Category Archives: Assessment

She met the learning outcomes…but she doesn’t deserve to pass.

It is that time of year.  Some schools call it ‘evaluation’, some refer to it as ‘transition’, and others call it ‘adjudication’. Whatever the title, this week in high schools across BC, gatherings of teachers, councilors and admin will be held to determine the academic standing of students on the pass/fail bubble.

These conversations bring to the forefront a philosophical divide when encountering the “dilemma” of what to do with some at-risk students who either pass a given course, or come surprisingly  close to it.  In some cases the criteria for determining whether or not a student has shown sufficient evidence for competency around learning outcomes gets rather blurry.

Take the following scenario, which may or may not be from my own personal experience:

Claire, a 14 year-old grade 9 student, has missed a lot of school time, some of which certainly appears to be of her own making.  When she is not sick or skipping class, she clearly struggles socially and has few friends.  As her grade level administrator, I have met with her and her mother on numerous occasions, and besides my comments and questions, little else is offered by Claire or her mom. I have informed all of her teachers that there certainly appears to be issues within the family.  Claire’s mother never comes out for Parent-Teacher interviews and often excuses her daughter from missed classes for being ‘ill’.  Despite all the meetings and behavioural consequences like DTs for missed class, Claire’s behaviours have deteriorated.  Perhaps of little surprise, academic penalties for missed tests, late work and poor participation have not had the desired effect either.  In short, Claire has had a rather dismal year.

Her four terms in a linear Science 9 class have resulted in the following percentage grades and comments:

Term 1:     56             Claire needs to complete homework and improve attendance.

Term 2:     51            Greater participation would improve grade.

Term 3:     42            Missing assignments have resulted in a lower mark.

Term 4:     30            Missed classes and incompletes have resulted in failing mark.

Term Average: 44.75%                         Final  Exam: 65%

With the average of the four terms accounting for 80% of the final outcome and the exam the remaining 20%, Claire’s final course standing was 48.8%.

At our adjudication meeting, there are three possible outcomes for Claire.  For one, she could retake Science 9 in order to qualify for regular Science 10 and later be eligible for Chemistry 11, Physics 11 and Biology 11.  The second outcome could see her get an SG (Standing Granted) for Science 9, but this would relegate her to Science 10A and eventually the less academic stream of Science and Tech 11. Lastly Claire could enroll in 2 weeks of summer school, possibly boost her academic standing, and if she passed she could enroll in regular Science 10.

In a chance hallway meeting between Claire’s classroom teacher and myself, we struck up a conversation around the various outcomes for Claire.  Despite me mentioning that Claire clearly passed the final exam, it was obvious that the teacher was vehemently opposed to Claire be granted a passing grade based on the evidence to date.

We had the following conversation:

I asked, “Would you be open to counting the final exam as sufficient evidence to have Claire pass the Science 9 course?”

“Absolutely not,” the teacher responded.

“Why not?”

“She has a final mark of 48.8 percent and according to school policy that is not a pass.  She needs at least 50 percent overall.”

“But she did get well over 50 percent on the final exam,” I argued.

“The final exam makes up only 20 percent of the final grade.”

Pausing for a moment, I decided to explore another avenue.  I asked, “Is your final exam a comprehensive sampling of the course material?”

“I think it is a solid exam, and it covers all of our course,” the teacher replied.

I continued, “So, you do think it covers all of the learning outcomes?”

“Yes.”

Perhaps in response to seeing the direction the conversation was about to take, the teacher countered, “She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“She has skipped way too many classes, she has missing assignments and she has a horrible attitude.  She needs to be taught accountability and the importance of coming to class.”

To be honest, I could not quite wrap my brain around the comment, ‘She may have met the learning outcomes, but she does not deserve to pass.’

From this conversation I propose the following points:

  1. Let Walmart, or whoever might employ her this summer, teach her that regular attendance and punctuality really matters.
  2.  If some universities, trades and other institutions reserve the right to use ONLY the outcome of a comprehensive exam to determine academic standing, could the teacher of a public school not also have this right?
  3. Given the arbitrary allocation of 80/20 term to exam weightings, would the result of these weightings not at best be a guideline to determining final course standing? (Had it been 60/40 like many provincial exams, she would have passed easily.)
  4. With so many variables impacting the regular course grade such as homework completion, attendance, family stability, hunger, poverty, social issues, maturity, drugs and alcohol, would a solid exam result not be considered especially valid to measure the extent to which a student does or does not meet the learning outcomes?
  5. Could we develop grading policies that allow teachers to use all tools at their disposal to determine the most accurate grade at any given time?
  6. Could we stop proposing that one established, and arbitrary, weighting system provides fairness to all?

Until this same time next year…

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Social Anxiety in Students

I just read a very good blog post – one that should give educators cause to reflect.  I suggest you read it.

http://www.onlineschools.org/education-debate/william-chamberlain-i-hide-my-disability/

William Chamberlain poses the following questions:

  • What are you doing in your classroom for kids like me that some days are barely hanging on until they can get back home where they can relax?
  • Have you actively sought out the quiet kids or the ones that don’t seem to make friends and spend a few minutes with them?
  • If you go out of your way to make them more comfortable, they will be more successful in your classroom.

Looking at these questions reminded me of a student I had in History 12.  Let’s refer to him as Jon.

Jon hadn’t been very successful in previous Social Studies classes, but he wanted to take part in History 12.  His attendance was good, he scored approximately 60% on most assessments and he NEVER contributed to the conversation.  When it came time for presentations or group work he disappeared.  At first I didn’t figure it out, but soon it became apparent that he knew what we were up to and as soon as I was about to return to my normal lecture format he would miraculously reappear.

Once I tried to get ‘tough’ and I attempted to force him into taking on a speaking role in our Holocaust Coroners activity, but he did not want to play a role and rather left me a note.  I have kept it…

‘Mr. Dueck you are a good teacher and I really like your class.  You seem like a nice guy and I love the material.  I will not however, be taking part in any public presentations.  It does not matter what you say or do…I won’t do it.  Nothing on earth scares me more than speaking in front of others.  If you force me to do it, I will probably end up telling you to F*** Off, you will be forced to react to my comment, and we will all be worse off for it.  I will just avoid class until it is all over and you can give me a zero.’ –  Jon

I went home and shared this with my spouse who is not a teacher, and she leveled with me as well, explaining that her worst days of high school, without a doubt, were the public presentation days. ‘You guys [teachers] get up in front of people all the time, everyday – you just don’t get it.’

The next day I found Jon, nowhere near my classroom or the library where the rest were researching their presentations, and I asked if he cared to do a personal project on his days off.  He jumped at the chance and I told him that regular classes would resume on Monday.  After the weekend he was in his usual seat as predicted, the imminent threat had passed.

A few weeks later I noticed him doodling on his desk and instead of ripping into him about graffiti, I asked if I could buy him a sketchbook.  The resulting collection of artwork, a day-to-day account of our material as seen through the eyes of an artist, is a book I cherish to this day.

I see Jon from time to time and I carry his sketchbook to nearly all of my presentations.  Jon taught me a few things, or at least entrenched what I had suspected:

  1. It is my job to lower stress and anxiety in the classroom, not exacerbate it.
  2. I was the dictator in my classroom and the ‘keeper of the gate’ when it came to who could demonstrate knowledge, how it would be done and when.  The avenues in which I allowed a student to display knowledge would directly impact the extent to which he or she was able to.
  3. Learning is number one, engagement is critical, the method is malleable.  Let students, ‘Show what they know’.
  4. It is all about relationships.

ps.  Today Jon is a successful artist and lover of all things History…especially WWII.

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Let’s Dream for Moment – What if courses could be approached like a house project?

When I approach something in which I lack confidence, the ‘door prize’ that pulls me into the process is knowing that I can make errors – as many as it takes!  So when I was confronted with a house that did not have soffits, gutters, or facia, I called as many contractors as I could.   I had insulation sticking out of the sides of my roof and someone told we that I needed soffits, gutters and facia.  I knew that we had purchsed an unfinished house, that was clear, but I didn’t know I was a landlord to a family of squirrels, numerous birds and other creatures – all calling my roof ‘home’. 

First of all, I did not know what facia or soffits were. I knew they were located near the roof and not in the kitchen, but I would not have been able to speak with much authority beyond that.

I had the summer to figure out a solution and I called 3 different contractors, all of whom neglected to show up, so I started at the contractors counter at my local building centre. Armed with a digital camera and 102 questions I got a start. The guy told me, ‘Do the step I just explained, and when you are finished, ask me what to do next.’ I told my wife, ‘the worst case scenario is that I totally botch this up and I tear it all down.’ Disguising her doubt as only a great wife can, she said ‘go for it’ .

Many more questions, a number of errors and 5 weeks later, my house had soffits, facia and gutters. More importantly, I had the confidence to start the next project.  I will share more on that later.   If I hadn’t had the luxury of error, the latitude to figure it out sans unreasonable penalty (mine was the cost of time and materials) and time to tinker, I would never have started the process at all. I wonder what would happen if we could build an education system that resembled the way people take on hobbies, interests and projects? It is uncanny the way in which hobbyists delve, learn and conquer what they don’t know about  their own interests. I wish the same for my students, and I know that letting them make mistakes and LEARN from those errors is a window into increasing their levels of motivation. Take any group of people, a group of teachers would be no different, give them new information and tell them that the measure of their knowledge retention will be a one-shot test. The evidence of stress would be immediate, and for good reason. Retests, practice, simulation, modeling – call it what you want, but I think it is imperative that we construct learning environments in which mistakes are welcomed and examined, but most importantly, a natural part of the process.

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