Saturday, February 28, 2015

Taking the Plunge: My Standards Based Journey

Post by Amanda Halfman: Amanda is in her 7th year of teaching Family Consumer Science and her first year teaching at Bettendorf High School. You can follow Amanda on Twitter @MsHalfman

I hate jargon, theories without practicality, and educational bandwagons. Like many of you I have sat through professional development or a conference and rolled my eyes thinking, “and how does this apply to me?” or “Yeah right, like that would work in my world.” Therefore I am promising you now; I am not trying to sell you anything. Really, that is not my thing.  Instead, this blog posting is about my own endeavor in implementing Standards Based Grading (SBG) into my curriculum, what I have observed in student achievement, and my future goals.  As I like to say to my chiropractor, let’s get crack’n.

Now I know that in many circles of education, SBG is a dirty word, at times viewed derisively and others with confusion.  I myself felt this way in regards to SBG when I was first introduced to the concept. Here is the deal.  Three years ago in my former school district, the article “Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading” by Patricia Scriffiny was shoved in our mailboxes with an attachment that said read it and be prepared to discuss in our next late-start meeting.  The intent was good, the delivery not so much.  What occurred was a brief statement by the admin about SBG, no logistics, and a follow-up statement stating, “SBG is taking over and as a school district we wish to switch over. Thoughts anyone?” Instantly, hands were raised, snarky side conversations buzzed, and the line to the coffee pot grew.  As teachers, we were concerned about losing the power of the F. We did not see the difference between a 1-4 in a grade book or any other point value. And what college accepts Proficient on a high school transcript?

As luck would have it, I was assigned to the SBG data team. Like many of my Career and Technology Education comrades, I was looking for a way to balance assessing students by what they know, what they can do, and what they understand, while not overloading the grade book. (Sorry, but it doesn't make sense to have so many points by the end of the quarter that any project or test must be worth hundreds of points to make a difference in a student’s grade. Doing this simply devalues the work.) In addition, the skills and concepts we work with require continual training and, with enough practice and feedback, mastery.  Skill attainment is not a one and done deal when students are required to demonstrate evolving concepts.  Although my team was a fantastic group, we had no established goals, were lacking direction, and needed assistance from someone other than Google. Although we did try to implement SBG into our curriculum, it ended up looking like a modified point system without any real meaning.  So, I headed back to the drawing board.

 My first “Hallelujah” came from participating in the co-district EdCamp with Bettendorf and my previous school last year.  After attending a session led by Kim Rojas (@krojas711), the discussion led me to reflect on my own pedagogy. This included my lesson delivery, assessments, and the levels of academic achievement in my classroom.  More importantly, I was able to see SBG in action with concrete materials. Kim’s methods made sense. The syllabus and rubrics were well detailed, and verbally justified the spectrum of her grading. Kim’s grade book was simple to follow and evolved with each student as he/she developed their skills under user-friendly standards. This omitted any possibility of assigning arbitrary points. And hello, no more silly extra credit.

The hallelujah grew into a choir of baby angels after I was hired on to the Bettendorf team and made contact with Kim about her work on SBG.  At this time, I was wrapping up my Master’s degree and needed an action research project. I decided to give SBG another shot and made that the focus of my research.  After condensing down hours of research in Marzano-land and harassing specialists on the phone, I realized that for me to really make this work I had to throw all of my previous years of teaching out and start over. I needed to forget many former habits and beliefs and instead establish new ones. For example, I needed to believe all students can achieve mastery. Everyone can master something, but it may come down to a matter of when it happens. Not only is this a positive and optimistic teaching philosophy, but this also holds me responsible to all of my students.

My next steps were to analyze my curriculum standards and rewrite them in student-friendly language, identify learning targets (“I can” statements) for each unit, establish levels of proficiency, and create rubrics for the different ways I would evaluate what my students know, understand, and can do. These tools have become essential in my classes in assisting my students with goal setting and more focused skill attainment. In my observations and record keeping over the past three quarters, I have found students’ scores to be stabilized with fewer failing range and higher proficiency. I attribute much of this to students engaging in the relearning and reassessment process so they can show a higher level of proficiency. In regards to attitude and motivation, my students have oriented themselves towards an optimistic self-fulfilling prophecy. My at-risk students stay engaged in learning - they have hope because their grades now represent what students actually know and can do, not how compliant they are with arbitrary rules. It’s no longer focused on students “playing the game of school”, but rather on their own individual skill attainment.

 For myself, these same tools helped me to hone my lesson plans to each target, critically analyze my use of in-class time, and create equitable methods of assessment, which have all made me a much more pleasant and optimistic teacher.  It gives me the time to focus on the relationships with students. And I am not caught up in the minutiae of grading excessive paperwork. If you decide to take the plunge into SBG, realize this is an educational philosophy abiding by key concepts that are not fixed, but silhouette a vision for practical learning. Feel free to make it your own.  What works for one teacher may not work exactly the same for another.  Passing on this advice about SBG, go in willing to try anything and accept the need to constantly evolve your craft for the ever-changing needs of our students.  I am confident you won’t be sorry you took the plunge.

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