Principal's Blog: A Respectful Approach To Grading
For the past five years, our school has engaged in an extensive study and overhaul of the way we assess our students' learning.  Throughout this year, I am going to share the thinking, the questions, the research and the results of our work with you.  I'll include some provocative questions and scenarios that will hopefully change the way you think about assessment.  I'll also include research that supports this work.  Thanks for taking the time to visit!
  • Grading What Matters Most

    Posted by ABE LUCABAUGH at 11/11/2014 4:25:00 PM
    In preparation for my next blog entry, I am posting portions of an article that I distributed to our teachers, an article that challenges some of the most deeply held beliefs about teaching and learning.  For over a century, grades have reflected how well students comply and behave; however, is that really what a grade should represent?  Read on and see for yourself:

    Excerpt written by Mr. Tony Winger, featured in Educational Leadership November 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 3
    Multiple Measures    Pages 73-75

    Grading What Matters

    Tony Winger


    No matter how lofty our espoused education goals, our grading practices reveal what we truly value.

    When I began analyzing my grading practices several years ago, I was embarrassed by what I found. Although I claimed I wanted my students to think more critically and engage with the world more fully, my grading practices communicated a different message. Students received so much credit for completing work, meeting deadlines, and following through with responsibilities that these factors could lift a student's semester grade to a B or an A, even as other indicators suggested that the student had learned little. My grading practices communicated clearly that, despite my claims to the contrary, students' willingness and ability to comply mattered most.

    I've observed that other teachers approach grading similarly. Recently I heard from a parent who, after home-schooling for several years, had enrolled her son in a public school. After just three weeks, her son was failing his language arts class because he had failed to bring a book to read for the daily sustained silent reading time and to return a parent-signed course expectations sheet. The message? Compliance is the priority, and grades have little to do with learning.

    An incident in my high school economics class confirms that students have internalized this message. A young man assigned to write an essay on health care turned in a neatly typed, but completely incoherent paper. The introduction supported universal health care, but the conclusion argued against it. I told this student that the paper must be redone. He was incredulous. He pleaded his case fervently, emphasizing that the paper was typed, edited, and completed on time. I explained that although punctuality, neatness, and grammar are important, it was his understanding that mattered most. Apparently 12 years of education had taught him otherwise.

    Parent concerns are added proof that our unintended message has been delivered. Time after time, parent inquiry into student performance focuses on missing assignments. Parents want to know what missing work their child can turn in for credit, recognizing, quite accurately, that grades are primarily a reflection of effort rather than progress toward learning goals.


    What Do We Measure?

    As I reflected on this topic, I resolved to refocus myself and my students on learning. This, of course, required that I know what exactly I meant by student learning. Once more I took a look at my practice, and what I discovered was disturbing. I was not unlike the teacher I spoke with recently who hesitated to test her students after a three-day weekend because she feared they would perform poorly. If we avoid assessing our students after a long weekend, then obviously we are not expecting, nor attempting to assess, enduring understanding in students. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) agree that grades tend to measure students' short-term recall of information, rather than long-term, meaningful understanding.

    If we focus predominately on measuring students' compliance and their ability to recall facts, our practices will interfere with our most significant purposes as educators. If we are to shift our focus to higher-level thinking, we must shift our grading practices.

    Next: how this article became part of the groundwork for changing grading practices.


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  • Facing the Hard Questions

    Posted by ABE LUCABAUGH at 10/21/2014 2:00:00 PM
    Education represents a paradox of sorts in that it historically embraces and resists change simultaneously.  It fancies itself innovative, yet all too often, it is anything but that.  For example, most new school years begin with the unveiling of a new approach to something, but unfortunately the sustainability of these new approaches has a poor track record; as a result, most educators remain hesitant to buy into change initiatives because the revolving door of ideas and approaches (many of which are remanufactured) eventually comes unhinged courtesy of the ill-fated systems and processes incapable of sustaining everything.  It's confounding at times.  But even more perplexing than all the constant change is what education isn’t willing to change; in fact, there is hesitancy to attack some of the deeply rooted practices that anchor our main objectives (e.g. student achievement) to an ineffectual past. 
    One of the things that has inexplicably escaped the clutch of change is grading practices, arguably the one thing that, if changed for the right reasons, could revolutionize schools and inspire students, and yet it’s the one thing that has somehow survived virtually untouched amidst the constancy of change.  For a multitude of reasons, few of which are even remotely valid, this loosely defined facet of education is tightly guarded and fiercely defended, and trust me when I tell you that subjectivity reigns supreme.  Grading practices are literally all over the place, scattered haphazardly across schools and districts, and despite the plethora of research regarding the importance and potential impact of assessment practice, there is an astonishing lack of adherence to the research.  This should be a red flag, because I believe that if you want to discover what a school really values, take a long hard look at the school’s grading practices. 
    At East, our mindset regarding grading practices began to shift for two primary reasons.  The first occurred during some discussion of what we truly valued as a school, what our current practices indicated we valued, and whether or not the two matched up.  Out of that, many questions emerged.  For example, one of the tenets of our school’s mission touches on the importance of meeting students where they are and guiding them to their full potential.  We wondered, “is the culture we’ve articulated really the culture we’ve established?” and “are we a school that creates opportunities for students to excel not only while enrolled, but more importantly, upon graduation?”  After all, we are a foundational institution and as such, our work must convey deep meaning and thus its influence must be extend beyond its walls.  In order for that to occur, students need to truly know and understand things, and by that, I mean they must have a working knowledge of basic concepts to the extent that they can apply those concepts in authentic situations, think critically based on what they learn, and then synthesize all that information to make informed decisions that ultimately lead to significant contribution and growth, personally and globally. 
    Another contributing factor to our shifting mindset came from a study of data and the questions that emerged from that study.  As I sat in a data meeting looking at assessment results for PSSA (back then), SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement and PSAT tests, as well as final exam and final course grade patterns, I was both overwhelmed by the volume of information and more importantly, unclear about the efficacy of it.  Questions arose.  In short, I wondered if the data was drawn from parallel processes, or if it was the product of an eclectic approach that would ultimately render it less meaningful.  Were teachers of like courses grading with the same set of values?  Would the effort and output necessary to earn an “A” in one teacher’s class be mirrored in the same class taught and assessed by a different teacher?  Is one teacher’s definition and pathway to an “A” in stark contrast to another teacher’s definition and pathway to an “A,” and if yes, is that acceptable?  Should a student’s outcome be influenced more by who he has as his teacher and less by what he knows and can do?  On and on the questions emerged from the murky depths, and as they broke the surface, they demanded answers. 
    As we began addressing these questions, some hard truths emerged that directly challenged and contradicted well over a century of ingrained, accepted practice that ultimately was making us feel good at the expense of being effectual.  In many ways, it was awkward – as if we were broaching a subject universally understood as taboo.  After espousing to the “that’s how it’s always been done” line of thinking (the type of discourse that penalizes the natural ebb and flow of learning), it was time to face ourselves for the culprits we’d become, regardless of how embarrassing it was.  It was precisely the kind of disruption that we needed to begin the work of assessing our own approach to assessment. 
    In my next segment, we’ll explore some of the questions and challenges we confronted, and the work that followed.  I will also share some of the resources that assisted in challenging our thinking and changing our focus on what mattered most when it came to students’ assessment.
    Thanks for reading,

    Mr. Lucabaugh



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  • The Necessity of Failure

    Posted by ABE LUCABAUGH at 10/15/2014 7:45:00 AM
    In my last post, I broached the concept of the bell curve and discussed some of the problems it poses, as well as the misconceptions it creates about teaching and learning. I went so far as to call the entire practice disrespectful, and I stand by that statement for the reasons that follow; however, in order to fully deconstruct the practice of the bell curve, it's imperative to change our collective mindset about grading practices.

    For too long, education has maintained a "fixed" mindset about grading practices that has led to disastrous consequences for students, mainly because it penalizes a critical element of the learning process: failure. What's more, traditional grading practices are steeped in hypocrisy because while most everyone concedes in theory that "failure is the best teacher," nearly everyone establishes through prevailing practice that failure is something that must be avoided if you expect to do well.  Talk about an injustice!
    We need a "growth" mindset about teaching and learning, and it starts with assessment that PROMOTES learning instead of assessment focused on MEASURING learning. Here's what that means.
    Unless I am mistaken, learning something new should incur difficulty on the part of the learner. It's new information, so it's supposed to be hard. Let's say you decide to play the piano. Chances are you will not sit down and immediately produce a polished rendition of some great composer's work. It is more likely that you'll struggle, but if you're lucky, you'll have a gifted teacher there to provide you with specific guidance regarding your playing - guidance that helps you understand the particular things you need to focus on to incrementally improve. Guidance that promotes your growth as a pianist.
    Transfer this into a classroom. Let's say an average student decides to challenge himself by taking an advanced mathematics course, say Calculus 1 as an example. Chances are that initially, he will find the concepts difficult, and chances are he will struggle.  If he's lucky, he'll be exposed to a philosophy that creates a safe haven for making mistakes, a philosophy that recognizes the need to struggle in the absence of numerical assessment.  But all too often that doesn't happen.  In a traditional fixed mindset setting, that student is already in trouble, and here's why: if he does poorly on the first few assessments, chances are that even if his understanding improves, his grades will not reflect that ultimate understanding because in education, we have this incessant need to constantly measure our students' learning with numerical judgment, and then to make matters worse, we average the grades at the end.
    With all due respect, this type of practice not only discourages students, but it also robs them of their potential because it fails to account for the natural progression of learning and the critical role failure must play in the pathway to success.

    Here's a case in point: imagine that a track coach is preparing his line-up for a district championship meet. He's looking at his sprinters and currently, he has a young woman running an 11.3 second 100 meter dash - a time that may win her a championship; however, there is a huge problem. Back in the start of the season, this same runner was clocked consistently in the 12-second range, often as high as 12.4. Imagine that same coach deciding that he cannot place this athlete in his line-up because while she is running at her personal best, he cannot discount the struggles she endured earlier, struggles that caused her overall season average to hover around 12.0 second mark, a time not likely to medal at districts. Such a decision would be preposterous!

    And yet, this is precisely what we do every day in education. We punish students for experiencing the expected and natural struggles inherent in the process of learning. We make it unsafe and impermissible to fail, and it's time to stop the insanity of it all. It's time to embrace the struggles that naturally occur in the process of learning, and it's time to promote learning through the adoption of a growth mindset philosophy that embraces failure and creates opportunities for advanced and enduring understanding.
    How do we do that? Stay tuned for the next posting...
    - Mr. Lucabaugh
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  • If Everyone Earns an "A," What Does That Say?

    Posted by ABE LUCABAUGH at 10/3/2014
    Have you ever heard of the "bell curve?"  Chances are that if you haven't, you've been a victim of it.  I use the word victim because that's essentially what this approach to grading does: it creates a victim mentality that student achievement is preordained - destined to fall into a predetermined curve of proficiency.  Here's a quick overview:
    Let's say that a teacher has 20 students in a class.  Using the bell curve theory, the grade distributions of any assessment shoud resemble a "bell" shape to indicate the number of A's, B's, C's, D's and F's earned by students.  Visually, it looks like this:
    Bell Curve
    In its simplest explanation, the bell curve represents a statistical plotting of the probability of student grades and has been utilized as a tool in education for far too long.  Essentially, it states that in any group, there should be a proportionate number of grades earned, and those grades should shake out in the shape of a bell - meaning theoretically that a few students should earn A's, a few students should earn a grade of "F," and the rest fall into the continuum with the majority earning "C's."
    How inspirational. 
    And defeatist.
    Sad to say, this mentality has permeated education for over a century, and I surmise it has not only misrepresented human potential, but also buried it.  It's a misguided, negative and assumptive practice and it needs to be banished.  Here's why.
    The bell curve has created a set of dangerous expectations.  For example, administrators (of which I am one) have been misled into thinking that if a teacher has a class of 30 students, and if that teacher subjects her 30 students to rigorous instruction, it stands to reason that only a chosen few should manage to eek out that elusive "A" while the remaining unfortunate souls succumb to the statistically rigid power of the curve, hoping to cling to the middle in an effort to stay afloat.  Is this really fair?
    Imagine if the place that fixes your car utilized the bell curve theory?  Better yet, what if surgeons, chefs, lawyers and contractors subscribed to this mindset?  How frightening would that be? 
    Back to our teacher of 30 students.  Historically, if a teacher has a class of 30 students and 25 of those students receive an "A" in the course, the teacher's practices would be called into question because of the assumptive thinking the bell curve creates.  In essence, the assumption would be: the teacher is too easy.
    How unfortunate.
    What if it meant something else?  What if maybe ... just maybe, those results indicated that out of 30 students, 25 truly achieved authentic mastery?  Isn't that what we want?  Does a football coach hope that only a select few of his athletes perform at a high level while the others fill in the predestined bubbles of decreasing ability?  Do our military commanders strive to create batallions where only a few are competent and then receive commendation for perceived effectiveness?  In the real world, such a disparity would be condemned as a gross failure.  In education, it's considered an affirmation of teacher rigor and toughness.
    I say it's time to call it what it really is: disrespectful and demeaning.  Our goal should be to make every student, regardless of the pathway he needs, successful.  It's time to for some straight talk about the bell curve, so stay tuned for what that looks like. 
    -Mr. Lucabaugh
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