July 4, 2016

Two Questions Around Standards Based Learning

Last week I completed two days, approximately nine hours of instruction at AFT-WV (American Federation of Teachers – my union) summer camp for teachers.  I’ve been honored to serve as an instructor for the week-long event the last three summers now.  The emphasis is always on technology integration.  This year I decided to take the opportunity to engage participants in an interactive conversation on grading and assessment.  This represented about two hours of our class time.  Over the last year, I had developed a two-part academy, via Nearpod, designed to expose a staff to standards based learning.  The goal or target was to generate momentum for a staff to begin improving the way they communicate learning to students.  I had 20 participants in my class at AFT-WV summer camp and they represented a wide variety of content and grade levels.  I wasn’t sure what to expect as this was the first time I had ever used the content I designed.  My participants stepped up and fully engaged in some incredible discussion.  I was really shocked.  Navigating the waters of grading and assessment requires some intense reflection about century-old practices that have dominated classrooms and teacher mindsets.  During the lesson, as the participants began to really consider how to more accurately communicate learning to students, they brought to my attention some common problems or even misconceptions that I remember grappling with during my own journey towards a culture of learning that is standards based.  I’m going to offer these issues to you as they were offered to me, then I’ll follow up with my response.

Derek, it does make sense when you asked us to consider if we believe all students learn on the same timetable or conveyor belt, as you put it.  But, I can’t figure out how you seem to manage different assessment schedules in the same classrooms?  That almost seems like a moonshot idea that isn’t practical or possible in the real classroom.

Penalized for learning different rate

First, I’m a math teacher, so this issue was something I really struggled with for some time.  I recall passing out tests in my classroom and as I walked around handing the test out to students, I would almost cringe as I placed that test on some students’ desks because I knew that student wasn’t ready.  At that time I began to leverage technology quite a bit more in my classroom.  I could tell when he or she hadn’t completed the assignments and tasks I had prepared and the formative results indicated such.  Here I was handing out a summative opportunity to students that I knew weren’t quite ready.  I asked myself “would this student be ready if I just gave them an extra day?  Was there any data I could view that would indicate where this student was struggling?  Could I meet with that student in a 1-1 or small group setting to better prepare him or her for this summative test?”  Of course, in my mind, none of those questions were possible because I had asked students to learn according my timetable.  Why?  After much thought and reflection, the only answer I could come up with was that my timetable was easier and more convenient for me.  If you’re reading, stop there and think.  Ok, I hope you’ve given some thought to my answer for why I was so committed to my timetable for learning.  At this point, I think it’s safe to say that little can improve in your classroom or your school if our focus is on keeping teachers comfortable, keeping instruction convenient, and keeping our work easy.

If you decide to allow multiple pathways to that summative, standards aligned, assessment you create, I think you’ll find that what happens is not quite what you had in mind.  See, my participants last week had this thought in their minds that if they had 23 students in class, nearly all 23 would choose a different day to take that summative assessment.  WOW!  How in the world could a teacher manage 23 different days of testing, provide adequate feedback to those students after their tests, then keep them busy while the rest of the class tested for days after.  Let’s be clear.  That doesn’t happen.  In my experience, being more fluid with when your students test means you’re not as concerned with when but more concerned with results (learning).  I think you’ll find that most students still move through your curriculum, those assignments you’ve designed as opportunities for students to practice or engage in that new skill or concept, together.  This is especially true if you successfully nurture a culture of collaboration in your classroom.  If students know that talking, sharing, and working together is appropriate and encouraged, learning rates for students will begin to merge together.  You’ll find that your attention is given, more appropriately, to those students who begin to move at a slower pace.


Students Helping


Let me give you an example of how allowing more choices about when students test will actually benefit the teacher.  In my own journey towards improving the way I communicate learning to my students, I began shortening the tests I gave to my students.  I more accurately aligned my tests to specific learning targets I had communicated to my students.  So instead of a 25-30 question/problem test that likely takes an entire 45-minute period to complete, I started offering shorter, targeted assessments.  This allowed me to provide 1-1 feedback to students immediately after completing those assessments.  If all 23 students take that assessment on the same day, it becomes more difficult to meet 1-1 with each student after their assessment.  Time becomes an issue, I just can’t meet with all of them in 45 minutes.  However, if 12 students take that assessment on Thursday, I can then meet 1-1 with all 12 after they complete their assessment.  This conference becomes crucial to the learning process.  My goal is for each student to leave my conference knowing where they are, where they need to be, and how they can get there.  Students leave my conference knowing exactly what they need to do to remediate and strengthen those learning targets in which they failed to demonstrate proficiency.  Some of those 12 leave my conference and go back to work.  Some students provided evidence of learning in every standard or learning target.  My point is, if 7 more students test on Friday and go through my 1-1 conference after, that leaves just 4 students for me to check on before pushing students ahead to the next set of learning targets.  It’s more manageable than you think.  As I often tell educators, find someone who is already doing this and lean on them.  That’s what I did!

The second issue or misconception I want to address is around the idea of allowing retakes or redos.

Derek, if you allow retakes and redos on every summative assessment, what do you do if you hand a student a test and he or she says “I don’t want to do that one, I’ll just take the retake”?

This was a great question and one that I’ve heard before from educators at the beginning of this journey.  Hopefully my last response brought some clarity to this issue.  Is this student ready for that test?  Let’s consider why that student is saying “I’ll just take the retake.”  If that student was ready for the test or at least felt they were ready, what reason would they have to not take the test?  Another issue here may be that students have learned that your retakes are easier than the first version of the test.  Be sure your summative assessments, all versions, are clearly aligned to learning targets you’ve already communicated to students.  In fact, it’s good practice, especially at the secondary level, to allow students to explore what would be considered mastery of your learning targets.  For example, take the following learning target from 9th grade language arts: I can cite strong and thorough textual evidence that supports my inferences and analysis of the text.  After providing your instruction, try allowing your students to provide examples of mastery and examples that do not provide evidence of mastery.  How would they measure if another student could demonstrate mastery of this standard?  You may find some deep learning occurs during this activity.  To summarize, if this issue appears in your classroom, it’s likely you’re placing an emphasis on when students learn and it appears this student isn’t ready to demonstrate learning.  Otherwise, you may have an issue with the validity of your retakes.

April 27, 2015

Update: Measuring Student Learning

Perhaps the largest impact that this blog has had on my practice can be seen through my journey of improving my efforts to measure student learning.  I officially entered the waters of standards-based grading 2 years ago.  If you’ve made it to this blog it’s possible you’re wondering “what’s so wrong with Mr Oldfield’s practices of grading, assessment, and measuring student learning that he needed to begin a journey.”  Or you may simply be curious about what standards-based grading means.  Regardless of the reason, I’ve taken the opportunity to record, quite often, about my progress towards refining my grading practices.  I hesitate to say grading practices because it’s much more than grading.


First, it’s necessary to understand that grades are nothing more than communication.  Even with poor grading practices, they are still nothing more than communication.  Some practices result in better communication than others, but grades are still nothing more than communication.  I personally believe grades without consistent, descriptive feedback do a pretty poor job of communicating learning.  More on that later.

This post is intended to be about my journey so I’ll try to refrain from pointing out flaws in others’ practices, but you may refer to my own admissions in this post written in Oct of 2013.  Since then, a student that follows me on Twitter humorously responded to one of my conversations with other educators about the topic of assessing learning.  blendedjourneyIn reflection, I’ve cleaned up several bad practices since then.  I want to update readers on my current progress and goals moving forward.  To remind readers, I teach 8th grade math at a 6-8 middle school in Parkersburg, WV.  My wife is a secondary ELA teacher and she often reminds me that in her opinion standards-based learning is more easily adopted in the math classroom because of the skill-building nature of the content.  Nonetheless, cultivating learners is something for every classroom.  I’ve developed a system where most students practice, with great persistence, to demonstrate proficiency in the targeted skill before they attempt a short assessment.  I really don’t incorporate homework, which is more reflective of the blended classroom than my opinion towards homework.  I offer them a barrage of data that allows my students to self-assess how ready they are before they sit down to perform on an assessment.  I’ll refer you to this old post that includes a piece about how I incorporate data into my classroom, but I’ve added measurement tools since and those tools aren’t reflected in that post.  At the time of my previous blog post on grading, I was struggling with the management of student retakes and pacing.  That means when students would complete an assessment, but the results indicated they needed more practice in specific areas, I had difficulty managing which assessment that student(s) had completed (version 1, 2, or 3?).  I also felt the pressure of maintaining pace (and overall classroom management) once half of my class had completed the assessment with proficiency and the other half was still in the process of improvement.  Admittedly, those two or three items were obstacles in the journey.  I’ve maintained my practice of providing short, tiered assessments.  This means that my assessments are often 4-8 problems.  Given the specific content and skill, I try to tier those assessments beginning with the most basic idea I intend to measure (aligned to content standards) and ending with the problem that requires higher ordered tasks such as justifying, analyzing, or application.  Designing assessments this way makes me pay special attention to the verbs.  I still fight myself to avoid restricting my measurement to verbs like compute and evaluate.  In math, these verbs result in items that are easy to measure, but often distort the amount of learning that is communicated.  For example, a student may demonstrate proficiency at a high level in evaluating the slope of a line.  But if the measurement stops there, neither the teacher or the student will know if he/she can explain the slope/rate of change and y-intercept in the context of a real world situation.  See: InterpretingGraphs1

To improve my management of retakes and pacing I transitioned to paperless tests.  I began to offer all my assessments on Google Forms.  This means that students are provided a URL in order to access my assessments through a web-enabled device.  Students input their name at the beginning of each assessment and those results are sent to me immediately in a spreadsheet.  I quickly complete the assessment myself under the name Answer Key.  This allows me to keep a line in the spreadsheet as the solutions, allowing quick and easy checking of answers once a student completes the assessment.  See a screenshot below with the red cells indicating incorrect answers.  The yellow line indicates the answer key.  Student names have been blurred.  Notice the different dates in the timestamp.  YearinReview2bResultsYou can see that there are more cells that didn’t show up in the screenshot.  These particular results indicate to me areas that my students could use more support and practice.  Remember that I try to tier the problems, so the problems at the end of the test require a higher level of thinking in order to complete, which is likely the reason why students got the first couple problems correct.  Those problems required the lowest level of understanding, mostly procedural.  I conference 1:1 immediately after students complete these assessments.  We look at their results next to a blank test and together we work out their mistakes.  I have incorporated a practice of requiring students to assign a grade to their test before I even look at their results.  Before I went paperless I was using the red/green/yellow stickers you typically see on yard sale items.  Students were using the stickers to indicate their own self-evaluation of their results before they submitted the test.  On the digital assessments, the last item is always a self-evaluation rubric on which students assign themselves an A-F letter.  I believe the feedback provided during the conference, the self-evaluation piece, and the efforts to correct mistakes have made a tremendous impact on the culture of learning in my classroom.  The idea I try to align with 100% of the time is where am I now, where am I headed, how do I get there?  I make sure students leave the post-assessment conference with an idea of what needs to be done before attempting a retake.  The spreadsheet does all the organization that I was previously doing quite poorly.  The spreadsheet also offers insight on what questions students are missing the most.  I heard someone say once why assess if you aren’t going to do anything with the results?

IMG_20150427_152335Observation of my classroom would likely look chaotic and unorganized to some.  Acknowledging that when the student learns isn’t as important as if that student learns means that I take full advantage of peer to peer interactions to maximize opportunities for students to learn from one another.  In a blended classroom like mine, the teacher operates as much more of a facilitator constantly monitoring and managing learning opportunities.  This means that I allow data to determine seating arrangements, small group instruction, and peer tutoring arrangements.  I believe that the allowance of different paces has benefited all students, particularly those students who would not benefit from strict deadlines on learning.

IMG_20150427_151726The only scores that I input in our online gradebook are the results of my assessments.  These opportunities make up only a small portion of the learning opportunities in class.  Many believe that unless class assignments are graded, scored, and recorded, students won’t do them.  I make a genuine attempt to provide my students well rounded meals with an emphasis on presentation, rigor, and real-world application.  I believe if you provide students an uncommon learning experience they’ll reward you with uncommon effort and attitudes (Dave Burgess).  CYMERA_20150427_171802I honestly can’t judge or begin to justify what would work in other classrooms, but I believe many of my efforts included in this post and others support the culture of learning that needs to be developed in all classrooms.  My students will complete an anonymous survey at the end of the year that will help to provide me feedback about their experience in my classroom.  I take those results each year and look at them objectively.  They often help determine areas that I need to communicate better to them and their parents.  IMG_20150427_152228Moving forward, I hope to expand on the variety and quality of opportunities for students to demonstrate learning.  I know that my students would benefit from having a variety of ways to demonstrate learning.  I have attempted and failed to get my students blogging this year.  I have multi-seat desktops in my room.  Each multi-seat runs up to 6 other multi-seat units on only 2gb of ram.  Despite this, I am grateful for the possibilities this lab provides.  It has completely transformed my practice.  However, I feel I am limited on the variety of ways my students can demonstrate learning by creating.  I would love to incorporate video or audio more often but the technical aspect has eluded me so far.  Despite the improved culture in my classroom, my students are still forgetting more than they retain.  The blogs were intended to serve as a record of learning, but I found quickly my students didn’t enjoy the writing.  I could probably have set that standard a bit higher and cultivated a more enjoyable experience, rather than extra work.  There’s got to be a way to incorporate images and typed responses in a manner that would support retention and record learning.  Of course, I’m open to suggestions!

Thank you for reading this far.  I appreciate the opportunity to learn from others and I encourage you to leave a comment if you have any questions or want to provide some input, criticism, or encouragement.

Derek Oldfield

September 18, 2014

Grading & Assessment: 2014 Version

Grading & Assessments

I’m passionate about the transformative effects that more powerful grading practices can & will have on Ss achievement.  I’ve been an educator for 5 years now and I’ve never had any building-level or district-level professional development on effective grading practices.  That doesn’t mean those sessions and conversations don’t exist, as they very well may.  I have just never had the opportunity to be a part of them, aside from a small group of teachers who met last year to investigate the topic (thank you Robin Stout @rsstout).  From what I have gathered and experienced, the reason the topic of grading and assessment is often neglected is because many building level administrators fear mutiny if they were to make any effort to ignite a conversation on effective grading practices, or worse, ineffective grading practices.  Perhaps many in leadership feel it’s a topic best left alone as the chore of admitting fault in traditional and long practiced grading procedures is just too monumental to overcome.  Also, it’s certainly possible that some administrators don’t feel qualified enough to stimulate conversations on grading practice.

If it weren’t for #sblchat on Twitter, I would still be exercising terrible grading practices and allowing my grades to communicate very little about student learning.  My wife would say I take on problems that I have no business carrying.  It’s quite possible I’m doing that with this post.  To be brutally honest, this is my way of engaging in conversation (with myself) and reflecting on my own grading practices.  I genuinely feel that the topic of effective grading and assessment needs to be an ongoing and constant conversation among staffs.  At the risk of looking like an accuser with gavel in hand, I cannot say that poor grading practices are in use everywhere or even that poor grading practices are rampant in our public schools.  I also can’t say that most educators are using grades to communicate learning as it is aligned to content standards.  The lack of quality conversations on grading and assessment in public education leads one to believe that grading practices are a teacher’s own business not to be shared with everyone else.  Yet, we’re all using the same A-F system to communicate learning progress to students, parents, and other teachers.  In addition to that thought, have you ever asked students or parents what an A means?  If you ask 10 students or parents, you’ll likely get 10 different answers.

The journey to improving grading practices and removing items in your practice that don’t reflect learning is not an easy one.  This is why I feel it’s imperative that effective grading practices be a constant and ongoing discussion, especially in secondary education where a teacher is responsible for measuring the learning outcomes of over 100 students in many cases.  The goal of this post was to ignite some conversation and I’m going to borrow many of these talking points from QualityInstruction.org but they are points that are discussed weekly at #sblchat Wednesday 9pm EST.

  • Are behavior and attendance issues separate from student grades in my class?

  • Am I familiar with the standards covered by my course and have I unpacked those standards?  What will I tolerate as mastery of each standard?  All teachers of the same grade level or course should have a unified level of tolerance for mastery.  In many cases, what one teacher identifies as mastery is far different from what another teacher accepts as mastery.  How often have you heard another teacher say “well I taught that for 3 weeks, they learned it before they left my class”?

  • How often do I communicate learning targets for my students?  Do they know where to aim?

  • Can I connect each mark in the gradebook to a specific learning target?

  • Do I avoid grading practice worksheets and other formative assessments?

  • Do you give zeroes?  Are they punitive or do they indicate a measure of learning?
  • Do I avoid grading work on which students can copy or cheat?

  • Can I assign grades that reflect learning rather than completion?

  • Do I allow retakes and redos?

  • Do I allow students multiple chances and ways to demonstrate learning?

  • Do I provide descriptive feedback to every student after every assessment?  How do I communicate where they are, where they need to be, and how they can get there?


If you can confidently answer yes to any of these questions, congratulations for employing a measure of effective grading practices already.  If you can admit that you answer no to any of those questions, congratulations for being a reflective educator open minded enough to admit errors in your own practice.

Again, I owe my personal growth in the area of grading and assessment to #sblchat on Twitter.  Educators like @garnet_hillman, @WHSRowe, @drjolly, and many others who willingly share their advice, experiences, and most importantly, support.  I can also thank experts like Rick Wormeli @rickwormeli2 and Ken O’Connor @kenoc7 for being available to provide support and answer questions from novices like myself.


December 28, 2013

Goals for 2014

I have a hard time condensing my posts to a couple paragraphs so I’m really going to try to keep this one short and to the point.

  • I want Edcamp Parkersburg to become a reality.  I know it can happen.  I’ve got some hurdles in the road but I think some people have stepped forward that can help me knock those hurdles down.  I’ve connected with individuals that have hosted successful Edcamps and I’ve got an appointment to speak with Edcamp foundation chair Kristen Swanson January 7.  I think this could become an annual event showcasing the best learning experiences for teachers.  There is a tremendous need and tremendous potential for this event.  It could be a game-changer for classrooms in this region.  
  • I have developed a passion for giving my students unique learning experiences that are often neglected in my traditional classrooms.  Activities of higher-quality are more difficult to measure and activities of low-quality are often easy to measure, thus low-quality learning activities are what our students get 99% of the time.  I suspect that teachers are used to these low-quality learning experiences because they are easy to measure and I’ve found that a lot of teachers only invest time into things that can be measured.  I personally feel that the things which aren’t easily measured are probably more important in life.  I would like to invest more time and energy into activities that improve communication, problem-solving, perseverance, and self-directed learning.  Maybe this will come through more meaningful projects chosen by the students.  Maybe it will occur through more communication and discussion from problems like these.  I’ve not arrived at a definite solution here, but I’ll keep trying.
  • I want to continue to refine my grading practices.  For example, since I started SBG, I have realized that I actually need to assess more often and reduce the number of standards present in my official tests.  I had started doing this, but I think I need to go even further.  I need to not be concerned with the number of grades in my grade book but rather the quality and validity of what those grades represent.  Organization is not my strength, but I need to be more organized with my tests, retakes, etc.  I need to incorporate more writing and communicating into my tests somehow.  This is a big part of my classroom, but is nearly absent from my assessments.
  • Entertain the idea of having a radical type of parent-teacher conference.  I’d like to engage parents in a what’s coming up learning experience for Mr. Oldfield’s math class.  I’d like parents to know how they can help their student and what to look for from my class.  I learned from our last student-lead conferences that there are still a number of parents who want to be actively involved in their child’s learning, they just don’t know how.  I’d like to show them some ways they can be active and carry some weight in this partnership.
  • Reach more homes during school orientation, August of 2014.  I always reach the homes of my homebase students and they get a full dose of how to communicate with me.  I always miss out on the other homes from other homebases.  Since I still have those students as part of my classes, it’s imperative that they get a more worthy dose of my communication lines.  I actively employ several lines of communication and I’d like to have more homes on board.  I just have to find a way to reach them first.
  • Reach every student and home with a positive note at least once during the second half of the school year.  I’ve also got to do a better job of documenting this somehow
  • Last, I want to continue doing the things I’ve started in 2013.  I know if I can just continue engaging in the learning experiences I started this year, I’ll continue to grow as an educator and a leader.

*I reserve the right to add to this list as I see fit.  For now, these are my goals heading into 2014.

December 16, 2013

My experience with flexible grouping

I began the school year with a fair amount of homogeneous grouping of my students.  I was notified of this prior to the school year so it wasn’t a surprise.  I’m writing this as a reflection of the process and how I’ve made it a successful one.  This subject is extremely sensitive among educators and a quick Google search will reveal advocates and opponents with relatively solid arguments.

It didn’t take long before I realized which class of students could be described as those students who previously had struggled in math class.  I invested a lot of time and energy trying to empathize with them about their prior experiences in math classes.  Their experiences in math classes were far different than mine, so it was important that I try to get an accurate picture of their feelings towards math.  I could imagine how awful it must be to walk into math class feeling behind everyone else (in a heterogeneous class).  I could imagine how hopeless it would feel sitting down to take test after test I was not ready for.  I could imagine how frustrated it would be to receive a homework assignment that I had no clue how to do and no one at home to help me with it.  I could imagine the fear and embarrassment of being called upon in math class when I really didn’t understand what I was asked to do.

In the first few weeks of school, I went about my teaching just as I had every other year.  I was trying my best to keep every class at the same pace, on the same schedule.  After all, it’s a pain when your classes are all at different levels, right?  You’ve got to plan a different lesson for each class, design appropriate instructional materials, identify weaknesses and determine efficient ways to address those weaknesses.  It finally dawned on me that I was fighting the very thing I had asked for in the first place.  I also realized I was part of the problem for those classes of students best described by the previous paragraph.

I made a silent commitment to myself and to those students that I would change their feelings towards math and would stop the relentless battering of fear, embarrassment, and frustration.  Early in an 8th grade math course, it doesn’t take long to realize which students aren’t proficient in adding and subtracting negative numbers.  I’ve taught 8th grade math long enough to know that a weakness in a fundamental skill such as adding and subtracting negative numbers will lead to a fearful, embarrassing, and frustrating year of 8th grade math.  I had to make a change in my classes.

I realized that until these fundamental skills like adding/subtracting and multiplying integers were strengthened, there was no reason to race through the curriculum covering concept after concept because I knew my students would never see mastery or proficiency with their current skill-set.  I also realized that I needed to reverse their perceptions about math.  This became a turning point for me and those students who had previously struggled in math class.

I decided to spend a week on skills that I knew those students could perform with a measure of proficiency.  We practiced reducing common fractions.  We practiced turning a fraction or decimal into a percent.  This completely changed the outlook on what I was able to do next.  Now my students had experienced some success.  They could feel the tide was finally turning.  I was able to get more of them talking in math class.  They were so appreciative and responsive to my attempts to give them something they could complete!  This set the tone for the weeks to follow.  I began to really differentiate my plans and preparation for these classes.  I felt relieved of the pressure and demands to maintain pace and cover the material.  Now my students could come to math class with hope and a positive attitude.  Now I could come to class with hope and a positive attitude.

I know what you’re thinking.  “Do the students realize which classes are the ‘slow class’?  How do you implement flexible groups without stigmatizing students?”  Developing that trust and honesty with students is crucial.  Students need to know their teacher is out for the best interests and wants them to succeed.  Albeit, this is true no matter how your students are grouped, but it is even more important to develop this early when students are grouped by ability.  Give your students a chance to succeed.  That chance needs to be much different than the one they were previously given.  Students need to see that you’re willing to adjust the pace of instruction so give them the opportunity to provide feedback about how the class is going.  See a version of my students’ responses about my class.  When you come to a fork in the road and not sure what to do, ask the students.  I also incorporate Standards Based Learning and Grading, which allows my students to retake assessments designed to demonstrate mastery of standards.  When I hear students who have historically struggled in math say “I finally got a 100% on something” or “I haven’t got an A on anything in math since fourth grade” I know that the student appreciates my efforts.

I’ve identified a few things that have made this transition successful for me and my students:

  • Adjust the pace!  One-size does not fit all.  The same target is OK, but use a variety of vehicles to get there.  When I get to a fork in the road and not sure whether to move on or stay put, I ask the students.
  • Let your students feel successful early and often.  This is very important and will help remove any evidence of the stigma that clouds ability-grouping.
  • Be open and honest about what skills need filled in and what needs demonstrated in order to move.
  • Actually move students.  This is NOT a static group.  Students need to flex and be moved to classes where they’ll remain challenged.  To date, I’ve moved 11 students with the help of my school counselor.  Students will catch on if no one’s schedule ever gets changed.  Be wary of the stigma.
  • Give students a voice and receive their feedback.  Students respond more positively when they know they have a voice in the process.  Every student in my lowest class understands they are there to succeed, I believe in them, and the focus is learning.  The alternative has not been forgotten.
  • I feel this is the knot that ties it all together: communicate communicate communicate.  You can’t be too positive.  I send at least 15 positive messages via text, email, card, or pat-on-the-back every week.  It’s actually easy to do once you start.
October 23, 2013

More HW does not equal more rigor

I just want to update parents, students, and educators on how my experiment with Standards-Based Grading and less homework is going.  Today marks the end of our first grading period here at Wood County Schools, WV.  I created a Google form where my students answered one question: what class was your hardest during this 1st 9 weeks?  I know my results are based purely on student opinion.  It’s tough to measure what class is really the “toughest” to students.  But nonetheless, it was a short, easy survey and students had every opportunity to answer honestly as the survey was completely anonymous.  All I did was make sure students didn’t answer more than once.  I was curious about how they would respond.  Would students consider my class one of the easiest because I give far less homework than the rest of my teammates?  Does assigning more homework increase rigor in a classroom?  Is there a correlation?  I think the results speak for themselves.  As of 4:00, Wednesday October 23, there were 77 total responses.

  • Reading: 5
  • Science: 12
  • WV Studies: 13
  • English: 17
  • Math: 30

Now, I don’t think it’s right to apply this data to any other class and base any conclusions off of the specific homework/grading procedures represented in those classes.   For example, I wouldn’t suggest that since I assign less HW, my class is more rigorous.  Nor would I suggest that since English assigns the most HW, that class is less rigorous.  I can only apply my students’ responses to my experiment with SBG and no HW.  I do think it’s ok for me to conclude that, according to the data, my students do consider my class challenging.  It appears that I don’t have to assign HW to make my class challenging.  Challenging students doesn’t have to be related to the amount of HW.  Unfortunately, I wonder how many educators would agree with that statement?

October 14, 2013

Grading: A Work in Progress

I just want to take a moment and reiterate my grading policy and why it has changed so much this year.  I have decided to take a step towards Standards Based Grading this year.  Before I explain SBG, I’ll tell you why.  Early in the year I had a discussion with all of my classes about what an A means.  I received responses such as: “It means you’ve learned everything you should have learned” or “It means you don’t need any help” or “An A means you’re awesome at what we’ve been doing.”  These are real responses from students.  I typically followed that response with “Then what does a B mean?”  Or “Do any students really learn everything, 100% on every single assignment?”  I think you get the picture.  It is extremely hard to define what an A represents, or a B, or a C, etc.  If you asked 10 teachers, you’re liable to get 8-10 different responses.  So I decided I wanted a better way to grade, and I wanted my students to know where they were at, what the needed to learn, and how to close that gap.  More importantly, I wanted them to know what they didn’t learn.  That’s really what SBG is all about.  It represents a style of grading based on mastery.

For several reasons, I’ve had far fewer grades this year than I’ve ever had.  When I reflected on how much of my class time was spent on trading papers to grade, passing out red pens, trying to provide feedback after the grading, and collecting all the papers (the typical process I went through to grade a HW assignment); I realized just how much precious class time was wasted on grading.  Not to mention how much time I was spending outside of class organizing late work, keeping folders for absent students, recording grades, updating LiveGrades, etc.  On top of that, I noticed that my students really don’t know what an A, B, C, D, or F really means anyways.  So instead, I decided to assign less HW and provide more feedback rather than grades.  If an assignment isn’t worth my feedback, it’s probably not a good assignment, right?  Why should the students even do assignments that receive no feedback from the teacher?

I have one class with only 5 grades so far this 9 weeks.  It’s not because they haven’t been doing anything.  In previous years, I’d give out an assignment and while handing out to the students, I could almost predict which students weren’t ready for the assignment, based on what I had seen from them in class or on the situation that existed at home.  As I walked around the room, that’s what I was thinking.  I probably cringed, literally, as I handed them their assignment.  Those students would usually cringe as well.  I would hand them the assignment, take the assignment on it’s due date, and record a terrible grade.  How ludicrous is that?  I could predict a student’s bad grade on an assignment, before that student even looked at the assignment.  Yet, I still gave them the assignment.  I even acted disappointed when it was returned half-finished or wasn’t returned at all!  Early in my career, I would commence with 10-20 minute dissertations about how students needed to consult their notes, read the textbook, practice at home, and spend more time preparing for these assignments.  I can now understand that what the students heard was “This is all your fault, next time you should at least cheat so you can get a better grade on this assignment, and how about paying attention in class next week.”  This caused me to seriously question the purpose of assignments.  Not just homework, but assignments, especially graded assignments.  Underneath the umbrella of SBG is this thought that graded assignments should be the students’ opportunity to demonstrate his/her learning (mastery).  Unless all students learn everything at the exact same pace, ideally assignments shouldn’t be given/collected at the exact same time.  This is where my feedback enters the discussion.  I do give assignments, but I rarely grade them.  I try to work hand-in-hand with each student to support them in such a way that allows them to learn how to do the assignment correctly, with 100% accuracy.  They turn in that assignment when they’re ready.  I firmly believe this philosophy has drastically decreased the amount of cheating in my classroom.  Students know they don’t have to cheat because if they return an assignment incomplete or unfinished, Mr. Oldfield will understand why it’s incomplete.  The why is very important and requires pinpoint monitoring of student progress on each specific learning objective (standard).  Thankfully, for me, technology does most of that monitoring (see http://derekoldfield.edublogs.org/blended-learning-training/ for more information about my classroom).  But believe it or not, most of my classroom instruction is without the use of technology.  My students use dry-erase boards and markers almost every day.  This is how I provide feedback and monitor which students are ready to demonstrate their learning and which students are not.  I can easily check a dry-erase board for the right answer and provide appropriate feedback when a wrong answer is given.  Students also serve as a “checkers” in my class, so at some points, there are 4-5 people providing feedback during problem-solving time.  All of this is an effort to move students towards mastery and provide them with the support they need to get there.

My assessments used to be 25-30 question exams that would generally take the whole period to complete.  They were designed to measure proficiency on a whole host of skills, sometimes 6-7 standards.  Now, my assessments are short and targeted.  They are typically 10 questions and I’ll make at least 3 versions.  These are assessments that can be completed in 10 minutes or less if the students know what they’re doing.  They are designed to assess proficiency on 2-3 standards.  Every assessment is a short-answer, explanation type of response.  All assessments are done in class, and they’re never sent home.  I allow my students to retake any assessment and record the grade that they earn.  Two weeks ago I had a student take an assessment and score 20%.  Would you say that student was ready for the assessment at that point?  I still scored it, and recorded the 20%.  But together, she and I looked at the 8 questions she missed and tried to apply the corrections.  She knew exactly which standards to go back and review/practice on Khan Academy.  She spent the following week practicing and strengthening her proficiency in those specific skills.  She completed the 2nd version of that assessment and scored a 90%.  I replaced the 20% with a 90% because that was a more accurate reflection of her learning.  I strongly feel that grades should reflect learning.  The most common misconception in many classrooms is that grades should also reflect responsibility, at least some measure of responsibility.  I whole-heartedly agree that students should be taught responsibility.  I also think they should be taught tolerance, empathy, perseverance, self-awareness, etc.  If we don’t give grades for those other worthy investments, why do we insist on giving a grade for responsibility?

In conclusion, I have learned that implementing SBG is not easy.  I’ll highlight these 8 principles I have relied on:

  • Failure to learn is not always the student’s fault.  Take account of your own classroom, how engaged are your students?  What       modifications could you make to account for poor behavior?(seating arrangements, visuals, etc) What props could you include that would make your lesson more engaging?  What passions could ignite in your students by connecting your lesson to the real-world?  Could you dress up as a character to help your students connect your lesson to the appropriate time in history?  What could put inside a box that would excite curiosity among your students and increase engagement?  There are numerous questions to ask before each lesson.  Creativity comes from asking questions.

  • Provide multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning and record the most accurate representation of that learning.
  • Provide more feedback, less grades.  Feedback is the vehicle that drives students towards mastery.  With appropriate feedback, the student will want to improve, and know how to improve.  With no feedback, the student will know how meaningless the assignment was.
  • Be transparent!  Let your students know where you’re going, what holes to fill, and how to get there.
  • Be sure that your assessments are short and targeted.
  • You want your students to be responsible?  Tolerant?  Empathetic?  That’s great!  Please don’t include grades intended to measure those character traits alongside the same grades intended to reflect learning.  Measure them separately and communicate that to the home.  I’m sure mom and dad would love to know how responsible, empathetic, and tolerant their child is in school anyways.
  • Let them fail.  Failure leads to perseverance, a skill rarely measured, but ultimately valuable.  You can build this atmosphere of perseverance in problem solving in your classroom by allowing your students to fail.
  • Praise!  Praise students for the effort and perseverance.  Most of communication with home should be in the form of praise.  Don’t get stuck communicating only negatives.
October 6, 2013

The Value of Failure

Let your child fail.  That was my initial reaction to a recent message that showed up in my inbox.  We live in a “little league” age of celebrating success.  In t-ball, every player gets to bat.  In little league, every player gets a trophy.  I don’t disagree with instructional league rules by any means.  However, at what age does failure begin to have value?

I was sitting in a department meeting recently when a district-level administrator asked me if I had analyzed test scores of last year’s students to determine if Khan Academy actually had any effect on those students’ test scores.  I replied honestly, and said that I had only checked on a handful of students’ scores.  But as I continued to ponder her request, I lost my appetite for looking up any more test results.  I realize that no matter what those test results may show, they don’t reveal one of the most important skills being taught in my class.  They might reveal which students learned how to apply the Pythagorean Theorem in a real-life situation, but what is not tested is perhaps the most important.  Tests of that sort do nothing to promote the value of failure.

Upon reading that recent message from my inbox, I wanted to shout out “let your child fail.”  The shouting was not due to frustration, rather to be sure that my voice was heard by many.  And when I say fail, I mean fall.  Let them fall.  How can we learn to get back up if we never fall?  Or if someone else always picks us up.  Too often today, students are given every possible opportunity NOT to fail.  But why?  Why are we afraid of failure?  Putting students in frustrating and uncomfortable situations is a tricky part of my job.  I have to find that zone where students are frustrated enough to seek out a solution THEMSELVES.  I hear this a lot, “Well I’ll just get my mom to help me.”  There’s nothing wrong with phoning a friend or a mom.  My message to parents, though, is to let your child fail.  Sometimes teachers put students in a certain situation so they will fail.  Because until they fail, they’ll never seek out that solution themselves.  Tests don’t measure whether a student has developed the fortitude to seek out a solution himself, or whether they’ve developed persistence in problem solving.  Even if a student doesn’t arrive at the correct solution, the journey or the number of attempts is often what is more important.  I always try to make sure that I’ve directed my students to places and opportunities where they can develop, create, or find a solution.  But I try to stop there.  Too often are students lead, directed, and told which solution is correct.  We call it “spoon-feeding”.  And students know all about this.  They know all about it, because it hits them like a brick wall the first time a teacher or parent shrugs their shoulders and refuses to help them at the first sign of adversity.  I want my daughter to be a successful, hard-working citizen.  I know that won’t come without learning to fail, get back up, and seek out a solution.

The picture below is a graph of a student’s last 35 problems on adding/subtracting negative numbers.  You’ll find the number of problems completed at the bottom the bars.  The red bars indicate a wrong answer was inputted first, but eventually the student arrived at the correct answer.  You’ll also see that the student’s longest streak correct was 11.  This particular student has been struggling adding and subtracting negative numbers for quite a while, but has just recently shown some progress.  We’ve exhausted ourselves on learning strategies.  We’ve talked about spending money, owing money, number lines, football plays, temperature, etc.  The student has struggled to find a solution that works consistently enough to stick.  However, it appears the student is finally getting it.  This particular student has learned a lot about persistence in problem solving.  The student has sought out the answer him/herself and used multiple resources along the way.  Consider what this student learned throughout this journey, in addition to learning how to correctly add and subtract negative numbers.  All because she was allowed to fail.


October 1, 2013

One pace does NOT fit all

Since I began using Khan Academy in my classroom I’ve really embraced this concept that one pace does not fit all.  Sal Khan’s book The One World School House, highlights the fact that most every teacher teaches with a “one pace fits all” approach.  This fact is really of no fault of the teacher’s, because frankly, it’s extremely difficult to adjust the pace of every student.  It’s difficult enough to manage 100 students progressing at the same pace.

Fortunately, technology can do some things better than teachers.  Khan Academy was built specifically to manage 100 students learning math at a different pace.  Khan Academy liberates the teacher from managing multiple worksheets, quizzes, and tests of 100 different students.  Instead, that time can be devoted to doing what few teachers have time to do: teach students.  Believe it or not, most of my week is spent sitting or kneeling right next to a student or group of students solving problems.  This post is about how I adjust the pace to better meet the needs of all my students.  This doesn’t come without it’s frustrations, mistakes, and successes.  There is no manual for meeting every need represented in a middle school math classroom.  If you imagine a student’s math skills like a block of swiss cheese, they all have holes.  Some have many holes.  I have taken the approach that if I can fill as many holes as possible, that student will have a better chance for success.  We all know that students don’t learn at the same pace, so if given the opportunity to adjust the pace for all students, it needs to be done.  This is especially true in a math classroom where skills build one upon the other.  The pictures below represent ONE class of students and the topics they were working on during class.  In a class of 20 students, you’ll see about 6 different skill represented.  Each of these students is receiving the proper instruction and practice in the area specific to them.  They won’t move on to the next “level” until they’ve beaten this one.

CYMERA_20131001_143707 (1)



If your student comes home and tells you that Mr. Oldfield is just moving too fast for me, you’ll know that’s not true.  Learning is my first priority, and if that takes someone extra time, then use the time.  Operating my classroom in this way also allows students the ability to work ahead if they choose.

September 20, 2013

Putting Learning Before Grades

I just want to communicate to you my plans for assigning grades during this 1st 9 weeks.  If you haven’t noticed yet, my class is probably very unlike any other math class your child has had previously.  I hope that’s a good thing 🙂  I’ve been teaching 8th grade math now for 4 years.  I’d like to share my views of public education, in an effort to help you understand my direction on grades.

First, since it’s inception, public education in the US has been about batches of students grouped by age progressing through grade levels together.  Every summer they get a break between grade levels, so the students can work on the family farm.  For the most part, that has been left relatively unchanged.  Students still attend school 180 days and then move on to the next grade, and very few students deviate from that path.  The problem, for me, is that teachers are forced to teach the entire year at ONE PACE FITS ALL.  And we all certainly know that not all students learn at the same pace.  As a result grades are given, in my opinion, to communicate to that student/parents just how much that student has learned.  At the end of the year, for the most part, regardless of what grades you earned, you get to move on to the next level.  There lies the problem, one that grows year after year.  If  a student has only learned “75%” of what he/she was supposed to learn one year, what chance does that give them of learning more than 75% the next year?  When you think about it, it would seem to put that student at a big disadvantage the following year, and so on.  Think about how that problem could grow year after year, particularly in a subject like math that builds year after year, gradually increasing in difficulty and skill set.  I have just described to you public enemy #1 for all math teachers 🙂  Unfortunately, in public education TIME is the constant and LEARNING is the variable.  I think that’s backwards.
As a result of public enemy #1, I feel that giving students a grade of A-F communicates very little about how much or what that student has really learned.  In fact, in previous years, the students who have demonstrated the most growth from September to May are my students that technically earned an F all year.  But unfortunately I feel that I failed at communicating to them just how much they had learned.  At what grade level were they on when they entered 8th grade?  What grade level were they on when they left 8th grade?  Perhaps they still didn’t make it to 8th grade level by May.  Being that I am “bound” to teach a set of topics and skills as an 8th grade math teacher, it becomes pretty difficult to remediate a number of skills to 120 students.  Not to mention the dreaded WesTest scores… I won’t go there yet.  But trying to teach 8th grade topics/skills to students who aren’t yet ready would generally lead to a lot of F’s in the gradebook.  So why should a teacher just record a bunch of F’s in the gradebook if the teacher already knows students aren’t ready for 8th grade math?  My philosophy is that I try to adjust the pace and allow every student the support they need and the time they need to demonstrate to me they can learn some of what I’m asked to teach them.  In fact, I think ideally a student shouldn’t move on until they can demonstrate that learning at 100%.  Would you want someone driving who scored a 75% on the driver’s test?

At the end of this 9 weeks, I intend to allow students the time to prepare a statement to me about what grade they think they have earned through the 1st 9 weeks.  I plan to present to them each standard that we spent time on during the 9 week grading period.  I also plan to present to them the HW assignments that were given to them as an opportunity to demonstrate their learning.  I’m going to ask that students consider each standard and reflect on how well they performed when asked to demonstrate their learning of that specific standard.  All of this communication will be done via Edmodo.  Edmodo is accessible at home and as a parent, you can even register via a parent code.  I plan to allow students adequate time to prepare their response and submit it to me.  My hope is that, perhaps for the first time, students may understand what that A, B, C, D, or F really means.  In addition to that, some students may be motivated to go back to something and prove to me that they can do better than they did the first time.  I’m OK with that and would certainly update grades based on improved performance.  I do all of this with one goal in mind, learning.  I hope to accurately communicate just what your child has learned throughout this year.  Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or concerns.
Derek Oldfield