Thursday, March 31, 2016

Standards-based grading; standardized testing

It's been a while since I've written anything--life gets in the way. Mostly, I've been working on my new book, Statistics for Debaters and Extempers, which is 23/29 written. I keep writing chapters but adding one new ones to the list. It's like the Winchester House. However, I do have some thoughts I want to share about teaching.

One post I'm proud of is the one about grading. Percent grades are not very informative for teachers. Standards-based grading (SBG) is far better. If you're not familiar with SBG, let me explain it really briefly. The idea is to note for each standard (skill or knowledge students are supposed to learn) for each assignment, you mark a score that the student earns. These scores are often 1 to 4, where 1 is "not demonstrated at all"; 2 is "developing"; 3 is "demonstrated"; and 4 is "mastery". Or some such other scheme. For example, on a math test on fractions, a student might receive a 4 on the adding fractions standard but a 3 on the multiplying fractions standard. All the other standards for the year for that test would be left "N/A". SBG can exist side-by-side with a percent grade, too.

Ideally, students would be assessed on each standard multiple times. They could demonstrate mastery on the standard on tests, homework, or projects. Students should be able to show at least a 3 on a standard multiple times, say three times, to earn an overall 3 on it. A SBG scheme might also look only at the most recent three times a standard has been assessed. For example, a {2, 3, 3} could be coded as a 2, a {3, 4, 3} coded as a 3, and a {3, 4, 4} coded as a 4. The student earning a 2 wouldn't be penalized; they'd be given another chance to earn a 3. The other two students who earned 3's and 4's wouldn't need another assessment.

One thing I hadn't thought about before: SBG opens the door to indicating to students which test, quiz, and homework questions reveal which level. For example, one could mark questions as 2's, 3's, and 4's. A teacher could explain that getting all the 2's right is a necessarily developmental step but not an endpoint. A student who can answer all the 2-level questions right should recognize the achievement but push himself or herself to do the 3-level questions. Likewise, a student getting all the 3-level questions right should recognize the achievement but push to do 4's. It basically, to use a buzzword, allows the teacher and student to differentiate the work they do. Kids at the top could be told, "When you do your homework, spend half the time on 3's to prove you can do them, and spend the rest of your time doing the 4's for exercise." Kids in the middle could be told, "Spend a third of your time on 2's to prove you can do them, a third on 3's to really exercise, and a third on 4's to see if you can really stretch." Kids at the bottom could be told to spend equal time on 2's and 3's. It gives every ability kid a chance to do comfortable practice and also practice time for growth.

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A completely random idea: why do we have the S.A.T.? I think the biggest reason colleges want to keep it is because it is hard to know what schools' curricula cover and what their grading means. Grades from one school aren't really comparable to grades from another.

But what if the S.A.T. 1 format (you know, one hour each of math, reading, and writing) was basically ditched in favor of the S.A.T. 2 / A.P. subject style tests? Colleges could verify what each schools' transcript actually meant. Even if the tests aren't necessarily accurate for individual kids, they would be accurate for an entire schools' worth of test-takers.

Here's how I imagine it working. Gone are Saturday tests. Gone are students being solely responsible to sign up (this harms poor kids and kids who are the first in their families to go to school). It is the school's responsibility to look at the different test options and sign the kids up for the right tests. These tests would happen in May, during the school day, just like the A.P. tests do.

Math, English, and foreign languages would only need to be tested in the May of junior year. Obviously there would need to be a different exam for each foreign language. The English exam could have two options, say, a regular level exam and an honors level exam. (I imagine a vast chunk of material that overlaps between the two so that scores are comparable.)

Math would be a bit tricky. There would need to be several different exams reflecting the fact that juniors end up in very different places. The school would be responsible for guiding students in the different classes to pick the right exam. I imagine these tests would be about three hours, like the current A.P. tests are.

Sciences and history would be even trickier. Every student basically takes biology, chemistry, and physics but the order differs from school to school. Most schools do biology in freshman year, but some start with physics. In history, the usual sequence is world history, European history, and U.S. history, but there are many deviations from that pattern. However, this seems like it is a surmountable problem for the test designers. The bigger problem to me is making sure that these subject tests don't get bloated and require extensive cramming of facts and instead test higher level scientific and historical reasoning skills. (These subjects are the A.P. tests that come in for the most abuse for this issue.) To keep things balanced and prevent bloat, each of these tests would be kept to one hour.

Basically, I'm talking about expanding the A.P. tests for all students, not just at the honors level but also at the regular level. Everyone submits ten scores: math, English, foreign language, three sciences, three history, plus one more of their choice (could be computer science, or economics, or art history--whatever they want). Junior year, we're talking about a week of testing, but in sophomore and freshman year, it would only be two hours of testing (science plus history), so they would more or less have normal classes during that week. It's even possible to devise a basic schedule:

Monday - English
Tuesday - Sciences + optional tests
Wednesday - Languages
Thursday - History + optional tests
Friday - Mathematics

People complain about the inequity of A.P. testing, and I agree. But making the A.P. tests mandatory and putting the burden on schools solves that problem. And my system obviates the need for giving the S.A.T. 1, which is inequable because preparing for it requires work outside of school. This hurts the poor kids who won't be able get any additional help for it.

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