After sharing the tiered assessment model with a group of teachers who agreed to spend their last week of summer planning curriculum to help us transition to the NGSS, grading very quickly became an issue that we began to discuss. It was obvious to us all that the traditional grading methods we had used in the past were not going to work with this type of tiered assessment model. In order for this type of differentiation to work, students needed to work on the parts of the assessment at their own pace. This means that not every student will reach the final part of every assessment. It also means that teachers are not going to be spending precious time tracking down missing assignments! The main question we were all asking was:
If a student does not complete all parts of the assessment, then what do you put in the grade book?
We grappled with this question the entire week and each solution seemed to create a new issue. Here are just two examples:
A second issue that we were struggling with was the weighting of categories in the grade book. We were all over the board with our categories, some wanting 40 % of the grade to go towards science notebooks or homework while others wanting a category for participation. One thing we did all agree on is that the majority of the grade should reflect student learning as measured by the assessments.
An Introduction to Standards-Based Grading
Towards the end of the week, I met the new Director of Secondary Education for the first time who was going to oversee middle schools for TUSD. Ron Piyaroff, Ed.D. had just joined us from the Oceanside School district where he had introduced standards based grading as the principal of Oceanside High School. He really challenged my thinking as to why we were including grades related to behavior in the grade book. This led me down a path of researching how others were using standards based grading. One thing became clear, we were definitely going to be moving away from the traditional grading practices of including grades in the grade book for the completion of homework and participation. We needed to measure learning, not compliance and behavior.
Another Issue: Allowing for Revision
Teachers already spend way too much time grading as it is and often the work gone in to providing feedback to students is lost when the rubrics are handed back. Students may look at their scores and read the comments, but does this actually increase their learning? Most of the time, the learning stops when students turn in their assignment.
In order to alleviate some of the grading load for teachers while also increasing student learning, opportunities for peer review, feedback, and revision were built into the tiered assessment tasks. The goal was to create strategies and routines for teachers and students to follow that helped students continue to learn until mastery had been reached. But once again, how do teachers use the grades from these rubrics we were using to measure mastery? Do they include them in the grade book?
The answer to all of this came about from my research on standards based grading, where a single grade is given at the end of an instructional series of lessons and activities to reflect the degree to which the standard was met. Applying this to our tiered assessment model, all of the peer feedback rubrics and rubrics to determine mastery would not be used in the grade book. Just a single grade would be assigned at the end of the assessment task.
Of course, this means less grades in the grade book and keeping parents informed of grades potentially becoming an issue. In response to this, it is suggested that students be required to self reflect on their progress through the assessment, setting goals and recording scores for parents to follow along. An example of this can be found in the document linked below.
The Ah-Ha Moment
It was while doing yoga that it came to me! In order to truly shift our practices, we needed to get rid of the traditional percentage grading scale all together. This same traditional system that fails students even when they actually do learn something and rewards those who know how to follow instructions and complete homework as they are told.
In the days that followed, I wrote a proposed model of what a 4 point rubric scale grade book might look like. It looks very similar to what is already used in our elementary and ELA classrooms, which also helps parents transition. It was a simple conversion, those who finish all four parts of the assessment would receive a 4 which equals an A. Those who finish three parts of the assessment would receive a 3 which equals a B. To see the entire model explained with grading scales and some background on standards based grading CLICK HERE.
Versions of the Model
As you can see, our shift to the NGSS was becoming complicated. And to be honest, many teachers who were introduced to the tiered assessment model and mastery based grading wanted to run the other way. Some actually did and that is expected. But many saw these changes as having great potential to actually meet the needs of our diverse groups of learners. Some even called it "a breathe of fresh air".
As Back to School Night approached, each middle school science PLC had their own conversations about what grading might look like in their science department. Administrators joined in on the conversation and a consensus was made at each middle school site. Some decided to still use percentages and others were going to try out the 4 point grading scale. Each site made it their own. The best part of all was that these conversations were being had. We are far from finding our perfect answer and we will continue to study standards based grading throughout the year and revise our models as we run into roadblocks, but again, at least we have a starting place!
Cari WIlliams is a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA) for the Tustin Unified School District in Southern California. She holds a MS in Instructional Design and Technology from Cal State Fullerton and works on the side as a consultant writing science and STEAM curriculum and training teachers. After working for 12 years in the classroom as a middle school science and STEAM teacher, she transitioned into the role of Digital Learning Coach in 2013. In this role, Cari helped teachers innovate curriculum and shift pedagogies through the integration of educational technologies and practices found within the NGSS. Her most current work as a TOSA is focused on engineering design in robotics, computer science, and makerspaces. She is an official VEX Robotics event partner hosting tournaments for teams from around Southern California as well as leading 28 robotics programs servicing over 100 teams in the Tustin Unified School District. Although her expertise has taken her deep into STEAM education, she remains passionate and engaged in helping teachers transition to the NGSS through participating as a Science Peer Review Panelist for Achieve and acting as a Professional Learning Facilitator and Instructional Coach in-training for NSTA.