Friday, May 14, 2010

Transparent Algebra: Assessment Revisited

A while back I blogged about my current thinking regarding how I’m going to assess next year. I wanted to write some more about this because I received some really good pushback that I want to address, and because I want to help clarify some small revisions to my plan and blogging about it helps me think it through.

The two main pieces of pushback on that previous post were:
  • By having students re-assess outside of class, I’m making it “optional” which undermines both the intent and the effectiveness of the plan.

  • By putting a grade in the gradebook, my assessments aren’t truly formative.
Let me state up front that I pretty much agree with both of those criticisms, yet I’m more-or-less not changing what I’m doing. Let me explain.

I commented at length on that previous post explaining how and why I’m having students re-assess outside of class. Go read that comment if you’re interested (I can’t seem to link directly to the comment, but it’s the one that starts with “Thanks everyone, this is really helping my thinking”), but, to sum it up, my school is different, and I think how it is different helps address some of the concerns that were stated. At the moment, I’m pretty comfortable with this one (subject to change, of course, in the fall when I put it into practice).

And I agree that if you put a grade in the gradebook it has the potential to undermine that assessment being formative. Certainly my class is not going to be as flexible as I would like it to be – I don’t foresee differentiating in class as much as a truly formative-based, adjust-what-you’re-doing-on-the-fly classroom would (at least not this first year back). But I see my assessments as allowing me to target which skills individual students are struggling with, and allow us to address those on a student-by-student basis in a timely fashion, so I still see these as “almost formative” (yes, I know it’s an oxymoron).

Because the grade in the gradebook is also dynamic (in the sense that a re-assessment that shows a higher level of understanding replaces the previous score), I think I can do a decent job of explaining to my students why that’s not a permanent assessment of their learning. Given the realities of time (I’ll see my Algebra students about 50% less than many other folks do), curriculum, my other full-time job responsibilities, and student-information-system gradebooks that have to be up-to-date on a weekly basis for eligibility purposes, I think this is a compromise I can live with and still have it be effective for my students (once again, subject to revision when put into practice).

So I want to lay out my slightly revised assessment plan and fill in a few more details. This will only fully make sense if you’ve read the previous post and comments as I don’t want to repeat everything.
  • Grades are still going to be weighted 10% preparation, 70% formative, and 20% summative. For now, I’m sticking with still including the preparation grade as I think going cold-turkey on students in this area would be counterproductive. (This category includes homework, but also some writing/reflection pieces and some-in class preparation stuff as well.) I’m also leaning toward still calling the 70% formative part “formative,” even though it technically isn’t. But that’s the best label I can think of that I can use to make this transparent to students and parents and help me explain what I’m trying to do. We’ll see.

  • I’m no longer going to define my assessments as six questions over three skills – it’s going to be more flexible than that. I still anticipate two to three questions per skill, but my assessments will often be over just one skill at a time, not three (depending on a variety of factors). The number of questions will be determined by how many I think I need to help me identify where students might be struggling and accurately assess mastery.

  • In the previous post, I’m not sure I clearly laid out some of the other pieces of what would happen before the first true assessment. Certainly my openers and other in-class activities will give me – and my students – many opportunities to assess (both formally and informally) how they are progressing on a specific skill. I’ll also be offering a pre-assessment of sorts online, where students can self-assess a couple of days before the formal assessment that goes in the gradebook. Here’s a quick sample of what that will look like. (I had been planning on doing this as a PDF, but thanks to David Cox sharing his Examview question banks with me, it’s now going to look like this. This sample is taken from his work as I haven’t had time to start writing my own yet.) Go ahead and click “check your work” to note the type of feedback that students can receive from this. (Note that this is not formally graded or recorded, but also see David’s post of how you could do that if you chose to.)

    Students will do this as a homework assignment and then make a note of it on their checklist that will look something like this, and then we’ll have a better idea of what we need to work on before the first formal assessment over the skill. When they take the first formal assessment (in class, pretty much as I described in the previous post, including the worked out solutions posted to the class web page that afternoon), it will get graded and entered in the gradebook (viewable online by students and parents, and identified by skill) along with information that identifies what (if anything) they need to work on. They will then make appointments (using something like this – thanks to Kate Nowak’s example) to come in and re-assess, and will have multiple opportunities to get help before that re-assessment (from me, from other math teachers, from peer tutors in our study center, from friends, from their siblings or parents, or even on their own with online and textbook support).

  • I’m currently leaning toward using a five-point scale to grade each assessment. Here is my scale and the descriptors (thanks to Matt Townsley):

    5 = Demonstrates thorough understanding
    4.5 = High level of understanding, but with small errors
    3.5 = Demonstrates understanding, but with significant gaps
    3 = Shows some understanding, but insufficient to be successful
    2.5 = Attempts the problem

    This gives me the gradations and descriptors that I’d like to use and that I think students (and parents) can understand, but still works reasonably well within a student information system gradebook that is going to average all the scores to determine an overall grade. (Again, please keep in mind that each re-assessment replaces the previous score if they demonstrate a higher level of understanding, they're not averaged.) It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a good start toward shifting the focus away from points and toward understanding.
I’m sure that a year from now – if I’m still teaching Algebra in 2011-12 – I’ll have learned a ton and will be making lots of adjustments. I still have about three months to obsess over and modify this plan for the coming year but, at the moment, this is feeling like a fairly solid way to start the school year this first year back in the classroom.


  1. What software will you use to keep track of grades, and inform your students of them? I did this this year with excel and had a hard time keeping students updated (a critical part of the process). When their personal copies of their grades got out of sync with mine, we were confused.

    I'm planning on writing some software in the fall to support this grading system - I haven't found any already-existing software that does a good job. I hope you'll chronicle the administrative tediums (tedia?) you run into next year! Good luck!

  2. Riley - Yeah, I saw that you're planning on writing that software. Looking forward to it, although I doubt I'd get to use it anytime soon.

    My district uses Infinite Campus for our student information system. My gradebook is online for all students and parents to see. Each skill off of my concept list will be individually identified in the gradebook, with the current level of understanding indicated. In addition, they'll have that paper copy I linked to in their notebooks. I'll use the comments section for each assignment to indicate which problems they missed on the initial assessment and, once they start re-assessing, will use the comments to track their previous scores.

    But, as I indicated in the post, in the end Infinite Campus looks at everything as percents and averages them, so it's still not exactly what I'd like.

  3. Karl Fisch,

    My name is Alissa Logan. I am a junior at the University of South Alabama. My major is Elementary Education. I am currently in EDM310, and will be commenting on your blog until the end of June. At that time I will be posting a blog on my page that will summarize my comments from your blog.

    I will be posting another comment tomorrow giving you the links to mine and my class blog. Sorry for having to do two separate comments, but I am having some technical difficulty.

    I really enjoyed reading this post. You are an inspiration to me as a future teacher, because you are thinking outside the box. Although, you know it is not going to be an easy transition, you are still going to give it a shot.

    I believe teachers/principals are more concerned with grades and students passing a test then really remembering what they have learned. I loved when you said, "... shifting the focus from points and toward understanding." We as teachers need to get our students ready for the real world and not just knowledge they will forget after their test is taken.

    I hope you visit my blog and give me some pointers.

  4. Karl,

    As I said earlier I'm sorry about having to do two separate comments, but I really want you to have the links to my blog and my class blog.

    Class Blog

    Alissa's blog

  5. Karl,
    I've been through what you are doing with revamping your grading system. Moving to reassessment (for me it's during tutoring hours only after school) has completely changed teaching for me. I have really liked the system and it gives me the supportive role instead of the "Grader." If that makes sense.

    I posted a bit about my reflections on the year it here at my teacher blog here:

    But, what I wanted to tell you is that I found a very simple way to put a grade that is reassessed into the grade book and show that it has been attempted a second time. I just put the regraded score in and add a .2 at the end of it. This does not modify the grade very much at all and it's a signal to students, parents and all concerned that a reassessment has taken place.

    Best of luck with what you are doing.