Percentages belong on report cards

April 24, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Province

Suppose you have two grade 8 students in the same science class. We’ll call them Ken and Damian. Ken received a mark of 85 per cent on his report card while Damian got 96 per cent. Who did better in science?

For most people, this question is easy to answer. While both students did well, Damian’s higher mark indicates that he outperformed Ken. Damian probably received slightly better marks on his tests, submitted higher quality assignments, and demonstrated a superior understanding of the subject matter. In other words, there is a real and measurable difference between a good student like Ken and an excellent student like Damian.

However, some school division officials apparently think Ken and Damian deserve the same mark. As a case in point, Battle River School Division, based in Camrose, Alberta, requires its teachers to grade student work at one of four levels – beginning, developing, achieving, or excelling. Since the “excelling” level includes a range of 84 to 100, both Ken and Damian would receive the same mark under this system.

Unsurprisingly, the new grading system is not going over well with parents or students in Battle River. A recent rally at the school division’s office attracted more than 150 students and parents while about 2,800 parents and 300 students have signed a petition opposing the new grading system. Despite the opposition, the school division has given no indication that it plans to change course.

The philosophy underpinning the new approach is known as outcomes-based assessment. Essentially, it states that students should be evaluated based on how well they master specific learning targets known as outcomes. For example, an outcome for a grade 5 math course might be “use two digit multiplication to solve real-life math problems.” The teacher would then give a mark based on how well students learned that particular outcome.

So far there is nothing particularly objectionable about this approach. After all, it makes sense to specify what skills students need to master in each subject. It also is reasonable for teachers to use a four-point scale to evaluate some types of student work based on these learning outcomes. Problems arise when school administrators toss aside common sense and impose rigid assessment policies that lead to unnecessary conflicts with parents and students. Sometimes policies that sound good in theory do not translate well into the real classroom setting.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton that led to the firing if physics teacher Lynden Dorval is a case in point. Ross Sheppard’s then-principal followed outcomes-based assessment to the letter when he instructed teachers not to give zeros for missing work. This was based on the conviction that all grades must only reflect achievement of learning-outcomes. Of course, Ross Sheppard teachers found out very quickly that many students do not submit their work on time if there is no academic penalty for lateness. No-zero policies may sound good to ivory tower academics but they don’t work in real classrooms.

The removal of percentage grades from report cards is another example of this disconnect between assessment theory and classroom reality. While it may make sense to grade some assignments on a four-point scale, there is no need TO extend this to every assignment. Some assignments are more complex than others and have many possible proficiency levels. Percentage grades make it possible to differentiate between good work and excellent work in a way that simply cannot be done when teachers are limited to four achievement levels.

In addition, most students still write unit tests where even more levels of proficiency are possible. A student who answers all 50 math questions correctly on a test should receive a higher grade than another student who answered 44 questions correctly. Conversely, it is much worse to get only three questions correct than to answer 24 questions correctly. And yet, both these students would receive the same “beginning” grade under the Battle River system.

It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment was technically correct, school divisions need to weigh this against the need to work together with parents and provide them with understandable information about student achievement. Administrators who wish to overhaul grading practices need to ask themselves whether the change they seek is so important that it necessitates alienating a large number of parents and students.

In this latest clash between theory and reality in public education, let’s hope reality wins for a change. Percentages belong in classrooms and on report cards.

There’s zero support for schools’ no-zero policies

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, August 28, 2012 Original Link

High School physics teacher Lynden Dorval probably never expected to become a celebrity. But with his decision to defy his principal’s no-zeros edict, he ignited a nation-wide debate about grading practices in schools. Under no-zero grading policies, teachers are forbidden from assigning grades of zero to students for assignments they do not submit.

Public response on this issue has been overwhelmingly on Mr. Dorval’s side. Students rallied to his defense, teachers spoke out in support of his position, and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy. Even an online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported that more than 97 per cent of the 12,486 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.

Largely in response to public pressure, Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted at their June meeting to conduct an extensive review of their assessment practices. The review is scheduled to commence in September.

Hopefully trustees take the time to carefully review the research evidence on no-zero policies. If they do, they’ll find that the evidence does not support the overblown claims made by no-zero supporters.

One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O’Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O’Connor claims that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.

Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O’Connor but cites only one research study to support this claim – a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.

It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy’s article again providing the only research support.

Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence for their position is quite weak.

In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. If a school chooses to use a no-zero policy, it can expect that controversy will likely overshadow other more important initiatives. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.

No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.

Students who submit their work on time could actually end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would actually have been better off not to submit it. In fact, students will figure out that it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.

Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing and universities don’t grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren’t going to accommodate employees who can’t be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.

Let’s hope trustees in Edmonton and elsewhere across Canada recognize the folly of no-zero policies and stay away from them.

Sometimes students deserve to get a zero

Originally published by the Calgary Herald, June 10, 2012 Original Link

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world.

Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading-for-learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few assignments they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite several warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the school board has every right to discipline Dorval. According to Alberta’s School Act, school boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer.

Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is seriously amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider illegitimate and indefensible.

On June 1, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. In that letter, he defends the current policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” Schmidt said.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some high school students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them regularly of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, however, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or strongly discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, strong opposition from the public in both instances led the governments to retreat from this policy.

It never had to be this way. Many aspects of the socalled grading-for-learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading-for-learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms, but they have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support, or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails. Teachers should be able to give zeros to students who choose not to submit their assignments.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. He is co-author of the book, What’s Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

Purdue University study confronts edu-babble

Originally published in the Vancouver Sun, February 8, 2011. Original Link

It is wrong to force students to memorize information simply because it’s going to be on a test. Research shows that rote learning is largely out-of-date in the 21st century. Instead of telling students what they need to learn, teachers should encourage them to construct their own understanding of the world around them. The progressive approach to education is far more useful to students than the mindless regurgitation of mere facts.”

Anyone involved in education knows these types of edu-babble statements are often heard in teacher-training institutions. Education professors continually push teachers to move away from traditional methods of instruction.

A friend of mine who graduated several years ago with his bachelor of education degree told me the main question on one of his final exams: “Explain why testing is a poor way to authentically assess student learning.” The irony of testing students on their understanding of why testing is bad never seemed to sink in for that professor.

Unfortunately, this anti-testing mantra affects more than just educational theory in Canada. Over the last decade, Manitoba eliminated most provincial standards tests, while at the school level, many administrators expect teachers to reduce their use of tests in the classroom. These administrators claim that students benefit more from hands-on activities than from memorizing items scheduled to appear on the next test.

However, a new research study published in the Jan. 21 edition of the journal Science presents a significant challenge to the reigning educational ideology. Researchers from Purdue University had 200 college students read several paragraphs about a scientific topic, such as how the digestive system works. Students were then divided into several groups, with each group using a different study technique. The study found that students who took a test in which they wrote out the key concepts by memory significantly outperformed students who did not take a test.

A week later the same groups of students were given a short-answer test about the material in question. Once again, students who had studied for a test one week earlier substantially outperformed everyone else. Even the students themselves were surprised at the difference studying for a test made to their long-term retention of the subject matter. These results certainly challenge the assumption that students who study for tests simply forget the material immediately afterwards.

The lead researcher on this study, psychology professor Jeffrey Karpicke, noted that these results confirm the importance of actively committing concepts to memory. “But learning is fundamentally about retrieving, and our research shows that practising retrieval while you study is crucial to learning. Self-testing enriches and improves the learning process, and there needs to be more focus on using retrieval as a learning strategy,” stated Karpicke.

In other words, learning, particularly in the lower grades, has more to do with acquiring existing knowledge than constructing completely new knowledge. There is a core base of knowledge and skills that all students need to acquire, and schools are responsible for ensuring that this happens.

The Purdue University study lends considerable weight to the position that teachers should require their students to write tests on a regular basis. Although this does not necessitate the complete abandonment of other assessment methods, it does mean that professional development for teachers should recognize the value of traditional teaching methods.

One of the arguments commonly used against this approach is that it encourages rote learning instead of critical thinking.

The problem with this argument is it creates a false dichotomy, since critical thinking can only take place if students possess the necessary knowledge base about a subject matter. For example, students who memorize their basic math facts are far better positioned to master complex mathematical concepts than those who never learn them.

In addition, if we want to help students retain the knowledge they acquire in school, it makes sense for schools to require students to write final exams in core subject areas. It is not difficult to see how the process of studying for final exams helps students retain key concepts from their courses. None of this means that teachers should rely exclusively on making students memorize information for tests. However, we must ensure that testing remains a central component of what happens in school.