Fixing Broken Assumptions

Brokentruck by Luann

I just began year 22 of classroom teaching.  My goal is never to become one of those “old” teachers, sneering at innovation while pulling an ancient worksheet from a dog-eared folder. I’ve asked younger colleagues to alert me should they observe these tendencies in my practice.  I actively seek and provide a variety of professional development for myself and my colleagues.  I’m active in various professional learning communities. My paper and electronic files are pruned and revised regularly.  And I listen to students, with a focus this past year on the learning skills of a particularly interesting class of intentional non-learners.  You know the type.  They enter the classroom with their minds on everything else; pencils and paper, it they have any, remain in their backpacks. Their faces say, “Teach me.  I dare you.”  They have little respect for anything, often including themselves.

Not wanting to characterize myself as one who resists change, I strive for a balance between actively seeking out and employing practices that merit trying because they likely will help students learn and having the good judgment to recognize strategies I recognize as unlikely to result in a successful outcome with students for some reason.   I’m also pretty willing to take risks in my classroom so long as the risks lead to student learning, er, being able to meet a standard. Lately, though, I’ve been questioning more and more teaching practices that are new to me. Is the voice in my head directing me to the retirement line or is my well-seasoned malarky detector speaking?

The newest, loudest voice questions the new (?) practice of assessing (read: grading) students strictly on the meeting of a standard. Time is not a factor, nor work ethic, not academic integrity. Multiple retries on all tests and quizzes must be allowed. The number 50% replaces zeros in gradebooks, because a zero is mathematically invalid as a score and puts the student so far behind that he loses all hope of success. Homework is never part of the grade, if students are asked to do it at all, because practice should never be graded. Much formative assessment is done and perhaps checked off but like homework, is never a part of the grade. Change your assessment, they promise, and presto! student learning increase measurably – by a new assessment standard. A huge piece of this puzzle is missing: student learning. Where, in this new system, do students learn?

The past few years, I implemented some practices promoted by well-known and respected, but apparently pretty much self-proclaimed, assessment gurus.  According to them, my grading practices are broken and need to be fixed, because some students still “fail”. Failing as defined at my school is not achieving an average of 70%, or having earned 70% of the points available to be earned. Nevermind that every opportunity to accumulate points was also demonstrating the degree of mastery of a standard; my method of measuring student success is broken because failure is a possible outcome. So, I allowed due dates to be extended into infinity, recorded so many I’s that our school secretary hunted me down prior to closing grades, and made many formats of assessments for retakes.

I’ve honed my assessment system over the years, changing it appropriately with an eye toward showcasing student achievement with each upgrade. I’ve made changes based on feedback from parents, practiced teachers, most of all, students.  My late work policy is not without compassion for a student who is genuinely working hard for mastery or who has extenuating circumstances.  I will excuse a student if an assignment is clearly busywork for him/her. I offer options for students to demonstrate mastery of a standard. I know my students as people and am a trained professional; I am skilled in making decisions about what is best for each student, at this time, in this setting. My intent is to help each student show success. Fixing broken grades assumes that all assignments are scored on a weighted 100% scale, that students make a fairly continuous and honest effort to learn, and that there is no compassion or second chance.  None of those assumptions are true in my classroom. Every student who is willing to engage in a way demonstrating the meeting of standards not only passes, but by default earns a “good grade” on his or her report card. I ask, then, what is broken?

Proponents of this system are making a lot of money selling professional development (of the sit-n-get variety) and accompanying resource materials to school districts harboring large numbers of low-achieving and/or failing students.They draw crowds of educators and administrators desperate to mask the clear evidence of student disengagement.  In numerous conversations this past summer with academic and industrial scientists,all mentioned serious concern about the changing focus of incoming college freshmen. A common theme was the lack of preparation with respect to thinking skills, unwillingness to engage in more difficult academic work, willingness to put in the hours needed for understanding, and interestingly, a complete disregard for due dates (to be addressed in a later post, so please save your comments for that post :).

If this tactic were employed in the private sector and school districts were retirees, the salespeople would be branded as scam artists. There is no solid, empirical research to support the methods these people promote.

By the way, my experiment with these “fixes” did not result in a difference in student grades.I’d wager that significantly less student learning took place with these policies in place. I only regret that I hadn’t been so consumed with producing a zillion alternative assignments and assessment retakes that I had no time to gather any meaningful data.

Stay tuned for my fix.

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