Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Break a time for reflection

The break in school over the holidays has provided me with a time for reflection.  The school I teach in has block scheduling, and our 2nd quarter will finish up 2 weeks after we get back from vacation.  As the 3rd quarter begins, I will have all new students.  This provides a chance to change some practices and try new ideas on assessment and grading.  My brother, Matt Townsley, (@mctownsley on twitter) utilizes a form of standards based grading in his high school math classes.  It is my goal over the next couple of days to sit down with Matt and set up a plan for the implementation of a standards approach in my classroom.

My concern with this is I'd be starting something new in my school.  No other teachers will be utilizing a standards approach.  I also want to make it very clear to my students and their parents about the expectations and grading practices.  I hope to use this space (the blog) to share joys, frustrations, and gather feedback from you who might have ideas that will provide a better learning experience for my students.  My goal is to post once a week, but our second child is due anytime now, so I may be busy changing diapers instead of blogging.

Anyway, I'd love to hear your responses, insights, and ideas regarding standards based grading.  Please drop a comment or find me on twitter: @EricTownsley  I look forward to learning and sharing!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Why are slower learners punished?

I've been thinking a lot lately about how the current education system operates.   As I look further into standards based grading, utilize formative assessments, and evaluate my current classroom practices, I wonder why we do things the way we do.  Typically, the students that earn the best grades have one of two characteristics.

1. They are "smarter" than other students: these students learn more quickly, are highly motivated, and could probably learn on their own with just a book or other resource.

2. They work harder than other students: these students spend lots of time doing homework, come in before school or after school, and are rewarded by our current system because students who work hard should get a better grade than those who are "lazy".

Why is this the case.  Do these two characteristics make better employees?  Maybe, but as an educational system, I think we're missing the boat.  We're not living in an industrial age anymore.  We're living in a digital age.  We have to prepare our students for what they're going to see, but that's what's scary.  We don't know what we're going to see in the future.  We need to prepare students for learning.  I hear this question in my math classes often: "Why do we need to know this?"  I have two responses to this question.
1. I give them a real life job, or time they will use it in.
2. We're learners.  We want to learn and keep learning different ways to learn.

I then get the usual groan from my students.  They say, "Well, I'm not going to do that job"  I then say, "You never know.... what your future holds"

Well, I've digressed a bit here, so I'll return back.  Why are slower learners punished?  I don't have the answer.  What I do have is a solution...  Take away grades, focus on learning, collaboration, and learning! (Yes I did say learning twice, I know that and it's a point of emphasis :) ) This will take a total shift in our society.  People are going to have to let people in education be the experts and move forward.  Mistakes are going to be made by teachers, administrators, and schools, but that's how learning works isn't it?

A large factor in this shift, if we want to make it (I believe we have to, to afford our students a bright future) is for teachers and administrators be learners as well.  The system we operate in is outdated.  Period.  But, change can't come at once.  We have to move our system forward at a quicker pace than we have been.  This shift has to be made collaboratively.  Teachers and administrators have to work together.  As a good friend and coach says...  "How...... Together!"

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Small Victory


I have a small victory to share.  The next day after my frustration about not doing the assignment in class, we (the class and I) talked about the situation.  There response was, "Well, you told us if we understood that we didn't need to do the assignment".  I almost jumped up and down!  We then continued to talk about how we know that we understand it and  a different student said, "Why don't you give us one of those quiz thingies."  Meaning a formative assessment.  I was exploding inside.  They are figuring it out!!!  Now, we are taking the summative assessment tomorrow, we'll see how it goes.  If the indicators are right, we'll do well.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Learning or Points? What's important?

As I continue my research and implementation into a more standards based grading style, I have come to some interesting findings.  Right before Thanksgiving break, I gave my students a test.  An alarming number of students didn't do well on the assessment.  I spent some time over break reflecting about what steps to go to next.  I decided to spend a couple of days re-teaching the content, utilizing the test as a guide for what mistakes the students needed to learn. 

I also decided to try something new with my homework.  Usually, I give students assignments and provide the answer key.  I have students turn in the completed assignments making sure they are all correct with work.  The students get 10 points for each assignment.  They need to turn in the assignments by the day of the test.  For these particular assignments to review for the upcoming test, I am not collecting the assignments.  The whole purpose of our time is to learn the content and develop a greater understanding.

Towards the end of our class period today, I gave my students approximately 15-20 minutes to work collaboratively on the assignment.  My students shut down with about 10 minutes left.  Many closed up their books and started talking about non math stuff.  I didn't raise my voice or even try to draw them back to learning. I wanted to observe them and gather more information about how students would react to the lack of points on the assignments.

Initially, I was pretty upset about my students lack of work ethic.  I thought they were lazy and didn't appreciate the second chance they were given for the poor results on the test.  I stewed on that thought for a while, but then had a great conversation with another visionary educator in my building.  I've visited with this person numerous times about my different methods I want to move toward in my classroom.  Our conversation focused on the transition from students looking for the grade rather then looking at the learning.  By not assigning points for this assignment, I made the impression that this assignment was not important.  I had tried to relay the importance of just learning for the sake of learning and the goal of doing well on the assessment, but my students always see assignments as a way to get more points instead of learning.

As I move closer to more of a standard based grading system, I'll need to work with students on the motivation for learning and working toward learning.  I don't have the answer now, but as I continue along the path I must work with students to see the reason for work and learning.

So now, tomorrow I will try again to connect work with learning rather than just points.  Wish me luck!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Why formative assessment?

A scenario that happens regularly in most high school classrooms:

Teacher:  "Here are your unit tests back.  As you can see, we didn't do very well.  You obviously haven't put the time in to your studying."

Student: "But... Mr. (insert a name), we all did well on our assignments.  Why did we do poorly?"

Teacher: "You obviously haven't put the time in to your studying."

Teacher thinks to self ("Why did they do poorly, if they did do well on their assignments?")

Student: "We didn't know what to study, we threw all our assignments away after you handed them back."

Teacher: "Maybe you should have kept them!"

Student thinks to self ("But we never talked about what I did right or wrong, we just kept on moving")

Student: "Okay, I'll try harder next time"

This scenario happens very often to teachers who do not utilize formal assessment in their classroom.  These teachers do not provide students with feedback regarding their learning.  Do students learn in this type of environment?  Sure.  They are presented with information and will grasp to some of the new content.  However, fully understanding the standards that are taught will not happen.  The good students will find a way to understand the content.  The middle students will get some of it and show that they can work hard enough to get a decent grade.

To be honest, this was my classroom.  When I started teaching eight years ago, that's what I thought,  students who want to learn and work hard enough will get it and the others will follow along.  After being introduced to formative assessments and utilizing them in my classroom, I see the light!  Students need to know where they're coming up short and when they get it.  My job as teacher, our job as educators, is to guide students in learning.  We are not just content presenters.  We need to engage students in learning.  Give them feedback about what they need to improve on and provide positive reinforcement too.

This selection from Stephen Chappuis and Jan Chappuis in the December 2007/January 2008 edition of Educational Leadeship really hits home to me:

When teachers assess student learning for purely formative purposes, there is no final mark on the paper and no summative grade in the grade book. Rather, assessment serves as practice for students, just like a meaningful homework assignment does. This is formative assessment at its most valuable. Called assessment for learning, it supports learning in two ways:
  • Teachers can adapt instruction on the basis of evidence, making changes and improvements that will yield immediate benefits to student learning.
  • Students can use evidence of their current progress to actively manage and adjust their own learning. (Stiggins, Arter, Chappuis, & Chappuis, 2006)

Formative assessment is meant to be a two way street.  Teachers gather data regarding where students stand and students get feedback about where they are.  Hopefully if implemented  successfully a new scenario will be heard in classrooms throughout the world:

Teacher: "Students here are your unit tests.  As you can see there were some areas that we struggled in."

Student: "Mr...  (insert name) why did we do poorly in those areas?"

Teacher: "Well, as we look back, how did we do in those areas in our learning time?  I provided feedback about those areas, what do you think?"

Student: "Well, I thought I understood it, but obviously I didn't.  What can we do now?"

Teacher: "We will be having a review session to freshen up on those parts.  I will give you a chance to retake the portion of the test we review to demonstrate that you know it"

Student: "Thanks!! "

Friday, November 6, 2009

Exit Slips

In my Pre-Algebra class the other day, we learned about polygons.  As we learned about the sum of the degrees of the angles and how to solve for missing angle measures I gave the students their normal assignment.  They had about 20 minutes of our block to work collaboratively on their learning.  As my co-teacher and I walked around the room observing the conversations we noticed a few students who seemed to be struggling.  Instead of waiting until tomorrow to correct the assignments and possibly reteach, I gave the students an exit slip.

In a word processing document I already created a quarter sheet to use as an exit slip.(Example)  I then give the students a problem or 2 to do.  This slip is a way for me to gauge the understanding of students on a specific topic or question.  I can check this before the next day and plan for the next day...  Do I need to re-teach or can we correct the assignment and move to the next learning target? In this particular instance, all that was needed the next day was a little clarification on one particular part of the assignment.  We were able to do this right at the beginning of our next time together.  I also allowed them to make corrections on their assignment before we "corrected" the assignment.

Now, we didn't "grade" the exit slip.  I did however explain to my students the purpose of the slip.  I told them it was a way for me to see how well they understood the content and allow them a chance to improve before the graded assignment was due.  It didn't take more than 3 or 4 minutes and they did it willfully.

I do think there are positive and negative aspects of an exit slip.  I'll start with the negatives:
1. The feedback to students is delayed (probably not until the next day).
2. The change in instruction has to happen the next day.

The positives:
1. The teacher can see how well the students understand a concept before the assignment comes in the basket.
2. Exit slips are a quick way to gather content understanding from students.
3. The teacher can gather feedback from students in an snapshot (Exit Slip) rather than a feature length film (assignment).

Overall, I think exit slips are a great way to find out what students know.  Stay tuned as I explore more ways to formally assess students!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009



I’d like to welcome you to Assessment for Instruction.  The purpose of this site is a place to share, collaborate, and put into words my learnings and experiences regarding Formative Assessment and how it relates to improving and changing instruction.  I am looking forward to the conversations my ideas stimulate between you (the reader) and me (the writer).  I also hope you comment on my posts, that way I (the reader) can learn from you (the writer).  I also hope that these conversations don’t stop there.   My learning and your learning can grow even more with sharing ideas with other teachers, administrators, and Edu folk you know or meet.  

I believe that formative assessment should be an integral part of classroom time.  If our goal as educators is to increase student achievement and learning, then we must continuously assess where students are, what they understand, and what they are don’t understand.  My content emphasis will be focused on math.  That’s what I teach and know.  Although, the tools I will use, try and examine can be used in other classrooms.  I look forward to conversations about how different content teachers share how they utilize the tools in different content areas to assess their students’ learning. 

As I’ve stated earlier, I want this to be a conversation area.  I hope that we can learn from each other and can work to improve student achievement and learning in each of our schools!