Monday, October 17, 2016

Grading and Academic Achievement at CMS: 100% Accountability

Part II of II

Carson Middle School has supported a shift in grading practices that are driven by a standards based mindset and implemented practices that support standards based assessment of learning. Our vision for academic grades at CMS is reflected in the following statement: Carson Middle School will report student grades that are accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of student learning. To define what exactly this means to students, parents, and teachers we have established the following definitions in relation to grading:

Accurate: By basing a student’s grade on solely academic factors, the teacher creates a clear picture of what the student has learned without the influence of other factors. These other factors, such as effort and attitude, are still essential, but are not part of the student’s academic grade and are communicated separately.

Consistent: For each unit, the teacher will provide a student learning guide that describes exactly what the student will need to master. Using student learning guides establishes clear expectations for mastery up front and applies them consistently throughout the unit and semester.

Meaningful: A meaningful grade is one that clearly communicates what learning has taken place. Scores are recorded by the essential standards rather than by type, such as assessments or homework, making it easier to identify areas of strength and to address areas of concern for each student.

Supportive of learning: Grading supports learning by focusing on the material that has or has not been learned rather than on accumulating points to reach a certain total. The reassessment policy also supports student learning by allowing new levels of learning to replace old when a student shows improvement on an assessment.

In a nutshell, our grading practices are geared towards academic progress reporting (grading) being reflective of what students have learned, according to what the standards say should be learned. When considering that 95% of our students passed all classes last school year, it may appear that all of our students are high achieving. When you consider roughly 80% of students at CMS reached mastery on all common benchmark assessments, it may appear that our students are making great progress in mastering all standards. When considering our latest student data component of standardized testing scores from last school year (discussed below) you might wonder what in the world is going on at Carson Middle School.

Last week I attended a Carson City School Board workshop in which all elementary and middle school principals discussed and answered questions regarding our Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) results. As you might recall, the State of Nevada aligned with the SBAC as the assessment arm in rolling out Common Core State Standards in 2010. The SBAC is the official state assessment that, for our middle schools, replaced the Criterion Reference Test (CRT) which was last taken by Carson Middle School students in 2013. During our school board workshop there were many relevant questions asked, "Why are our scores so low? Why are some other states higher than Nevada? How do we compare with other states? How do we compare with other districts in our state? What are we going to do about these low scores?” among many other very good questions.

As with any student learning and/or performance data point it is critical to first understand exactly what the data represents. It may seem fairly obvious that our student proficiency ratings speak for themselves: 22.87% of CMS students were at or above proficiency in math and 49.49% were at or above proficiency in English Language Arts (ELA). I agree with a few of our board members that these numbers are not acceptable and that we need to do something to improve our scores.  As I stated during the workshop, I own these scores and take 100% responsibility for them, so should everybody in this school and community.  There are no excuses, however, it is important to point out that these numbers represent our first look at student assessment through the SBAC lens as we have not had any student data (CRT nor SBAC) for the previous three school years. While our student scores did not meet our expectations, particularly in math, having student performance data will now allow us to answer some critical questions as we identify gaps in achievement. Do we need to consider curriculum adjustments? Common assessment (benchmark) adjustments? What are instructional adjustments that we need to consider? As my colleague Mr. Jeremy Lewis (middle school ELA implementation specialist) pointed out the SBAC math assessment does not simply assess math skills, rather, the assessment includes reading, critical thinking, problem-solving, strategic thinking, deductive reasoning, writing, and logic reasoning.

There are many additional considerations in seeking solutions to increasing student achievement and our SBAC data is an important consideration as our starting point in guiding school improvement moving forward. We will be carefully evaluating our performance indicators as a school to suggest and implement adjustments that will increase student achievement on SBAC and benchmark assessments in the future. Perhaps most importantly, we now have specific student performance feedback that will allow us to make important decisions in supporting our school vision: a culture of shared responsibility to engage, empower, and inspire successful lifelong learners.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Grading and academic achievement at CMS

Part I of II

Last week I highlighted just a small handful of some incredible innovations that are taking place at Carson Middle School.  Innovation is often thought of as something “new” but I like to think of innovation in education as something that allows us to apply different solutions to support or adjust to changing needs.  At Carson Middle School we are constantly considering ways in which we can innovate.

One of the innovations that we have spent a lot of time working through to support at Carson Middle School is student grading.  At the end of the 2013-14 school year we had a record number of students fail one or more classes with only 79% of all students at CMS passing all classes.  In terms of student numbers we had 869 students passing all classes and an alarming 231 students fail at least one class.  As we looked closer at our student pass/fail rates it became clear that student grades were not always reflective of what students were learning in classes.  What we noticed is that some student grades were inflated because of extra credit being assigned for non-academic assignments (i.e. brining in Kleenex boxes, being a hard worker, being nice, etc.) and some student grades were being deflated because of non-academic assignments (i.e. being late to class, not having a pencil, not turning in a permission slip on time, etc.).  As a staff we could all agree that we wanted to support having extra Kleenex in classrooms and could all agree that it is important to work hard, be nice, turn your work in on time, and be prepared for class the truth of the matter is that these were all non-academic grades that were significantly impacting student achievement within our school. 

Over the past two school years we have spent a significant amount of time learning how to implement standards based academic grades at CMS.  Our goal has been to promote student learning by reporting student grades that are accurate, consistent, meaningful, and supportive of student learning.  We created a citizenship grade to allow for behavior based grades that are still significant, but separate and not specifically related to standards based academic content (i.e. being prepared, being on time, etc.).  As a result of studying our gradebooks, from 2014 through 2016 we were able to raise our academic achievement levels significantly from 79% of all students passing to 95% of all students passing all classes. 

Think back to when you were in middle school.  Think about your experience as a student and how you were graded as a student.  What stands out to you about how you were graded?  Were you graded fairly?  How do you know?  Were you graded according to how well you learned the material?  How did you know what the expectations were about how you would be graded?  Think about how much has changed in the world since you were in school.  Often we hold the same expectations for our schools currently that we did when we attended schools.  In reality, it is a completely different world - both inside and out.  Academic grading is something that we all have experience with as a student, but very few of us really have experience and training as educators to truly understand what exactly the academic grade represents.  What goes into the academic grade and what exactly does the academic grade communicate to the student?  The parent?  The teacher?  There is a lot to consider in determining answers to these questions. 

Our teachers have been extremely innovative in building a complex system to support student learning that includes curriculum, assessment, and instruction.  As we are in the process of transitioning to support Infinite Campus as our student data management system I would ask our entire school community to be patient with the transition to a complex data system.  While we are going through some growing pains in our transition, I am confident that we will continue to create meaningful conversation between our school, students, and parents regarding academic achievement.  We are on the cusp of our SBAC scores being released and while I know our student achievement data won’t be what we would like to see as a school or community, it is a data point as we consider how to best support the learning needs of our students.  Please ask your students about Mastery Connect and how it supports student learning.  Please monitor Infinite Campus and ask your students about their academic progress.  Please communicate any questions that you have about learning at CMS to our school staff.  Most importantly please continue to build relationships with students to support academic achievement.  I will continue the grading conversation here next week – for now thanks for stopping by and please let me know if you have any questions.  Thank you!


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