3 Ways To Blockbuster Your Report Cards

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Today’s guest post is written by Keith Westman.  Follow him on Twitter at @keithwestman.

Note: I am aware I am not the first person to use the Blockbuster analogy (a company who refused to respond to market changes and made themselves obsolete). While lots of education bloggers use this analogy, most folks first saw it in Innovator’s Mindset, by George Couros.

Multiple times a day, I will see an education thought-leader tweet a one-liner or share a blog post saying something to the effect of, “if schools are still doing ‘this,’ they should stop because it makes no sense!”

Usually, “this” is a relatively small change: keeping kids in during recess as punishment, giving extra work to students who finish a task early, getting rid of homework, etc. The list really can go on for a while. But, we rarely see suggestions for large systemic changes like moving away from the most archaic artifact from the beginning of America’s school systems: the report card.

I’d like to offer you a few tangible steps school districts can take to eliminate this sacred cow.

As someone who doesn’t have to hear from angry parents about making the decision to stop sending out report cards, it’s easy for me to write this blog post. I get that. But, let’s assume that we all agree with three things:

  • Reports cards are intended to communicate important information about student progress in both academic and non-cognitive areas.
  • Educators, in general, would agree that a single letter grade on a report card does not tell the most accurate story of student performance over a period of time
  • Student performance is more than a single letter grade, percentage, or performance level on a learning standard.

With that in mind, I’d like to propose three steps that I think parents would support to rid your school district of the traditional paper report card:

1.Have parents opt-in to a paper report card

Send a letter to parents over the summer informing them the school district believes that frequent communication on academic progress is critical to student success. Then describe the ways in which parents can access your online gradebook. End with a statement like this: “Beginning this school year, parents can choose to receive a paper report card at the end of each grading period. If you would like to receive a paper report card, sign up here.”

 

 

2. Stop SPAMMING parents

Between a teacher’s newsletter, a school newsletter, a PTA update, and important notices from the district, parents may be becoming numb to your communications and inadvertently miss some of the most important communications (like how their child is performing). Consider having an e-mail schedule that parents know about. Every Sunday night you will receive an email about your child. Week 1 will be from the teacher telling you about classroom events. Week 2 will be an email about building events. Week 3 will be important district level information. Week 4 will be an e-mail from the PTA. In every email, remind parents that they can review student progress by logging into your online gradebook. Finally, send that quarterly email saying, “We have reached the end of the first grading period. Please remember to log into your online gradebook.”

3. Create a “Report Card” Kiosk

There will be an argument that if parents don’t get a paper report card, those who don’t have access to the internet will not know how their child is doing in school. According to a 2018 student by the Pew Research Center, 89% of Americans have access to the Internet. So, in case you have any parents in that remaining 11%, set up a computer in the office of your school and let families know that they are welcome to come to the school and review student progress at any time. This will give you a chance to see parents (who may need to feel connected to the school) and will be a great service to them.

Implementing these strategies will allow you to gently bring your school community along with this change.

Now, all of these ideas are useless if your school does not have an online gradebook. If you are one of these school systems — keep that paper flowing, but, let’s get a move on it, too!


What are some ways that your school is rethinking the way that student performance is communicated to families? Please comment on this post or connect with Keith on Twitter.

About Keith: Dr. Keith Westman taught third grade, served as a K-8 technology coordinator and was a middle school principal during his ten years working in school districts.  He left public education to work with his childhood friend who had started an edtech company.  That company, Aspex Solutions (now part of Frontline Education), grew up to provide AppliTrack and K12JobSpot.com to thousands of school districts and millions of job seekers throughout the country. Keith is the COO of Otus, the makers of the Otus Student Performance Platform, based in Chicago’s popular Fulton Market neighborhood, and moonlights as an Adjunct Professor at DePaul University.

 

Retakes Do Not Promote Laziness. They Exemplify Compassion

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This article was originally published in Education Week Teacher.


Editor’s note: For a counterpoint to this piece, see Baptiste Delvallé’s opinion essay, “Why I Give Students Only One Chance on Tests.”

Even though it was 23 years ago, I vividly remember the countdown calendar I created for my 16th birthday. I marked April 5, 1993 with a giant set of keys and a convertible. I was going to get my driver’s license, and it was going to be the best day of my life.

During the year leading up to that fateful birthday, I diligently practiced and prepared for the written and performance components of the exam. I applied feedback from my driver’s education teacher and my parents. I practiced driving the course I would later navigate. All the evidence from these formative assessments pointed to my mastery of the open road.

However, when I went to take the actual driver’s test, I successfully completed the course but made a silly, yet critical, error on the written assessment. I pleaded with my evaluator to make an exception and pass me anyway. It was only one little mistake.

I felt completely defeated. All of that practice, and still, I had failed. But then my evaluator told me that we all have bad days. “Go sit in the waiting area and think about the reasons why you made the error you did, and how you can avoid errors like that in the future,” he said. “I’ll come find you in one hour.”

An hour later, he let me retake the test, and the license was mine.

Responding to the Unexpected

There is rarely, if ever, a reason to deny a student an opportunity to retake an assessment. In fact, to do so actually negates the importance of the concepts we aim to teach. Additionally, the purpose of retakes is not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies, but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery.

In my work with teachers in school systems across the country on differentiation and standards-based grading, I have found that test retakes are a hot button for many educators. I often hear teachers say things like, “Students don’t study because they know they can just retake the test.”

In response to this perceived lack of effort by students, some teachers refuse to let students retake a test or require them to perform a variety of tasks (worksheets, online lessons, test corrections) or come in during recess to qualify for a retake.

We should never just assume that students are lazy. Retakes aren’t about students being unprepared, but about letting them respond to the unexpected hurdle. I help educators define how to use retakes in helpful ways: for those occasions when there are discrepancies between formative and summative assessment results.

When teachers give smaller assessments for learning—or formative assessments—correctly and with fidelity, a student who unexpectedly bombs a larger evaluation of student learning at the end of a unit—or a summative assessment—should be a rarity. By using evidence from students’ formative assessments, teachers should have a solid grasp on whether or not individual students are ready for the end assessment.

If formative data shows individual students are ready to take the final test, but they still perform poorly, this discrepancy calls for talking with students to determine what happened, offering reteaching if necessary, and letting them retake the test.

What’s more, if a large number of students did not show mastery of the learning, that is indicative of one of three things: 1) The formative assessments a teacher gave did not correctly identify where students were in their learning; 2) All students took the summative on the same day regardless of readiness; or 3) Many students, for a variety of reasons, simply had an off day.

Our ultimate goal as educators is to ensure students learn, which is why we should offer students a second chance to show us their skills.

Being an Educator, Not a Judge

Some educators also argue that if students showed mastery on earlier assessments and not on the final, then they didn’t master the material at all. This statement begs us to think more about what “mastery” truly means. Is the process fixed or is it fluid?

I would argue that mastery is indeed fluid. Case in point is Gabrielle Daleman, an Olympic figure skater who competed this year for the Canadian women’s team. Gabrielle proved she had the skills required to qualify for the Olympics many times. But in February, after winning a gold medal in the team figure-skating event, Daleman fell multiple times on the ice and dropped to 15th place in the overall competition. But can anyone really argue that because Daleman failed her performance she had never shown mastery in the first place? I don’t think so.

There are no retakes in the Olympics. Many will still argue that there aren’t retakes in real life. But lucky for our students, we have the opportunity and, moreover, the obligation to give our students second (and third) chances. There will always be a few students who work the system. But I’d argue that it’s not the student who is flawed—it’s the system itself.

In addition to the daily assessments we give them now, students will take many tests over the course of their lives, such as a driver’s exam, the SAT, the LSAT, and the MCAT, to name a few. All of these examples allow retakes. The way school prepares students for real life is by ensuring they learn the content and skills necessary to live a full, productive life. Part of real life is determining next steps when life doesn’t go as planned.

Why not give students the same courtesy and opportunities to learn and grow now?

Standards Based Grading Made My Kid Average

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This post was originally published in @PeterMDeWitt’s blog Finding Common Ground in Education Week.

Recently a friend called me in a panic. She was beside herself because she had just received her seventh-grade daughter’s new standards-based report card.  My friend relayed that her daughter (who was formerly an “A” student) was now “just average” according to the new report card.

I asked my friend if the report card had the word “average” on it and my friend said, “no.” She elaborated that her daughter had received all “meets” and no “exceeds” on her report card, and, therefore, her daughter was now, “just average.”

I calmly responded that “meets standards” does not equate to average. I clarified that a standards-based grading system does not neatly align to the traditional grading system we experienced in our schooling. I explained that standards-based grading is a much more pragmatic and informative way of reporting student progress than the traditional A-F approach.

I expected my friend to accept this explanation and settle down, but instead, her emotions escalated, and she replied, “well, my daughter’s teacher thinks standards-based grading is stupid, too.”

We are the stories we tell ourselves.” Joan Didion

Many school districts that have made the switch to standards-based reporting have been met with reactions like the one illustrated above. And, although I was surprised by my friend’s response, I shouldn’t have been. Reactions like hers are to be expected when identities are threatened, and eliminating traditional grading practices poses a threat to many people’s identities.

How so?

The A-F/100-point traditional grading system has been in place since the early twentieth century. This means all parents and grandparents of students currently in kindergarten through 12th grade, plus the vast majority of today’s teachers experienced school with a traditional grading system.

Based on the grades we received as students, we told ourselves we were “good” or “bad” students. We used our grades to tell ourselves which subjects we were “smart” in and which ones we weren’t. We used our grades to compare ourselves to our peers. Our parents used our grades to compare us to their peers and their peers’ children. We used our grades to determine if we were cut-out for certain careers. We allowed grades to tell us many stories about who we were. For better or for worse, these stories have played a part in shaping our identities as adults. Therefore, when we remove a critical piece of our identity formation (traditional grades) we may, consciously or not, feel threatened.

So, now what?
We will be uncomfortable for a little while.  Ultimately, just like us, our children’s identities will be shaped, in part, by the educational experience they have. However, if implemented correctly (as extensively researched and reported about by Thomas Gusky and Rick Wormeli) standards-based reporting should allow students to identify as individual learners, rather than comparably “good” or “bad” students.

The concept of standards-based grading is not easily enacted by teachers, nor is it easily understood by parents. Rather, this change is a work in progress which requires both educators and parents to work together to relearn what we have been taught in the past about grades.

While this shift is difficult for both educators and parents, it is the educators who must lead the charge, and be the first relearn (watch this video for some inspiration on relearning). The way in which educators share information about standards-based grading with parents is crucial for successful implementation. If educators are positive, admit that change is hard, and stick with the change because it is in the best interest of students, parents will follow suit. However, if educators protest, criticize, or are ambivalent about the benefits of standards-based grading, parents will react similarly. Educators must model the reaction they hope to elicit from parents and students.

To effectively communicate with parents, educators must put to rest some of the widely-held fallacies about grading like the three listed below:

Fallacy #1: Parents need letter grades to understand their child’s performance.
Reality: Traditional grades give the facade of understanding because they use familiar words and measures. Consider a report card that lists: Math: A, Reading: B+. Parents understand the words math and reading. They understand that an A is the highest grade and a B is close to an A. But, the reality is, this communication does not actually tell parents anything about what was learned. Math and reading are too broad of categories to offer any insight and the letter grades could mean a variety of things, many of which have nothing to do with reading or math.

Now what? Standards-based grading is an opportunity to create a common understanding of exactly what is being assessed. When teachers take care to ensure assessments are appropriately aligned to the standards they are assessing, the assessments become a vehicle for dialogue between students, parents, and teachers to adequately discuss where students are in their learning progression and where they are going.

Fallacy #2: Letter grades are more objective.
Reality: Once again, an A-F system creates a facade of objectivity.  Using a percentage attached to a letter  (93% = A) feels objective. But, what isn’t necessarily objective are the tools used to garner those scores. When I taught English, I often struggled to determine the critical difference between an 89% and a 90% on a student’s narrative writing assignment. When I taught social studies, I assumed the multiple choice tests I created were completely objective due to the right/wrong nature of the questions. I didn’t consider, however, the inherent bias of the questions since I had written them.

Now what? There is a reason teachers are part of a PLC/team and there are reasons why these teams are encouraged to meet frequently. This is a time for teachers to discuss topics like objectivity. It is no longer frowned upon for educators to admit that learning is not an entirely empirical process. Learning is complex and, therefore, grading is complex, too. When we look at student work as a team, engage in dialogue about assessments, and come to a consensus as to what “meeting standards” is, we are making the reporting process as objective as possible.

Fallacy #3: By the time we shift to standards-based grading, there will be a new fad, and we will have to start all over again.
Reality: It will take time for individual school systems and the educational system as a whole to fully embrace this change. It is likely that once we become comfortable with this change, there will be additional amendments to the way we grade. But, such is life. This is part of what all successful industries do to stay relevant. They make changes to improve processes, gather new information, and make more changes to improve processes again.

Next Steps: Don’t lament about the process. Don’t worry about what the future holds. We are doing what is best for students with the information we have right now. Celebrate the progressive and long overdue steps we are taking to use grading as an indicator of learning rather than a symbol of finality.