A Shrewdness of Apes

An Okie teacher banished to the Midwest. "Education is not the filling a bucket but the lighting of a fire."-- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, April 30, 2009

More on the grading controversy

A commenter who is a student of Ken O'Connor's has asked how I was exposed to his work (there was lots of other interesting comments made too, so it might be helpful if you read them on this previous post.

Classroom teachers in my building were given a fifty-five minute or so presentation on Ken O'Connor's theories about "standards-based" grades during which no comments or questions were allowed until the very end. Mr. O'Connor is from Canada, but has also apparently worked in Australia. The title of the book from which this material was drawn is A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades,which is published by Educational Testing Service.

Now let's leave aside the fact that the end of the school year is usually a frantic time for teachers, and we do not have loads of time hanging on our hands to do research on a system presented in a rapid-fire manner via fifteen or twenty PowerPoint slides before we are being asked to buy the proverbial "pig in a poke," or we could talk all day long about how this method of extracting teacher feedback could be interpreted as being designed NOT to elicit real conversation or contemplation before it is, shall we say, shoved down our throats.

There are certainly some practices that were outlined that I personally would never use, such as giving a group grade for a project to every individual in the group. I do not like group work for a plethora of very practical reasons.

But since entire books have been written on the subject or grading, let me be very brief and very specific upon ONE aspect of this presented system.

One part of the system presented that caught my eye was the idea that plagiarism or cheating should not receive a consequence upon a student's grade, since it was stated that this is a BEHAVIOR, and grades should only reflect ACHIEVEMENT. We were told that administrators would administer consequences for the behavior, but that any paper or assessment upon which there had been cheating should simply be thrown out and or redone to be included in the grade.

Here are my responses to this, and they come from a practical, experienced, and current classroom teacher's point of view, and from the get-go let me state that my response touches upon far more than grading, because assessing students is only a part of what a classroom teacher does (a consideration that anyone suggesting an overhaul such as this should keep in mind, much less respect:
1) Apparently a concern leading to "standards based" grading is that letter grades are meaningless and capricious. Unfortunately, so are the expected consequences that one can usually expect in a school that has several administrators. Already, the consequences assigned by administrators vary wildly for identical infractions and circumstances of students. The expectations of behavior we already have are not enforced anywhere near uniformly. I can only imagine the further erosion of academic and character standards were principals given the only right to assign consequences for plagiarism or other infractions against academic honesty. And my concern about academic honesty is not out of a masochistic desire to punish students-- it is because I am actually interested in my students' learning and their present as well as future success.

2) But more to the philosophical point of Mr. O'Connor's system (as presented to us), it was exclaimed repeatedly that BEHAVIORS should not be represented in grades. I find this to be a fundamental misunderstanding of what education is. A real education, which is the one that students all ultimately craft for themselves for good or for ill, is based completely upon the way in which they choose to behave, to change or not change the way that they act and interact with knowledge, skills, and opportunities that are presented to them. This is what cognitive theory is all about, and it is much neglected in an era in which it is assumed that if a student fails to achieve mastery, it is always due to some external factor. Learning is an individual process in the end. That's not a cop-out, nor is it meant to negate the very real impact that instructors, school, community,or parents can have. But the ultimate determiner of success in education is the student and his or her attitude or behavior, if you will.

3) When am I supposed to have time for all this retesting and re-evaluation of assessments that have been tainted by plagiarism or cheating? I already have forty-five minutes a day to plan (short term as well as long term), to write assessments that are meaningful, to contact parents, to grade papers, to confer with colleagues, to talk to counselors about concerns I have about students, to touch base with administrators, to enter grades, and to perhaps go to the bathroom (doesn't usually happen). Continual reassessment of papers and tests and the like due to plagiarism simply teaches students that cheating has no consequences about which they care. And that is a BEHAVIOR that this type of system would certainly enforce, to everyone's detriment.

Tell me what you think.

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At 4/30/09, 7:06 AM, Blogger Mrs. Chili said...

Education, at least as I understand and practice it, is the WHOLE package. When I teach, I'm not just teaching literature or grammar or the writing process, I'm teaching critical thinking and citizenship and character development (the STUDENTS' character, not the characters in a story). I set an example of responsible adulthood, and I expect my students to behave in ethical, thoughtful, responsible ways. Trying to tease character and behavior out puts the whole process in chaos, I think; if we're ONLY educating for the material, what's to keep teachers from being replaced by computer programs, which would only assess the students' answers and not the students themselves?

At 4/30/09, 9:55 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When do you find time to do all your extensive blogging?

At 4/30/09, 5:13 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Ms. Chili-- Absolutely.

Anonymous-- on my own, unremunerated free time.

At 4/30/09, 5:58 PM, Anonymous Head Monkey said...

As a middle school teacher for 18 years in the REAL WORLD with 30 kids in each class, I can tell you all that I felt the same way many of you do when I first heard about this shift in assessment and grading.

For 3 years I have done extensive research into Mr. O'Connors (and many others) system of assessment and practised it in my classroom and I love it!!! I know exactly what my kids strengths and weaknesses are and I separate academic achievement from behaviours.

I don't worry about not using homework for grades because I don't give much of it anymore!! I use my class time wisely and if they need extra work, I assign it so they can learn!! I had no idea that most of the homework I had been assigning for 15 years was not benefitting my students at all.

So, keep an open mind. I just about died when they told me I shouldn't give zeroes. How was I going to make them obey?? I find I treat my students with a lot more respect now than I ever did when I used punishment as my main way of motivating them.

Feel free to ask questions since I've been exactly where most of you are!

At 4/30/09, 6:50 PM, Blogger Ms Characterized said...

My little plagiarist is coming in next week at zero dark-thirty in the morning to make up her essay under my supervision. Now, that's an ungodly hour for me as well, but that's the only time I could do it.

I do make behavior part of my classroom, but it's a separate grade in the gradebook. Her behavior grade will drop precipitously, but her academic grades will reflect her skills mastery. The punishment handed out by the front office, plus the cheating on her record round out the punishment.

But I want an honest essay out of her.

At 4/30/09, 9:57 PM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I'm nonplussed-- I don't think of zeroes as ways of "making students obey." This reflects an idea that expecting student practice is just a power play on the part of people who are, to use Mr. O'Donnell's words, "power-tripping."

When I use the word "behavior" I mean all behavior, especially learning behavior. Being a "good little boy or girl" has very little correlation to what goes in the grade book.

Zeroes reflect what students have not done, just as grades above zeroes reflect what they have done.

At 4/30/09, 11:03 PM, Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

"Zeroes reflect what students have not done, just as grades above zeroes reflect what they have done." -- Ms. Cornelius 4/30/09 9:57 PM

Glad you recognize that, Ms. Cornelius. You probably also realize that, mathematically, you cannot combine unlike terms. A grade must be a reflection of what a student knows and can do, not the absence of same.

Head Monkey is trying to help here, but you need to open your mind.

Forgive me for getting distracted. I was about to post my answer to your question about whether or not I'm getting rich consulting with school districts on standards-based grading.

At 5/1/09, 12:15 AM, Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

Now, to answer your question...but first, some context:

Blogger: Hugh O'Donnell said...

Ms. Cornelius, neither I nor Mr. O'Connor believe plagiarism or cheating is acceptable. Based on the above discussion, the slide that mentions these behaviors seems to have been taken out of the context of a more comprehensive discussion of classroom assessment and grading.

Certainly there should be consequences for these proscribed behaviors. If we are intent on using assessments as teaching tools (Black & William, "Inside the Black Box"), we need to separate our academic evaluations from our behavioral evaluations (and the accompanying consequences) so that we are not flying blind in the blizzard of data.

But before we get side-tracked into doing the dozens (Horshack would know about that), maybe I need to back up and get some context.

When and how did you and your staff become exposed to "grading for learning"?

Standards-based grading is not as radical as it may seem after we find common ground. If you had the entire "15 Fixes for Broken Grades" dropped on you out of the blue, well, I'd be upset too.

Would you give me a little background, please?

4/29/09 8:30 PM

Blogger: "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Sure, Hugh. Can you also let me know if you now or if you have ever had a financial stake in the dissemination and/or adoption of these type of grading systems? Or are you currently a classroom educator who is operating under the grading and classroom policies you advocate?

I will create a new post so that everyone can get in on the discussion and realize it is still ongoing.

4/30/09 5:16 AM

It's never as simple, Ms. Cornelius, as "either, or..."

I mention that I am Ken O'Connor's student out of respect and humility, just as I acknowledge that I am your student because you are teaching me about difficulty in accommodating standards-based grading.

Here's a short history of my involvement in "grading for learning."

1975: Oregon State certified to teach. My grading philosophy is malleable and evolving, and, I hope, benign.

1999: My son goes to high school, fails to jump through some idiosyncratic grading hoops, and I can hear Harvard's door slam shut. Cindy Fox, in her comments on this Teacher Magazine post, echo my sentiments...


2000: With HSD 1J's new strategic plan, teachers get the best professional development series seen in 20 years, and I learn about assessment literacy.

2000: I attend an ASCD Institute in Albuquerque, NM, featuring Ken O'Connor on "Grading for Learning." Ken's teaching dovetails perfectly with HSD's Assessment Literacy inservice.

2000-2003: I teach 8th grade social studies and share with parents my grading guidelines that reflect O'Connor's teaching.

I also share these guidelines with my team and my principal.


2001-2002: HSD's Director of C & I wants me to head a committee to examine secondary grading practices and recommend changes based on current thinking about classroom assessment and grading.

I become of member of the Professional Development Cadre, a group of 30 teachers whose mission is to share contemporary instructional methods with teachers in all our schools.

I go through Training for Trainers in Assessment Literacy from ETS/ATI (Portland), and advanced TOT.

Then we are trained in advanced presentation skills by Gayle Elkins (you should be so lucky to have her as a teacher for professional development).

These initiatives die because of the upcoming recession and possibly the [then] Superintendent's reluctance to deal with the teachers' union.

2003: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) publishes my classroom grading guidelines in slightly different form in March 2003, in "Guide for Instructional Leaders Action Tool: Guide 2," Ed. Ken O’Connor ($89.95 for members; $109.95 for non-members).

2003: I run for School Board during Spring of my last year as a public school teacher. Get elected.

2006: Because of my apparently unusual willingness to buck convention, I am invited by ETS/ATI to speak at the first Conference On Sound Grading Practices on how an individual teacher can "grade for learning." My stipend for the December 2006 conference is $250. That puts a smile on my wife's face.

A principal from British Columbia hears me there and invites me to Penticton. His administrators and teachers have since participated in the 2007 and 2008 ETS/ATI grading conferences. My stipend for international consulting: $500. (A really big smile from my wife.)

Subsequently, I speak at the 2007 and 2008 ETS grading conferences for $250 and $500 respectively.

All of these invitations and stipends resulted from my practice as a teacher willing to stick his neck out. As you can see, I didn't get rich.

I won another term on the School Board 2007-2011), and both the Board and admin, and many teachers at HSD 1J are on board with the transition to standards-based grading.

I continue to contribute at HSD 1J as a teacher of teachers, but of course, I cannot be paid. That would be a conflict of interest. There is more work to be done, but we won’t be dropping mandates out of the blue.

Hope that answers you question, Ms. Cornelius.

At 5/1/09, 12:20 AM, Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

PS: I neglected to mention that I was not paid for the inclusion in the ASCD publication of my grading guidelines, but I did get a complementary copy of the book. Since I am an ASCD member, the value would be $89.95.

Still not getting rich.

Did all that really make a difference in what I have to say about the issue?

At 5/1/09, 12:44 AM, Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

Last thought for tonight...

The saddest thing about this entire discussion is that my initial exposure to "grading for learning" was at that ASCD Institute with Ken O'Connor in New Mexico. It was two full days. Two...full...days.

You had less than an hour to absorb the super-condensed version.

Most unfortunate.

At 5/1/09, 6:18 AM, Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

Dear Hugh,

I am trying to have a discussion here, but you keep reading some sort of personal attack onto you and anyone else who seems to not agree with you. Please understand that when you are responded to, we are trying to have a discussion. It is not a personal affront if people attempting to have a discussion ask questions or attempt to clarify their own positions.

Yet you seem more intent on being confrontational and sarcastic than in actually furthering an open debate. I simply asked if you had a financial stake in this discussion, since I do not know you, nor do you know me. From this simple question, you moved to this response:

"Forgive me for getting distracted. I was about to post my answer to your question about whether or not I'm getting rich consulting with school districts on standards-based grading."

My gosh, we are trying to have a discussion! It is not a personal attack on anyone! It's not even personal. There is no need for histrionics.

Why are you so defensive about this issue? You assume that discussion on other commenters' parts is evidence of "closed minds" and then refuse to consider that your behavior is certainly evidence of exactly that.

You post four comments in an hour and a half (which is known as "comment thread hijacking," by the way), most of which is some sort of defensive response to a simple point I made.

I am not attacking you, Hugh, nor was I in any way attacking or dismissive of Head Monkey. I simply made a comment with a neutral tone. That's why they're called comments.

If you really want to further anyone's understanding of your points, whatever they are, trying calming down. You are welcome to contribute to the debate. But you have your own blog if you're just here to lash out at anyone whose comments you seem to be reading some sort of personal attacks into.

Point: three of your last four comments added nothing to a discussion of anything substantive. You are right that less than one hour is not enough time to consider this information.

But I do NOT appreciate the assumption that anyone who doesn't immediately agree with this grading system is somehow unprofessional, and your responses are not furthering your cause.

At 5/1/09, 6:40 AM, Anonymous ExurbanMom said...

"Hearing the door of Harvard slam shut" on your child is about the worst reason I could think of to question assessment policies. Getting into an Ivy is *entirely* about hoop jumping--which is why many people don't find the Ivies particularly appealing.

I teach at the collegiate level, myself, and I say that we will never get kids to avoid plagiarism unless there is a grade penalty for it. It's the only way to ensure compliance. Sure, you can have other penalties, but you know what? Most savvy kids don't care about anything but graduating, and they won't care about any penalty that doesn't affect their grades.

At the collegiate level, I can't imagine what type of penalty the author would ask me to use on a cheater....the fact that this system isn't scalable to collegiate level work is in my opinion more evidence of its ridiculousness.

At 5/1/09, 3:13 PM, Anonymous Marcy Webb said...

While I support assessing students on the basis of what they know and are able to do, I also support the belief that learning is a behavior. The behaviors of successful learners differ from that of unsuccessful learners. Cheaters and plagiarists should be harshly punished. I also believe that students who don't do their work for reasons not attributable to extenuating circumstances should experience consequences that help them to learn to make better choices. I realize that I cannot save everyone, but, I hope that for the majority of the students I teach, I can instill in them behaviors that promote successful learning.

At 5/1/09, 4:08 PM, Blogger Mrs. T said...

In our district we have been going back and forth on the idea of "The Power of I" (I= Incomplete- At first I thought it was more philosophical than that- thinking it was a Roman numeral 1, but oh well..). The middle schools use it, the high schools do not. The majority of parents hate it. I understand the concept- I'm not a closed-minded person. But, in the working world, don't people get paid for what they DO and not for what they are ABLE to do. How would that fly in the workplace? "I can do it, I just choose not to."
My own grading policy with regard to homework is such that students receive credit for doing it, then we correct it together. I give them homework so they can practice new concepts and vocabulary. If they don't do it, they don't get credit.

At 5/1/09, 5:05 PM, Blogger Hugh O'Donnell said...

My apologies for any actual or perceived lapses in civil discourse. Sometimes my humor is taken for snarkiness because some of my comments actually are snarky. Perfection eludes me. (See?)

Seriously, I am sympathetic with the teachers in your building, Ms. Cornelius, if that webinar is the whole training piece for standards-based grading.

I'd like to ask a favor. Would you read my grading guidelines from my eighth grade social studies class at JW Poynter Middle School (the "Grading for Learning" tab on my header) and tell me what you are comfortable or uncomfortable with.

I will avoid sarcasm or the appearance of being overwrought, especially if you comment as a guest on my blog.

BTW, I was surprised to see a link on the Elko site (Grading Committee section) to play the webinar or download it. Districts are supposed to link to ETS for access to that webinar, but ETS feels it's their mistake for not being more specific on how to direct staff to the ETS web site to download the slides and the audio.

In any case, the webinar, by itself, is no substitute for a lengthy and collaborative discussion at the building level, with experimentation and peer evaluation following.

At 5/1/09, 10:48 PM, Blogger Duez said...

Wow, this is pretty hot stuff here. Lots of great comments and feedback. Assessment for Learning in action!

I completely understand where you are coming from in your post. It is where my brain was a little over a year ago. And I was the newly minted "Teacher of the Year" -- so why would I change anything... it was going so well.

I met Ken O'Connor and spent a lot of time with him while I was in Hawaii. I must say I focused on him during the Assessment for Learning Conference because I just thought he'd be the one person that I would disagree with most. And the only reason I was going to the conference was to debunk all of this garbage and come back to my school and represent the hoard of teachers that were mad "and not going to take it anymore."

Sadly (for the hoard) I was completely won over by Ken. Although I obviously don't do standards grading, I have taken on most of what his philosophy is about.

If anyone has any questions on how I do AFL, please let me know. I'll spare you the details here. Let's just say, it takes some time to develop. We have only focused on two things this first year at my school: 1) Clearly defined learning targets that are student friendly & understood and are mirrored on the assessments and 2) Showing great examples of good and "not so good" work for students to have a better idea of what to aim for.

A lot of what Ken discusses, I've already been doing in many ways but did not have a formal name for it. But, I understand why this is controversial, like I said... I wasn't always a believer.

At 5/2/09, 10:34 AM, Blogger Friar said...

I may have missed a comment substantially similar to my own in earlier threads; if so, I apologize.

But from a non-educator's point of view, I kind of figure that part of the assignment I'm given is to do the work involved in it and present the results of that work for evaluation. If I don't do the work myself but instead swipe someone else's work, I haven't completed my assignment as instructed, and I should be downgraded according to whatever standards have been previously set by the evaluator.

Nobody I ever work for will give a rat's fundament whether or not my failure to do a job for which I am being paid is a lapse in my behavior or not -- they will only deal with the failure in whatever manner has been previously agreed to when employment began. Employers almost always make this clear to high-school-aged young people when they hire them for their various part-time jobs; it seems to me that schools would be justified in doing the same.

At 5/3/09, 3:30 PM, Blogger Lightly Seasoned said...

Fun discussion.

I always think it is obvious that school is not the workplace. (No! Really). We are attempting to prepare them (at least the ones without trust funds) for the next 50 years of their lives working for The Man, but we are, in fact, not The Man.

The Man's goal is to get his pound of flesh. Our goal is to pretty much give a pound of flesh (oh, if only it were literal).

The question, then, is how to get them to accept their pound of flesh and measure whether or not they did so.

I don't think a more accurate assessment of skills is a bad thing. The extreme case of lack of penalty for plagiarism/cheating is obfuscating the interesting idea here. What if zeros for this sort of thing stood, but grades were subdivided by standards? So a parent (or college) could see skills were about on grade level, but the D is due to sloth?

[I don't know anything about Ken O'Connor -- but I've read bits here and there about standards based grading and was introduced to it at a day-long inservice -- among other ways of doing more accurate assessment for teaching -- this year.)

At 5/5/09, 1:55 PM, Blogger Fred said...

A very interesting discussion going on here. I read through it all and need to come back again.

I'm on Spring Break II. The district shut my school due to a "potential" case of swine flu. So, I'll have time to read this more thoroughly when I come back.

At 5/23/09, 10:42 AM, Anonymous MJ said...

I think that the plagiarism does earn a penalty.

When you are grading in a standards-based way, you are looking at each standard. So for a grade in "Can develop and maintain a theme" (or whatever the standard was), this student would have a "Not mastered", because they have not shown any evidence.

Therefore, they have the zero until it is shown. And the penalty is they've now done more work than necessary, along with the other consequences that go along with cheating. And it's part of our job to help them see those natural consequences, such as lack of trust and loss of character.

Another point: If we weren't so focused on grades to begin with, and really let kids try things without worrying about possible penalties when they're not perfect, perhaps there wouldn't be such a high motivation to plagiarize?

At 6/2/09, 1:15 AM, Blogger P. Smith said...

Okay...so I am new to this blog, but just wanted to share my opinion. First of all, I think that any true agent of change would see that it takes time. Teachers need time to identify the sides of the "argument" and reconcile this with their own behavior. So, I honestly think that if we want teachers to really step back and look at their assessment -- then we have to be willing to have the critical conversations WITH patience. Some of that might be lacking here. :)

Second, I think that the "extreme" statements about punishment in the gradebook is...well, a little extreme. Nobody will hear the idea if it is overwhelmed by assumptions in the verbage.

That being said...I am new to the standards-based grading game -- but I am playing it after making a realization. I realized that my grades told me (and students and parents) absolutely NOTHING about their performance. I had kids with D's and F's that knew the material but couldn't follow through on homework assignments. I had kids that had A's, but I wasn't sure they really had an understanding of the material. That is when I looked at the state standards and realized that ABSOLUTELY NONE of them included anything about responsibility, effort, or even participation. So, then...how was my grade (which took into account all of these things) really reflecting the mastery of standards? And if it wasn't...then shouldn't I have some form of data that did? I can't blame the state for wanting to assess my kids based on the standards -- since apparently my grades don't really do so.

I have been working to set up a system for my classroom that allows me to communicate effort AND achievement as 2 separate entities. Effort is still important...its just not lumped in with achievement.


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