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Updated APUSH Curriculum- Now with Learning Targets!

29 Jan

Whether you are a fan of Common Core or local curriculum, or simply believe teachers should develop their own objectives for each course- it’s undeniable that the foundation of any good instructional program is clear learning targets.  Targets must be in place before assessment and planning can be clear to teachers and students.

That’s why I commend the College Board for updating a course near and dear to my heart with actual course objectives.  I taught AP US History when I was in the classroom.  My first year teaching it, I asked my new PLC-mates what they thought (they are awesome teachers).  Their response was, “You pretty much just teach everything- because anything can be on the AP Exam.”

Lack of specific curricular objectives made it a very difficult course to assess, and communicate progress clearly.  Students had to know everything, so discussions on progress with students and parents usually centered on behavior and task completion “They need to complete the nightly readings, to be ready for the quizzes”, “Chapter outlines must be done”, “Students must study harder”….

The exception was the essays, including the DBQ- which were more skills-based and included critical thinking.  They also had a clear rubric so students could understand the performance expectations and receive descriptive feedback from their teacher.  It was time the rest of the final assessment, and course, caught up.

From the new course framework:

The AP Exam will measure student proficiency in the historical thinking skills as well as the thematic learning objectives. Beginning with the May 2015 AP U.S. History Exams, every AP Exam question will be rooted in these specified learning objectives, relieving teachers from the pressure to cover an unlimited amount of content in their AP U.S. History course. 

Now APUSH instructors can assess and communicate student progress towards specific objectives, and student grades should become more aligned with performance on the AP exam.  Still, with the skills-based DBQ and essays, instructors will focus more on application of these objectives, versus the cramming in of “everything that happened in United States History.”


Academic Dishonesty and Grading

23 Jan

As a former coach, I love the period of time between the end of college football season and the NFL Draft.  I find myself glued to the NFL Network as analysts give their evaluation of player skills during the Senior Bowl and NFL Draft Combine.  I guess I am kind of a nerd when it comes to sports and how players are evaluated in order to predict their performance.

And really, that is what Standards-Based Learning is.  During last night’s #sblchat on Twitter, one of the topics of discussion was academic dishonesty and grading.  Does the learner get a zero?  A redo?  The common question I often hear is “If students are doing something wrong, why should it become more work for the teacher?”

Well, this is a tricky area.  First, let me say that I understand how teachers feel when cheating occurs in their classroom.  They feel it is disrespectful and should have severe consequences.  Students must be taught a lesson.  I agree overall with that.  Students should learn the importance of academic integrity and being honest with their own learning progress.  Where I divide with many is that the grade and the behavior must remain separate.  As standards-based grading proponents have pointed out, a grade is a piece of communication.  It is not currency, an incentive, a weapon, a punishment, or a reward.  It represents student progress (or should).

A zero says the student knows nothing.  Not that he/she cheated, but that he/she knows nothing.  If we give a zero for cheating, we are not reporting accurate information.  So what consequences does a student receive?  That depends on your school’s discipline policy.  There is a referral process for discipline, and academic dishonesty should have some sort of consequence (and please let the consequence be a detention served, possibly re-assessing with a proctor- not simply more work/writing/etc).

Because I believe the issues surrounding grading and giving zeroes needs to be something teachers work towards naturally, I tell teachers that if a student is caught cheating they should call home, write a referral, and submit to the student’s assistant principal-  and what they do with their grade is their discrection, and I will support them.  But next we usually have a good conversations through the incident on what a grade is and what it reports.  Often, teachers will end up giving the student the opportunity to reassess as long as they feel the student’s behavior is being dealt with.  Sometimes, they feel strongly that the student “deserves” the zero- but those have become fewer and farther between as our school moves towards standards-based assessment and accurate grading.

Bringing this back to college football, I think of the cheating/behavior scandals of some big-name players and coaches over the last few years.  A couple of years ago, Reggie Bush was stripped of his Heisman for NCAA recruiting violations.   This past year, Johnny Manziel was suspended (very, very briefly) for allegedly breaking NCAA regulations.  Still, when those players had those issues, breaking ethics codes became only part of their stories.  They were and are still evaluated on their speed, strength, football IQ, leadership ability, etc., and teams were aware that they had talent “but” there were some issues to be aware of.  Bush was the 2nd overall pick, and Manziel looks like a top 5 pick this year- based on their overall package.  They weren’t told they had to give up football forever, or they would lose salary from their rookie contract.  What mattered is what teams saw by the time they were ready to draft.  They knew and know what these players can do well, and what they can’t, and they make a decision based on that assessment.

Now, other sports have had more severe cheating scandals (steriods in major league baseball), that have carried more severe consequences (long-term suspensions, being left out of the Hall of Fame).  But this mirrors life, too.  I can’t get away with cheating in my job, and could be fired if I go against regulations that govern what I do.  But I’m also a professional who has learned there are certain things that must be done a certain way, and that my position holds high moral and ethical standards.  Students are still learning the ability to discern that.

The stakes get bigger as they move into college and the professional world, so there should be consequnces, as previously.  However, giving a zero and moving on is really letting them off the hook from their main responsbilities as a student.  This is the responsibility to learn and demonstrate what they have learned, and what they haven’t.  Hammering them with an insurmountable F, on top of any disciplinary consequences, is not appropriate, and it certainly does not pass the test of good communication.  Addressing the behavior and learning as two separate entities is a best practice that we need to see more of.

Standards-Based Grading: Work Ethic and Preparation for College

8 Jan

Today I was drawn into observing a Twitter debate between @stopsbg and various proponents of standards-based grading. The sbg opponent kept coming back to a couple of key issues he has with standards-based grading: 1) The perception that it does not teach students to have a strong work ethic and 2) it does not prepare students for college (and he spoke with many college professors who appeared to support his stance).

Now, here’s what I’ll say before posting my own thoughts on these important issues: I am not from Iowa- I’ve never been there. It could be that “@stopsbg” has valid concerns for his community. Looking at his website, from his point of view (and supporters) it looks like there are issues with a rushed implementation and lack of leadership involving stakeholders. Additionally, it appears concerns with the Common Core are directly linked to concerns some in this community have with “SBG”. I live and work in a non-Common Core state (Virginia). Honestly, I don’t know. Therefore, this is not a direct rebuttal to that particular situation or person, but rather what I felt compelled to share in regards to the two “issues” stated above- as they are commonly shared with me in discussions with teachers who are anti-SBG.

I went to college at the University of Maryland. At the time, UMD had over 25,000 students (important as I am about to describe an individualized and standards-based education I received from some professors there despite its size). As a freshman, I took an English class in which over 50% of the grade was based on the final paper. Along with a description of the paper, I was provided with a clear rubric detailing how my work would be assessed. Wanting to do well, I took the professor up on her offer of submitting drafts of the paper during the semester. I submitted a first draft, which was returned with comments based on my progress towards fulfilling the rubric’s standards (which was based on course objectives). I had some mistakes, fixed them, and turned my work in again. The professor said I was close to a great paper, but now I was ready to go further. She gave me specific ideas on how I could bring more analysis, and better rhetoric- I was now not only demonstrating knowledge- I was demonstrating skill. Well, by the time the paper was due, I turned in an excellent final product- my third attempt. It was worth it- I had learned how to write a great paper. The paper was still due on the due date. I did not get to re-write it- because I already had, so I didn’t have to. My grade was not based on an average of my initial drafts- it was based on what I had learned in the end, after revising and re-working it. (By the way, earning a high grade in this class exempted me from Junior English because it was based on many of the same skills….SBG advocates will know what I am saying here.)

Another example, again from my freshman year. A course on Game Theory. After all assessments, I received a B+. I did not feel that accurately reflected my knowledge. Luckily, my professor offered all students the opportunity to come to office hours and discuss grades. When I got there, we had a great discussion on Leviathan, which I had initially made some misinterpretations on. He saw that I improved. He stated that the grade he gave me was not accurate (before I did!). He gave me an A.

Now, let me be clear: I did not get all A’s, I do not consider myself a genius, nor do I consider myself a grade-grabber. I had educators who were concerned that I learned the course standards and offered me multiple opportunities to improve and demonstrate my competency. Did it happen in every college course? Of course not! Not in most- however I was able to deal with those sink-or-swim courses because my work ethic was developed by these professors early on. I believe both of these vignettes capture the spirit of standards-based assessment.

Proponents of SBG believe in preparing students for college and helping them learn work ethic. For example, for many teachers at my school, formative assessments are not calculated into the grade, and students can retake assessments. However, in order to retake a test, a student must have fully attempted all preceding formatives for feedback. Students quickly learn that they can not just show up on test day having done no work and can just keep trying- they must learn it. So, they begin doing the formatives, and getting feedback, and then they do not NEED a retake!

I believe in standards-based learning precisely because it promotes work-ethic and college and workforce preparation. It promotes learning and becoming proficient at skills and knowledge. It takes time to implement correctly in a school, but once it is, you will begin to see the mission of education fulfilled.

Principles of Standards-Based Instruction and Assessment, and Tip Sheet for School Leaders

7 Jan

As a hard cold falls over the country this week, I can’t help but think about summer.  This past summer, I had the opportunity to present on standards-based grading, along with my principal and a team of teacher leaders in my school.  We presented to adminstrators and leaders across the school division.  While it was fun to share in person, I realize that I haven’t done much sharing with my PLN as of late.  So, please check out what my school has found to be the key principles of standards-based instruction and grading, as well as essential tips for school leaders (administrators AND teachers).

Also, please feel free to comment here or tweet me with your own.

Standards-Based Planning, Instruction and Assessment: Principles

  1. This is about communication as much as anything else: The purpose is that teachers, students, parents and administrators are all very clear on the learning targets of a particular course, how students will be assessed on their progress, where they stand in relation to these targets, and what to do as next steps towards mastery.
  2. Backwards Planning is a must:  Once established, look at your targets then plan assessments.  Consider that different types of assessments match up better with different types of targets.  Once assessments are planned, instruction can be planned.
  3. Give students a “GPS”: Students should know the targets and assessments up front.
  4. The goal of multiple opportunities is that students will learn each target:  Re-testing or re-assessment policies are not to raise grades artificially or make things easier on the student.  These policies are in place to let students know they will learn, and will have the support necessary to do so.
  5. Descriptive feedback is vital: Any system that allows students multiple opportunities without descriptive feedback on an ongoing basis will fail.  Students should be clear on these three questions through the formative assessment process: “1. Where am I going? 2. Where am I now? 3. How can I fill the gap?” (Stiggins)
  6. Quality assessments and quality rubrics must be developed:  This will take time, and requires reflection and continuous improvement.  Assessments and rubrics must be aligned with targets and expectations.
  7. Continue to document and communicate student behavior, apart from the grade: Although the grade should be based on mastery of clear targets, behavior is still important.  Follow the discipline and parent communication processes as usual.  You will find parents will back you when they realize their son or daughter is being given every opportunity to demonstrate what they have learned.
  8. Gradebooks should be organized by targets, not assessment type: This will change the conversation from what the student is doing or not doing to what the student knows or does not know.
  9. This is not a program or a one-time fix: This is an ongoing process for all of us as professional educators.  We must continue to learn about assessments and grading that is best for students.  One size does not fit all!

Standards-Based Planning, Instruction and Assessment:

Tip Sheet for Administrators and Teacher Leaders

  1. Start with where you are now: Analyze the key issue.  For us, it was lack of clear learning targets across departments.  Some schools may already be beyond that and need to look at assessment practices, gradebook, etc.
  2. Go Slow: Understand this will take time and be patient.  Even if you are not making the progress you expected, ask yourself, “Are we further along than we were a year ago?”
  3. Read the research and apply it to your staff development and school plan: See the resource matrix provided, add your own.  It is not just about gaining the knowledge, but application.
  4. Find your core people: Start with any teachers who are “on board”.  Do not hold them back or make them wait for others to catch up.  Empower them to lead the way.  Give others time.
  5. Communicate with stakeholders: Use the syllabus, parent meetings, Principal’s Advisory, letters home to educate the community.
  6. Offer ongoing professional development: This is not a one-time training.  It has multiple components and requires a lot of follow-up and reflection.
  7. Align with the evaluation process: The PPP has several areas of focus that support this approach.  (Especially Standard IV- Assessment OF and FOR learning, Standard VII- Student Academic Progress)
  8. Be open to different approaches: Allow teachers room to use strategies that are true to their style.  There are many different ways to get to the same goal.  Support time for PLC’s to work together and plan the best approaches for their content.
  9. Build capacity for teachers to produce exemplars and lead staff development: Look at what teachers across departments are using for targets, pacing, assessments, gradebooks, “GPS for students”.  Collect these and use in staff development.  Eventually, teachers should be the ones delivering the staff development in your building.

The NFL: How NOT to Teach

3 Apr

Not that the NFL asked to be a model of how to teach, but the recent situation involving them taking action against the Redskins and Cowboys is a perfect example how poor instruction that we all too often see in schools.  If you are not familiar, you can link here for more background.  The short version is that the NFL owners agreed to not abuse the fact that they had no salary cap for a year…but at the end of the day they had no salary cap for a year.  Two teams, the Redskins and Cowboys, went ahead and front loaded a lot of deals (that would not normally fit under the cap if there was one), and a couple years later the NFL turned around and said they shouldn’t have done that- resulting in them taking money from these teams to spend in the off-season.  So, here is the NFL’s version of “How Not To Teach.”  (Disclaimer- I am not in any way a fan of these teams, yet I have to take their side on this one).

Step #1: Lack of Clear Learning Targets (or Objectives):  This is key- teachers and students BOTH need to know where they are going to end up.  The NFL basically gave the objective: “It’s an uncapped year, only don’t go crazy, so it’s kind of not…but it is.”  Questions for Educators: Do kids understand the objectives we put in front of them?  Do we spend time framing each lesson?  Do we just quote the curriculum or do we re-phrase it in student-friendly language, and take time to explain to students what the curriculum is looking for?

Step #2: Lack of Feedback through Formative Assessments.  Not that it would help without clear objectives to measure progress against, but there was a lack of feedback on the NFL’s part during the process.  The Redskins and Cowboys had to submit their contracts to the league office, and at those times, the NFL said the contracts were ok.  So they had formative assessments in place, they just did not give any specific feedback that could alter the actions of the teams.  The Redskins and Cowboys are now both saying, “We showed you what we were doing- but you never told us we were not doing it correctly!!!”  Questions for Educators: Do Formative assessments line up with clear learning targets?  Is there a method in place for providing clear and consistent feedback to students on their progress, based on the formative assessments?  Are formative assessments a vehicle for students to take ownership of tracking their progress towards demonstrating mastery of the targets?

Step #3: Summative Assessment that was unplanned, not aligned with objectives, and came as a surprise to students: At the end of the day, the NFL looked at what the Redskins and Cowboys had done and said, “You failed, and these are the consequences.”  The teams did not even know how, when, or why they were being assessed- they were just given a final “grade.”  Questions for Educators:  Are the summative assessments we give meaningful and authentic? (meaning they measure actual learning that is to have occurred?)  Do our students understand the methods that will be used to measure their learning of objectives?  Are these assessments methods communicated to students prior to instruction, or does it come as a surprise the day the assessment is taking place?

Clearly, these teams were not set up for success…giving us the perfect model of how not to set our students up for achievement.

Decrease the “Homework”, Increase the Learning

30 Dec

I had high hopes for this blog, and letting it go with no updates for 4 months is not what I had in mind…but instead of just trying to catch up with everything that has been going on, I am just going to regroup at what has been the key issue as my school moves towards Standards-Based instruction: Assessment.

As Tony Donen points out in “Grades Don’t Matter”, while school leaders and teachers do a lot of things well, assessment is where we tend to struggle.  Our first phase of training teachers towards the model I have described previously, establishing clear learning outcomes in student-friendly language has been the easy part for folks to grasp.  It gets a little more cloudy when we begin the discussion on HOW to track student progress towards those outcomes…and when you through the recording of grades into the mix, it becomes so foggy you can cut it with a knife.

Case in point, this year I have met with several parents on separate occasions who were concerned that their child seemed to be doing very well on homework assignments (90-100% grades) but struggled mightily with test and quizzes.  They came in with a lot of questions- are the tests that much harder?  Does their son/daughter have test anxiety?  After investigating these concerns, I found that a commonly accepted practice among teachers in this particular department was handing out a completion grade for attempting the homework.  There could be 30 questions on a given assignment, and as long as the student completed all of them, they could get a 100 (if they only did half- 50%).  Of course, students were given chances to ask questions if they didn’t understand why they got a wrong answer (they could “self-check” by using the back of the book).

I find that the teachers following this method mean well and have a reasoned purpose for doing it.  More than anything, they want students to learn the content and be provided with plenty of opportunities to practice.  However, this instructional model is not telling the kid or the teacher (or the parent) anything about what content the students know or do not know.  Rick Stiggins articulates the purpose of assessment through 3 questions that students should be able to answer- “Where am I going?” (Learning Outcomes), “Where am I now?” (Ongoing Formative Assessments that provide meaningful feedback from the teacher), “How Do I Close the Gap?” (Plan for next steps, which should be part of the feedback from the teacher).

Instead of a grade report telling parents, “Your son/daughter does their homework but has problems with tests” I would like them to start telling them, “Your son/daughter understandings learning objectives a,b, and c, but needs to sharpen his/her understanding of x,y,z in order to be more successful in this course.”  If teachers could articulate that through smaller, chunked formative assessments (let’s do away with “classwork” and “homework”- what does it matter where you do it anyway?”

The purpose of assessment is to gauge and address student progress towards learning the content, not coverage, practice, or student behavior.  As Donen pointed out, there is still work to be done in our schools.

My Office, My Classroom

28 Aug

As our school makes a move towards standards-based instruction, assessment, and grading, I decided that my main goal for this year is educating all stakeholders- teachers, parents, and students- on what that means.  So, I decided to turn my office into a classroom-office hybrid.

Under a banner of “STANDARDS-BASED INSTRUCTION”, I put up a few key components: 1) Our hopeful instructional “flow” that provides a visual of how clear learning targets, formative and summative assessment data, and re-teaching all work together; 2) A backwards planning model; and 3) The 5 Keys to Quality Assessments according from Classroom Assessment for Student Learning by Rick Stiggins, et al that is our central guide in this (and too small to see here).

I even included my own “Word Wall”, because any standards-based educator knows that modeling is a key component to good instruction.  If I’m going to suggest teachers use them, I might as well myself.

Due to my limited artistic ability, and lack of time, this isn’t the prettiest site you will ever see- but the results have been fantastic.  My meetings with teachers all look and feel drastically different than they ever have.  First of all, our conversations easily come back to good instruction, planning, and assessment quite easily.  I am no longer behind my desk, but up and about pointing out the various components of standards-based and running over to a white board I recently put up to jot down things we are talking about.  I have had deeper conversations with teachers about their instruction than I ever came close to in the previous year.  Come to find out, even the teachers who haven’t been thinking this way already have some great input on this too!  I’ve found that these visuals have helped even those most resistant to change at least see that this isn’t an educational fad, but something that makes sense to gauge student learning.

And the kids and parents come back in a week.  I can’t wait to see what they think when they walk into my office, my classroom.