I have several every year. These students don’t do the homework, but in spite of that, they still ace the test. On the other hand, we also have those little worker bees who do each and every assignment, but demonstrate large gaps in writing or on tests. In our hearts, we feel as if we are not sending them an accurate picture with that A or B, but as grades are most commonly assessed, it is more likely that the student who demonstrates little or no understanding but has excellent work habits will have an “inflated” grade.

As I read through this article, my mind started swimming with the possibilities. If I could make this work out, I could genuinely show students where they are, what they know instead of how hard they work. Don’t get me wrong. Strong work habits are necessary, and they should figure into the grade. Winger suggest making Work Habits about 10-20% of the average. Thus, a student who turned in a paper late, as in the example he gives in the article, might earn an A for conceptual understanding, but an F in work habits. The student is still penalized for not turning the assignment in on time, but he/she still has a true picture of his or her understanding rather than a grade that has been deflated due to lateness. In addition, in Winger’s configuration, homework assignments are part of the work habits grade; therefore, a student who always does his/her homework and turns work in on time is still rewarded and students who do not will earn poor work habits grades.

I think this system could give a student a clear picture of exactly what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, once the different areas of assessment are broken down. For example, students may discover that their poor work habits are truly an issue if isolated from their other grades — there is a direct correlation between whether they do their homework and turn in assignments on time and a percentage of their grade.

I think one thing a teacher would have to do to make this work is to grade assignments from several angles, which may not be feasible. I admit to feeling daunted by the prospect of grading an assignment in three areas or more — for example, work habits, conceptual understanding, and formal writing skills. On the other hand, I think this sort of feedback could be so critical for students in helping them to see a true picture of their progress.

I would like to learn more about it before I proceed to try it out, but the prospect of this sort of assessment really excites me. Some things I need to do to make it work:

  • Probably weigh grades by percentages instead of figuring by total points, as I do now.
  • Collect fewer work samples, or I will go crazy with grading.
  • Create more rubrics.
  • Do more formative assessment, less formal assessment.
  • Figure out what to do about parents and students who “treat a ‘C’ grade the same way that students a few years ago would have treated an ‘F.'”
  • Determine whether or not this is something my department and administration buy into and support (my gut feeling is yes, but it’s better to know before I start).

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design: Professional Development WorkbookI have been looking through Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook most of the day today. I am working on a unit on the Harlem Renaissance using the ideas behind UbD, and I would appreciate feedback. You can download the unit (one page) in MS Word. I am most concerned that my performance task, while authentic, doesn’t explicitly address the Understandings and Essential Questions. Let me back up — it does address those issues, but it is more of an inference than an explicit relation.

One of the things I like about the workbook is that there are plenty of examples of how other educators have created units based on UbD. Since Jay McTighe discussed the importance of models when he visited us for a workshop on Thursday, I find it refreshing that he “practices what he preaches,” so to speak. So often educators insist we should do this or that, but they don’t explain how in a way that’s easy to understand. I also like the fact that templates are included in various formats to enable easy photocopying.

I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a professional development workshop this excited about trying what I’ve learned.

On an unrelated note, I have noticed that many of you still have me linked at https://www.huffenglish.com/blog/. There is a redirect in place there that will bring you here, but I was concerned that those of you who might be reading via a news reader would not have seen that I’ve updated in the last couple of months unless you’ve seen the updated link.