Assessment in a time of abundance


“Never push a loyal person to the point where they no longer care”

I clearly remember a staff meeting from my first year of teaching. The discussion was “lates.” Our principal suggested the “have a quiz at the start of class” strategy to hold kids accountable. This was brilliant! We had curriculum to deliver or push at our students and a fixed amount of time in which to push said curriculum at them. We needed kids in their seats. Period.

Just in case curriculum delivered via push

When I began teaching content was bound by textbooks and the notes I gave in class. It was a time of information scarcity with limited opportunities to expose students to the knowledge pieces they might need in the future. As such, we relied on practices to push students to where the just in case curriculum could be delivered to them. Assessment was used to push students to the just in case curriculum. Assessment was used to determine the success of pushing the just in case curriculum at students. Assessment allowed students (and the system) to demonstrate the successful acquirement of the just in case curriculum and readiness for further investment of the limited resources. In a time of scarcity, procurement of limited resources was a requirement for further investment. Standardized common assessments allowed us to quickly determine who should move on to the next level of investment.

Scarcity shaped our present day assessment tools

Quizzes held students accountable to the knowledge pieces they might need for the test. Tests held them accountable to the just in case pieces they might need for the final exam. And so on.
In a time of scarcity it was not wise to invest in understanding or synthesizing until students indicated (through our assessment tools) mastery of the just in case curriculum (that would not be available to them later).
Fill in the blank worksheets, non-original assigned work, work with time penalty, all created in a time when the itty-bitty knowledge pieces might prove useful in the future.

Reconsider assessment tools designed for just in case and scarcity

Almost 30 years later the textbook and my notes are now the least relevant sources on content. The abundance of information is mind-boggling to say the least. My students show up with encyclopedias in their pockets, experts at their fingertips and the potential of networks waiting to be tapped.

Yet…the assessment landscape of middle and high schools remains unchanged.

The majority of the assessment tools used in high school today were designed to measure mastery of a just in case curriculum pushed at students. Homework asking students to answer already answered questions, in order to copy a line of thinking already thought. Quizzes designed to hold students accountable to a predetermined pathway of just in case content acquisition. Final exams designed to measure the amount of just in case curriculum in the student’s mind (all be it only temporarily), to determine whether they should move to the next level of the pyramid scheme.

Do these tools meet the needs of our students in this time of abundance?

Just in time and pull

In a time of abundance students need skills to pull the knowledge pieces just in time. Projects solving real and authentic problems create the pull and in turn students pull as needed. Students create the need to knows, the just in time schema, through the problems and puzzles they are trying to solve.

Problems, real and authentic need to pull students in. Students need to pull information and knowledge just in time to solve problems and create answers. Students need to be made responsible (rather than held accountable) with the skills, the opportunities, the know-how to pull the information they need, when they need it. Students need to do the pulling.

Holding students accountable to something no longer valuable devalues the system

The steps of mitosis, organelles of a cell, states of matter, dates of the world wars still matter. They do, of course they do. But they matter in context. In context of solving a worthy problem, in struggling with a dilemma, in writing a piece to understand ourselves, in creating a movie, etc.

But knowledge pieces lying in an extracted heap and pushed at students. Valueless. Completely valueless.
Pushing these knowledge pieces is no longer the why of school.

Instead of wondering how we can hold students accountable, shouldn’t we be wondering how we can make them responsible for finding and solving worthy problems?
Instead of designing assessments to validate our ability to push curriculum at our students shouldn’t we be wondering how to help student assess what pieces of content they need?
Instead of trapping students in a quagmire of knowledge pieces shouldn’t we be providing them with the skills to find and access the knowledge pieces when they need to find them in context?

Our challenge in this time of abundance is to create an environment that pulls students in. Not one that pushes them out.

How do you talk assessment?

“The most important assessment that goes on in a school isn’t done to a student but goes on inside students…
Changing assessment at this level should be the most important assessment goal of every school.
How do we get inside students’ heads and turn up the knob that regulates quality and effort.”

Ron Berger


Trying to change assessment practices in your classroom? Where do you start? How to begin?

Part of changing my assessment practice was driven by altering the words I used with students. When I first embarked on this change, I was intentional and purposeful with “assessment talk.” Like learning a new language, I had to stop and think rather than reflexively rely on words I had used in the past. I found the intentional and consistent use of these words over several months helped to shift both my mind-set and students’.

Previously, my “assessment talk” had consisted of numbers on a spreadsheet, printed up, neatly tacked on the classroom wall and emailed to students and parents. I saw numbers as unemotional, objective and transparent. I believed sharing numbers frequently made me an effective teacher. Over time I realized I had blurred together assessment (which comes from the Latin assessus meaning to sit besideand evaluation. Regretfully, the predominant use of numbers to talk assessment, did not help students learn at all. Numbers signaled the learning as done and the numeric calculation was my evaluation of it. Numbers indicated a finality which made the focus of class culture centered around how to collect of points…rather than on understanding, exploring and unpacking the cognitive processes occurring for and inside each student. To explore learning with students, numbers had to be removed from the everyday conversations and I had to find simple direct words to signal this shift.

I now realize my practice of using numbers to talk assessment prevented, rather than encouraged, meaningful dialogue about student learning. Evaluation of the student learning had to happen later in the learning journey (when students were ready) after a significant amount assessment. But how to talk assessment? What words could replace the numbers I had grown dependent on? I had to find them. I had to practice them. I had to learn a new language to talk assessment with students


Below are some of my favorite catch phrases and convo snippets:

1. This is not for marks…it is for learning.
Student’s query to any activity is “Is it for marks?” Students use this question to decide on where to focus their efforts. To shift their focus to learning strategies rather than on point accumulation strategies, activities need to be about learning and in the service of student learning … choose to do these activities in the service of your learning not in the name compliance and playing school.

2. YET…
When a student says: “I am not good at writing, reading, graphing.” Offer the simple word, yet, to the end of their fixed mindset sentence to change it to a growth mindset one (Watch Carol Dweck’s short video on yet here).

3. Explain to me how you think your learning is going in this unit, topic, or semester.
If I had a dollar for every “What is my mark?” question I have heard I would be a rich woman! Every time a student asked me this question I had to clearly put it back on them. They had to be able to talk about and describe how the course was going for them and if they couldn’t explain this, then we had to spend more time talking about their learning (this is not to say I withheld marks, it is to say evaluation has to come when it is relevant and useful to do so).

4. Are you ready to show me what you know/understand? When do you think you can be ready to demonstrate your understanding? How can I help you get there?
Many struggling students are not willing to engage; it is too risky to try only to fail yet again. Allowing students decide when they are ready to be evaluated removes the stress and game playing that goes along with avoiding it.

5. What does quality…writing, presentation, conclusion, lab design, questioning…look like, sound like, and feel like?
Students need to recognize what quality looks like, feels like and sounds out.  Understanding quality comes from experiencing the process without fear of  being penalized for not being at quality yet. Students need to know they will get another chance or opportunity, they need to know they have time to grow and develop towards quality.

6. Show me your evidence for/of your learning.
I recognize my learning  when I develop a mental picture or story about of a concept or idea. When I can explain or map out this picture, I feel like I have done some learning. The mental picture is my evidence, the tracks of my thinking. Students need to make tracks of their thinking in their own way and have a chance to talk about this process. Learning is not a set copied teacher notes, or a set of worksheets they mechanically and thoughtlessly filled in.

7. Show me how you figured it out.
Asking students to unpack their thinking, makes learning about what is going on in their brains, not something a teacher does or does not do. 

8. What is your plan to get there?
Many students are uncertain how to navigate to quality. Providing them opportunities to make and talk about specific actions portrays learning not as accidental (or just for gifted people) but requires strategies, habits, and specific situations. Many variables contribute to learning. Students need to know and decide what variables they need to support their learning.

9.  Let me know when you are ready for feedback.
Having the opportunity and time to do quality work is intrinsically satisfying. Quality work is not work done by gifted students but by students who have the gift of time with useful and specific feedback.

10. What do you notice about your brain when….you get confused, you feel confident, you are engaged, you are make sense of the problem.
Talking about what goes on inside our brains, invites students to connect with the mental process they are experiencing.  Learning is a process going on actively inside of them rather than something passively happening to them.

What are your fav words or phrases to use with students? What words have shifted your mindset and invited students to explore their learning as a journey rather than a destination?

5 Point Free Assessment Strategies


Shared on Flickr by ys

If we view assessment as a way for the learner to forge a pathway forward, towards commonly held and co-constructed expectations, we need a way to guide the learner along their learning pathway, a guide wire of sorts. Assessments have a longstanding tradition of being more about mark generation. Slowly there is a growing voice and collective understanding of assessment as a means to provide useful, timely and relevant information about learning….to the learner, so they can guide themselves, towards their expectations.

Think of the mountain climber trying to make the first ascent up a certain mountain, when the first attempt does not work she will have to revise and plan a new route. Moreover one pathway might be successful for one mountaineer but not the next, it depends on the conditions, the mountaineer and their equipment. Make no mistake; every mountaineer will set out with some form of equipment to receive regular and ongoing feedback about where they are going.

How might we provide such feedback for our students on their learning journey without tainting it with points?
Below are 5 point free assessment strategies. Maybe you have some to add!

1. Hot Seat or Interview: To create a community of learners we need to have ongoing and regular conversations about learning. If learning is important let’s talk about it! To have meaningful conversations we need a commonly held lexicon of learning (don’t you love how that sounds?).  Students need the time, space and opportunity to discuss the nuances of their learning journey. Instead of points being the language of learning we need to work consistently to create words to give life to how learning looks and feels for the learner to use (as opposed for the teacher to use about the learner).

Setting aside a regular time for these conversations to occur embeds it in the classroom routine and signals to students that talking about learning is valuable. A formal conversation also gets the ball rolling for having continuous, ongoing casual conversations with students and between students. Students would often conference with each other before sitting down with me.

I had “Hot Seat” appointments with students the week before heading into a “test” (an opportunity to show their learning). If students weren’t ready, it allowed us to create a plan of action based on their specific situation. Alternatively if the student was feeling uncertain about certain topics this provided the student a chance to have one on one time with me to clarify. It also provided me the teacher, rich information about each learner and convinced me that students can self-assess with accuracy (more accurately than I could with points).

The information that came from Hot Seat indicated to both me and the student how the student would do on the upcoming test. Instead being a surprise, the test became validation of evidence we had already examined.

2. Test in advance: There is a belief that if we show students the test in advance then “it will be too easy” or somehow not fair. Nothing can be further than the truth! Even with test in hand, student still struggle to build schema around concepts and develop vocabulary to communicate their ideas fully. Learning is a process and we want students to be growing towards fixed targets rather than crashing into invisible ones.

3. Group Quizzes: Inviting students to writing quizzes as a learning opportunities rather than point collection opportunities for the teacher, changes the whole vibe of quiz writing.

“Yes please cheat!” “Please ask your table what they think the best answer to the question is!” “Please try to figure out the answer together!”

Quizzes are a great example of just in time learning (instead of just in case) and show clearly that students ARE motivated to learn, just maybe not be at the exact second we want them to. 🙂

4. Clear learning targets: When students are explicitly aware of the learning targets it becomes easier for them to hit them. Not only do I think so, but there is data to support this. Hattie calls this: Self-Reported grades, as he explains succinctly here.

But seeing believing and after watching student’s self-assess (based on standards that related specifically to the course, see examples here) I grew confident that they could accurately tell me how they were doing.

5. Learning Journals: As the mountaineer needs time to map out a new route, students need quiet time in and with their own thinking to map out their plan of action. Providing regular class time for reflection signals it is a valuable part of the learning cycle. I used in expensive copy books which stayed in the classroom.

The greatest effects on student learning occur when the teachers become learners
of their own teaching and ………when students become their own teachers.

                                                                                        John Hattie

The purpose of classroom assessment: Do we know?

Mycelium is mass of fine, white interconnected fungal threads that grow through a substrate as they digest it. This process of digestion and absorption allows the fungus to spread as fruiting bodies appear atop the location where the mycelium lurks. The fruiting body is what you chop up to put on your pizza but it also holds spores which disperse and spread the fungus far and wide.

Assessment is an invisible, interconnected web of interactions that pervades education and digests learning as it grows. While it may hard to locate the mycelium, it is evidenced by the letter grades and accompanying percentages that appear, emerging from the subterranean assessment. Percentages and letter grades are the fruiting bodies that emerge out that allow the assessment to proliferate and spread. Assessment as mycelium is tangled throughout our institutions and begets assessments of the same sort, as spores produce fungus of the same sort.

Do we have a historical hangover from our greedy consumption of standardized tests in the name of fairness? Can we effectively remove the millions of innocuous threads that proliferate throughout the system? Can we recover a medium free of standardized assessment contamination (ones used to rank, sort, and compare)? Has the learning in education been consumed and ravaged by our obsessive and abusive love affair with data and the quantification of learning?

This weekend I had the opportunity to delve deeply into the varied functions, uses and abuses of assessment at all levels. #Mermforum2013 offered new insights and pushed my thinking around the purpose of classroom assessment.

While assessment at the federal, provincial or state level is beyond my direct control, I can as a classroom teacher clear the lens and clarify the purpose of assessment in the classroom.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment? Do we know?

If classroom assessment is in fact to inform learning, class assessment would in all instances:

1. Empower students to determine and locate their best talents and selves, as a compass helps us locate a desired location.

2. Act as a medium for growth and support as a tomato plant laden with fruit are supported with a tomato stake.

3. Focus on improving rather than proving. (Students would say: I know how to get better, I know where and how to get helpful and timely feedback related to my learning).

4. Help students understand themselves as people. Students would see learning as a human, integrated activity, connected wholly and fully to whom there are as a person.

5. Allow for feedfoward (not simply feedback) that would spotlight learning as a continuous ongoing process. There would be follow-up and follow through. We wouldn’t asses as an end point; we would access to begin, anew, again and again.

When we say assessment is for learning but are not consistent with this purpose…the mycellium…begins to grow. To say classroom assessment is in the service of learning then…we must, in every instance, say classroom assessment is NOT:

1. A way to generate percentages to serve the need of universities to filter students for entrance (whether it is in fact true teachers still service this belief).

2. A razor to make precise cuts to the .01% place to justify the awarding of monetary scholarships. If assessment is about learning, it cannot also be about this!

3. A method to rank students for awards such as top student and student of the year.

4. A way to control student behavior (get this done or I will take it in for marks).

5.  A means to justify low-level and non-learning or pseudo learning tasks (i.e. worksheets worth 125 points or bringing in a box of Kleenex).

6. As a way to generate a final letter grade or percent.

What is the purpose of classroom assessment?

What is the point?

cheering crowd

Cheering Crowd by Michael Streat

The win! The cheering crowd, the champion cup, your team won! How do you know?

EASY. Look at the score board.

Is the educational game to determine the winners and losers so we can “fairly” award the victors?
Is learning an event that can produce data with mathematical accuracy?

Point Collection Culture

Point collection is both pervasive and invasive in school culture; assessments (tests, quizzes, assignments etc.) are designed to maximize the efficiency of point harvesting and not necessarily to provide relevant information around learning. Point collection, more than any other consideration in high schools, determines the selection of the summative assessment tool. Learning in high school happens in spite of point collection but not as a result of, or guided by, point collection (the main form of assessment in play in high schools).

Points are the currency of value and are what students work to acquire.

Students often see learning as a waste of energy as it may inhibit maximum point acquisition. Many students become desensitized to recognizing or identifying what learning feels like after being exposed to point allocation for non-learning activities over long periods of time. Point allocation for worksheet completion, word counts or even the wearing of a team jersey on spirit day, informs students that they should concern themselves with mastering point acquisition over learning strategies. Overall, points carry clout and value in the school setting and trump learning.

Point Driven Mindsets

Teachers in the name of efficiency are driven to collect as many points as possible in the shortest period of time. Points (and the collection of) are used primarily to determine how effectively the teacher transferred a fixed body of knowledge to the student (focused on what the teacher has taught). Point collection does not describe the student’s conceptual development of a subject and is limited to the highly prescribed curriculum. Most assessments reveal what a student does not know rather than reveal where students have mastered. The common student laments “I understood topic X perfectly but it wasn’t on the test”, “I studied all the wrongs things” and “But you never even taught us that!” all speak to this perspective. As points are deducted from students this that will determine the students overall average in a course, the focus avoiding mistakes at all costs.

Essays, projects and tests are often given to students with the “I need to collect marks” mentality as raspberries in season that need to be harvested in haste before the birds get to them. Rather than the consideration of the student’s learning and progress as the deciding factor, a pre-set date for harvest dictates when a student will have the chance to acquire points.  The school calendar dictates harvest dates and not the progress of the child.

Does this in any way improve the next crop of raspberries?

Point Driven Strategies

Over the course of their school careers, students develop highly sophisticated point acquisition strategies to succeed. These strategies generally reward students who are socially well-connected and those who know how to negotiate. Students who are willing to hound the teacher often benefit from more points (this speaks to personality rather than mastery of content).

Knowledge or understanding of content beyond material that will be tested is deemed “useless.” The common refrain “Will this be on the test?” speaks to this mindset. Students want and demand from teachers perfectly worded answers which are easy to mimic and memorize in order guarantee point acquisition.

Demonstration of learning is done so as to avoid error; errors are permanently costly in an averaged point acquisition set up. Evaluation is separated from the learning process and has nothing to do with the student themselves. “What did I get?” is the most commonly asked question of the classroom teacher instead of: What did I learn?; How can I improve?; Can you help me figure this out?

Students are routinely given the message that they should trust a number over what they feel and know about themselves as learners. “I thought I knew it better than that” reflects a student ability to self-access which is ignored in a scantron world “Well that’s what the bubble machine score showed us.” Regardless of wording, nuance or interpretation of questions, the scantron is given absolute authority over determining the student’s learning or lack there of.

The end game

What is in fact our end game in education? When our students exit the building in their final year with their school record what do we hope that record speaks of and speaks to about that student? When parents receive their child’s report card at the end of the semester and this is the only piece of information that they will receive about their son or daughter what do we want the piece of paper to communicate about this child?

At the moment report cards are the end game that drive the cattle home so to speak, all roads lead to report cards. When we work back from these it explains and decodes many of our schools habits and mindsets. Final exams, exam periods, and midterms exist in many cases to create and justify a final letter grade.

What do we want to be able to communicate in regards to student learning? What are we hoping to convey? Who is it for? Who is to benefit?

Do we as educators have a moral imperative to consider and begin to advocate for assessment that empowers learning?


Looking for feedback: Assessment & Grading Guide


‘Money reduces trust’ in small groups, study shows

It’s Time to Stop Averaging Grades

Grading Practices that Inhibit Learning

Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading

Everything Formative.

Back in the heyday of my addiction to point collection I would look over my columns of neatly entered numbers with pride and deep satisfaction. More columns proved I knew EXACTLY how the students were doing and like a heart monitor on a dying patient, the data could tell me the exact line between life and death…beep, beep, beep…

The final number my computer spit out WAS mathematically based (numbers had been entered, weighted and averaged correctly) but the number failed to accurately represent the student who was walking out the door of the course. In fact I had no clue about who that student was; the final mark was a blur of data that I had extracted primarily to hold students accountable and/or to present an airtight case if I was held accountable.

Over many years I had been exposed to AFL (assessment for learning) and as result I could provide solid definitions for formative and summative assessment. However, I was unable to translate these words into practice.

Maybe it is the same for you?

Things have changed. Now I have very few numbers in my day book and even when I do, these numbers are always in flux; they are a fleeting snapshot of the student right now and not a concrete prediction of where the student will be at the end of the course.

What do I mean? To explain I thought I would use a specific example to show what it looks like in practice. While this example is for Biology 12, it is the marking schema I am trying to highlight and not the biology. This example is from the first unit of the year, cell biology, and is based on the standard below, which is one of two standards (read more here and here about where standards come from) for this unit:

A2. I can explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from a cell in the human body.

The various assessments for this standard are outlined in the table below. Note these are the formal assessment opportunities and do not include the many informal opportunities for feedback. As well students can apply for a re-do of any unit assessment.

Task Type Student prompt summarized Feedback provided Formative or Summative
Quiz Outline the overall production of a protein, starting with the RER. Students use 4 point scale to self-assess. Written & verbal feedback provided by teacher.

 Formative. Students     self track. Teacher records number from self- assessment.

Assignment-Done in class with help from teacher & peers. Explain how the following 5 cells organelles of a pancreas cell would work together to make and export insulin. A diagram may be used to support your writing. Organelles: RER, vesicle, Golgi complex, membrane, nucleus. Students self assess using    4 point scale.  Written and verbal feedback provided. Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Formative. Students self track. Teacher records number.

Test Explain the production and processing of a protein that is exported from a eukaryotic cell. Begin with rRNA and end with the release of the protein from the plasma membrane. Tests returned to
students to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.
Formative or Summative.
Midterm Explain how the function of RER, Golgi complex and cell membrane are relate. Tests returned to students
to keep. Written and verbal feedback given. Opportunities for re-assessment. Teacher uses
4 point scale.
Formative or Summative
Final Exam Explain how the endomembrane system works to produce and export products from
a cell in the human body.
Students can pick up final exam the week after finals. Written feedback given.
Teacher uses 4 point scale.

Everything formative allows for:

  • Ability to cycle back through the course several times, we review (as a class and in groups) at each test, the midterm and again at the final. Each time we review we do a different type of activity.
  • Multiple entry points are provided for students into a topic and there are always opportunities to catch up. Entry points for each standard vary (i.e.: a lab, a group activity, an interactive white boarding activity, a review game, a writing activity), but come at various times. I call it ‘cycling back’ when talking with students.
  • Few surprises for students when students challenge the midterm or final.
  • Reduction of student and teacher anxiety.
  • Students to take high stakes assessments when they are ready.
  • The target to stay the same over course of the semester.
  • Building lasting schema by exposing students to the same key ideas more than once and in various ways.
  • Activities to be designed for learning not point extraction.
  • Conversation shift to one about learning and not about points.
  • Students to be able to explain their mark and we are not reliant on “well that is what the computer told me so it must be right!”
  • Feedback related to how student can improve instead of “remember you did not hand that in so…”
  • The assessment process to be human. I found the years of point focus dehumanizing.

Would love to here how you are using formative assessment in your classroom!

Re-do’s and rolling grades.

Over the past year and a half I have been tinkering with re-do’s (re-tests or re-assessments) and rolling grades (grades that do not get set until the end of the semester) with my Biology 12 classes. Assessment is both a volatile and emotional topic for teachers, parents and students. I want to emphasis that what I am sharing is still in progress; I am not there yet but I am trying to get there! I am not an expert in this area, this is still relatively new for me and I am still learning.

To create a re-do policy took several revisions, I worked collaboratively with my colleague Graham Johnson, consulted with my principal, and referred to Rick Wormeli‘s book Fair Isn’t Always Equal.

Re-Do Policy Fleshed Out

1. Students complete an application form and get it to me by the end of the day on Tuesdays. At this time I might have a quick discussion with them about what went wrong the first time. If I have not already done so in class, I might ask them a couple of quick questions about the content. If it appears the student has no new or significant evidence of their learning, I might suggest they wait until the following Thursday. The application is the basis for a meaningful discussion and it is not black and white (they fill it out and they re-write). I have had students show up on a Thursday morning (re-do morning) with no application turned in and have sent them away. I want the re-do to be something they plan for and commit to in advance. As I say to them: “You are not going to Vegas to gamble!”

2. Re-do’s happen outside of class time on Thursday before school or after with no exceptions. If a student says “I can’t make it this Thursday.” I respond with “choose a Thursday you can make.” This avoids the “I have a spare Monday afternoon” runaway train of individual appointments that I can’t track or manage.

3. There is a two-week black-out period at the end of the semester (and is highlighted on our class calendar). This provides me the time I need to focus on end of the year activities, report card deadlines, final exams, etc. I did not do this last year and ended up feeling overwhelmed.

4. Re-do’s are a privilege, not a right. If I think they are trying to game me or take advantage of the opportunity I have the right to refuse their application, or we defer it until I see they have committed to the intent of the process.

5. Re-do’s are open to all students regardless of grade.

6. The most recent mark is the mark that will be used. I call this “rolling grades” and grades continue to roll all the way to the final exam (this semester there are 3 parts to the final: a written portion, portfolio presentation and an exit interview, but that is another post!) which is when the grades will stop rolling.

7. A limit of 2 redo’s per semester.

General Insights from working with Re-Do’s

1. I needed to define my limits in terms of time and energy in the policy. Sometimes this is hard for teachers to do, but making this policy made it easier for me to define those limits.

2. The idea of a “re-do’ is new for students and I needed to talk about both re-do’s and rolling grades on a daily basis. I know that sounds unbelievable, but I had students in last month of the semester ask incredulously “You mean I can re-do that test I bombed back in September?” Students see marks as set in stone so it takes time and many conversations before they begin to intuitively understand how it works.

3. I am using written assessments and no longer use multiple choice tests (Good bye multiple choice! Good-bye?). Re-do tests are very similar to the original; questions follow the standards for the course that we use in class on a regular basis.

4. If a student never chooses a re-do, they can still show what they know on a topic on the midterm and/or final exam, and their mark will roll with the most recent information (so in essence both the midterm and final exams are re-do’s).

5. Tests have an advanced and core questions; students can omit the advanced part if they are struggling to keep up and can challenge at a later date. Last semester I had several students who struggled with advanced questions but were ready to challenge these questions by the end of the semester with much success (it was pretty neat to see 🙂 ).

How about you? Do have re-do’s in your class? Would love to hear!

Meaning of grades? You tell me.

Student D shows up for class early, Staples-issue binder, Lou Lou Lemon lovely, warm breakfast sandwich lovingly wrapped in one hand and a Venti Starbucks in the other. As she enters she asks: “Can I ask you a couple of questions?” She sits at the front, during class she will ask up to 10 questions and gets impatient if her needs are not quickly meet. At break she hangs out with other like-minded’s and they map out a plan of attack for the up coming Physics project.

Student S shows up late. She struggles to get to school every day. Her mom tries to text her from work in the morning to wake her up. Her binder is somewhere, she just can’t remember where? Maybe her boyfriend’s car? She does not have time for breakfast or really the energy to make it. She rushes out the door hair wet. Once again, she did not bother to get the answers for the chemistry homework assignment….oh well.  None of her friends are in chemistry and she does know anyone well enough to text them for the worksheet answers.

Student C works upwards of 20 hours a week. She and her Mom have just moved to an apartment closer to school so she can walk to both school and work. When homework is assigned she relies on her friends. She is happy she has smart friends. She would like to do her own work but she just can’t keep up with the demands of work and school. For a Physics assignment where she had to build a catapult she thankfully purchased one from a former student. She tries to get her friends to tutor her right before tests and go through the material. She finds she is too tired most days to focus in class.

Student M sneaks quietly into to class, head down, books clutched tight, treading lightly as she moves to the back corner of the room, hoping to remain unnoticed a little longer. During class, she does not interact with other students and only on the rare occasion will talk to her teacher. She dislikes group work and any enforced group activities make her feel anxious. For the last group project she had no one to work with and ended up by default having to work with the other “left-over” student. The partnership did not go well and as a result the project feel on her shoulders to complete.

Now. Guess the grade for each of the above students?

Go on. I’ll wait.

By guess I mean use your detective skills to figure them out.

Did you have a knee jerk reaction of some sort to each description on how you expected them to do based on your experiences and biases?

Lately, I have been wondering (and feeling kind of queasy as a result) if grades, especially at the secondary level (as I watch my teen and her friends move through) in a points based transactional model, are more related to how the student is socially connected and than anything else.

What do grades tell us? You tell me.

Getting started with #SBG in Bio #flipclass – Not perfect YET!

Last summer I worked to rewrite learning outcomes of Biology 12 into “I can” standards  and move away from point collection. I wanted to have student friendly language that described what the student should be able to do by the end of the course. I say by the end of the course, as all standards are in play all semester and students may demonstrate mastery of standards at anytime.

I divided the standards into core (students need to show mastery in all these for B range) and advanced (into the A range). I decided on this division based on what students have struggled with in the past. When we cycle back (as I do several times throughout the course of the semester), some students have breakthroughs and are able to put it all together in a flash.

We established 4 levels for the standards: Mastery, Progressing, Starting, and No Evidence.

Note – This student used BLUE instead of GREEN.

I then gave all the standards to students in a duo-tang so they could track their progress throughout the semester.

Students used highlighters to track themselves (red=stop, yellow=caution, green=go) and the duotangs were the catalyst for our “hot seat” conversations as a student headed into an assessment.

Example of standards for cell biology unit:


A1. I can recognize and explain the function of each organelle. I can relate the role of the organelle to parts of the body.
A2. I can look at micrographs and diagrams of organelles and correctly id them.
A3. I can write, work with and explain the balanced chemical equation for cellular respiration.

A4. I can explain how organelles function to compartmentalize the cell and move proteins and lipids through the cell.

I like how she moved to colours in the second column.

What worked well:

1. Students used standards to have conversations with each other.

2. Students could ask for help in specific areas.

3. Students have a strong awareness of where their weaknesses and strengths lie.

4. Students focused on what they could do rather than on their mark.

What I want to improve:

1. How to do justice to the standards and generate a meaningful percentage.

2. Standards are still too “raw” and obvious, which leads to students consuming content in bite size pieces rather than knitting it together into something of more depth, interest and meaning.

3. Find a way to use standards to communicate with parents in a meaningful manner.

4. Let go of more of the trivia of the course and replace with enduring understandings.

5. Increase my confidence when working with SBG. I still was shaky on how exactly it was going to work; students DO NOT like that.

Note: My work on Standard Based Grading is modified, blended and adapted from @kellyoshea, @samevns,  @bennettscience and @mrsebiology and I thank them for their diligence in documenting and sharing their work.

Dear Points….We need to break up. Inspired by @MrPicc112

Dear Points,

We have been together for many years and we have had an intense relationship. When we first began I thought you were everything, in fact, I built my entire world around you.

Almost everything I did was to serve you, to meet your needs. I set up my classroom (in rows and purchased dividers) to service you.

I spent endless hours making up NEW elaborate tests every year and every semester just so I could collect you. Each time thinking, this time I’ll get it right.

I would display columns of you to parents, students, administrators and even other teachers! Believing you had the same intentions as I.

I wrote policy after policy on how to collect you. Each September anew, believing I could finally make sense of you and get a handle on how you impacted my life.

I spent days of my life deciding who should get you and how you should be shared. I discussed, explained, analysed, collected, emailed, and compared you; it was endless and never-ending.

You demanded so much of me, that at times I had to take days off of work just to manage you.

I gave you all of this and more and look how you have treated me and others in return?

You told me you were going to help children learn, you promised. These are children here!  Ones who are full of curiosity, passion and raw enthusiasm.

You made a mockery out of my intentions to share my joy for learning with children. At first I believed that you had everyone’s best intentions at heart. Now I realize that you are manipulative, self-serving and controlling. Instead of caring about learning you cause children to become mindless point collectors who care for little more than “is it for points?” and “how many points is it out of?”

You single-handedly caused children to become highly developed point-gathering-strategists, who care nothing about learning, NOTHING. Instead they’ve become fixated on the mindless manipulation of you and how you are acquired. You are the direct cause of cheating, stealing, truancy, stress, mistrust and homework clubs (where one student at a time does the work so the group can acquire points).

You make students, say aloud and right to my face “Well if the lab is not for points, I don’t want to do it! Why bother?” Do you know how much that hurts?

You have made me say things like “Get it done or I’ll take it in for points!”. Or even worse “I’ll have to take points off for that!”

But you know what is worst of all, the final straw and the biggest insult?

It is that you made me begin to hate what I love most.

I love to learn, I love it!  Even more so, I love learning with children. It might sound corny to you, but I feel exhilarated when I see a child light up when they are fully engaged in the magic flow of learning.

Over the years, you have demanded more and more of me. In fact, I have no time for anything else; you have kept me from learning, interacting, and growing as a teacher and as a person.

I wasn’t confident before, to break free from you and stand up for what I believe in. I doubted myself and everyone told me I could trust you.

But points, I am ready to break free of you and the ball and chain that is holding me back.

Hear that SBG? I am on the market.