Saturday, August 31, 2013

Grading Students? Stop using percentages

How to grade (assess) students is an important topic in the educational reform movement.

~ As a student, I studied education courses and, in hindsight, noticed that little time was spent on the topic of how to best GRADE (assess) students' work.
~ As a teacher, (10+ years), I gave out  many grades to students.
~ As Potsdam Central Board of Education member (13 years - with 2 years as president and 2 yrs. as vice-president), I spent a significant amount of time studying about grading. How was it being done at PCS? Why? Was it effective? Fair? Consistent? Problematic? Helpful to students, parents, and teachers? What was the latest research? What were students, teachers, and parents telling me about problems with grading practices?
      What I learned from my examination and study of the issue was that the existing methods used at PCS to grade students needed to change. Here is just some of what I learned:
* Some teachers were grading (instead of evaluating) practice homework - thus making each homework assignment, in effect, a test/quiz (at a time during the learning process when mastery was not yet to be expected).
* Some were not evaluating and returning homework assignments in a timely manner (or at all).
* Some were boosting academic achievement grades due to good behavior or lowering academic grades for bad behavior (an important reason to have separate grades for academic achievement and behavioral factors).
* Instead of learning effective classroom management skills, some (granted a small minority of teachers) were using the threat of lowering grades as a tool to control student behavior. Even one teacher, who in many high schools may have over 100 students per day, can do significant damage to students if his/her use of grading is flawed.

  There is no question that there was a need for the Board to develop a philosophy and policy to oversee this most important (and oft unexamined) part of school life.
       Because the BOE president has the authority to form ad hoc committees to study issues, I decided to do just that. Despite the superintendent's reluctance to delve into this potentially politically-charged issue - correctly predicting a turf war - he did, eventually, do a good job studying the matter and working with me and the Grading Committee to craft a new policy.
      I continue to study the issue of grading and so it was with great interest that I came across another scholarly article about grading. The September 2013 edition of Educational Leadership contains a well-researched article entitled, "The Case Against Percentage Grades." Among the points made by the author Thomas R. Guskey:
  1. Percentage grades are popular but cannot be defended "from a procedural, practical, or ethical perspective."
  2. Teachers vary widely in their grading of identical student work (when using a percentage scale).
  3. When teachers use grading scales that have fewer and larger categories (like A, B, C, D, F), there is greater consistency across teachers in the grades assigned to students.
  4. "Percentage grades continued to be relatively rare in US schools until the 1990's."
  5. "The resurgence of percentage grades appears to come mainly from the increased use of technology." 
  6. "The 100-point scale that teachers employed in the early 20th century was based on an average grade of 50, and grades above 75 and below 25 were rare. IN contrast, most modern applications of percentage grades set the average at 75 and establish 60 or 65 as the minimum threshold for passing. This practice dramatically increases the likelihood of a negatively skewed grade distribution that is 'heavily gamed against the student.'"
  7. In a 100-point percentage rating scale:
          *   Are there really 100 discernable levels?
          *  If 65 (or 60) is the threshold for passing, then this type of scale identifies 60 or more distinct levels of failure an only 40 levels of success. Can teachers really differentiate 60 levels of failing?
           *  Many assume the 100-point grading scale is more accurate than a five-point scale. The research suggests this is an illusion.  There is more room for subjectivity and error on the part of the teachers in the 100-point percentage model.
         8. "Students who are taught well and provided ample opportunities to practice and demonstrate what they have learned typically find well-aligned performance tasks or assessment questions much easier than do students who are  taught poorly and given few practice opportunities. Multiple factors influence students' performance, many lying outside students' control." In other words, poor student scores are sometimes a reflection of poor teaching.
          9.  ZEROS! The expression ZAP (zeros are not permitted) has caused quite a stir among those who are seemingly ill- informed and/or resistant to change. Some states have passed legislation "stipulating that the lowest percentage grades teachers can assign to students is 50 rather than zero."  Opponents claim that schools are giving students something for nothing. However, failing is failing and 50 is a failing grade in most schools that use a percentage system. In addition, "...although some have suggested that minimum-grade policies promote grade inflation and social promotion in schools, well-designed, longitudinal studies show that is not the case." (See Carey & Carifo, 2012)
          10. What is the wisdom in eliminating zeros and making 50 the lowest grade (in the 100-point grading system)?
           a. A zero can have a devastating effect on a student's percentage grade. One grade can unfairly skew the overall average.
           b. "A single zero can doom a student to failure, regardless of what dedicated effort or level of performance might follow."
           c.  A grading system (based on 100 points) that permits zeros gives students virtually no hope of grade recovery. A student who has no hope will exert no effort - a problem for both the student and the teacher.

      What's the solution? According to Guskey, schools should consider going to a 0-4 integer grading scale. This would allow schools to avoid the Zap debate and would align school grading with "the levels used to classify student achievement in most state assessment programs." It would also align public school grading with the grading practices utilized at many universities.

    It makes sense to move from a percentage grading system to an integer grading scale. Schools run by progressive thinkers who put students' needs first are likely to make this grading change. It is a win-win for students and districts but will require leadership from insightful educators and Board members.

To quote Guskey, "It's time to abandon grading scales that distort the accuracy, objectivity, and reliability of students' grades."

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Student Privacy at PCS - Conclusion (7 of 7 parts)

Time magazine ran an 8/12/13 story about privacy. The author wrote, "The skeptics no doubt have noticed that governments are made up of people and that people are prone to misuse of information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power." He goes on to write, "We have also learned to trade elements of our privacy for all sorts of supposed benefits." 

The PCSD, like so many other school districts in the last ten years, has made huge amounts of private student information available, via computer and accessible from school or home, to many employees. While certain classes of employees need some confidential student information in order to fulfill their job responsibilities, many are given access to much more information than they need. Why? The public is told that SchoolTool (an open source, web-based student information system) is not advanced enough to permit the needed information limitations.

When I discussed this topic with the PCS superintendent four years ago (as BOE president), he was concerned that placing additional limitations on employee access to confidential student information would result in employee disgruntlement (i.e. employees feeling they were not trusted). However, the argument should be about what is best for students and how to best comply with federal laws aimed at protecting confidential student information.

Board of Education members should have answers to questions like the following and the answers should be made readily available to the public.

1. How often is FERPA training of employees is going on at the PCSD? (PCSD officials have recently responded that there is "periodic training" - a non-answer answer that begs the question, what does periodic mean? Annual training should occur.)

2.  Why do no documents exist at the PCSD (either on paper or in electronic form - according to PCS officials) that pertain to FERPA training of employees? 

3. Why isn't FERPA training information included in employee manuals? (While the superintendent makes a cursory mention of FERPA at his opening speech each year [something I observed for six years], mentioning FERPA is not the same as providing training.)

4. Because of the potential for teacher bias against students that could easily be caused by giving teachers access to students' disciplinary records from other teachers' classes, such records should not be provided except in rare cases where there is an egregious problem that requires the collaboration of a group of teachers. Are the BOE and administration concerned about the creation of negative teacher expectation of students?  
In a July 24th, 2013 memo, the PCS superintendent wrote, "Teachers can... view the disciplinary records for students on their rosters or those in which they have created a record." In other words, teachers can see all disciplinary referrals on all their students. (Sometimes, as school officials well know, ineffective teachers can be the source of unnecessary disciplinary referrals. Administrators have said as much to certain parents and to BOE members.) In my opinion as a long-term high school teacher, teachers, for the most part, do not need to know how their students are behaving in other teachers' classes. 

5. According to school officials, PCS is not keeping an official record of FERPA violations -why not? Boards of Education should require this.

6. According to the TIME magazine reporter (and something we all know to be true), "...people are prone to misuse of information when driven by greed or curiosity or a will to power."
    A.  Given our inherent nature as humans to be curious, how will school officials effectively convey to employees that looking at confidential student information out of curiosity is a violation of federal law?

    B. Regarding "greed and power," think of Pearson Publishers and inBloom, Inc. Schools are collecting and NYSED is sharing extraordinary amounts of confidential student information. Pearson is a company that is making huge sums of money by having contracts with NYS (and other states) to create the 3-8 ELA and math tests. In addition, they create instructional materials for teachers to use to prepare students for these required tests. inBloom is another company that is receiving private student information and storing it in a cloud (security not guaranteed) without parental approval and all for a for-profit business. The amount of education dollars being funneled from schools to these companies demands serious discussion. As teachers lose their jobs in droves, some companies are making enormous profits. Are these companies really making education better? Are they (school districts and the SED) putting confidential student information at risk? 

7. What are the consequences for employees for FERPA violations? Unless administration takes a serious stand on these, FERPA will be a law with no teeth. 

8. The superintendent noted that "all building secretaries have access to grades, discipline, attendance, custody, orders of protection, etc." - a very significant amount of confidential student information. What specific and ongoing training is provided for these employees?

9. How much confidential student information, above and beyond what employees need to fulfill their job responsibilities, is now available to employees? Is there any way to alter the scope so employees get only the student information they need to fulfill their job responsibilities?

10. What can the superintendent do to make the protection of confidential student information a high priority?

When I was BOE president, I had lengthy discussions with Pat Brady regarding my concerns about student privacy. My position was that too much confidential student information was being made available to employees  who did not need it and this put student privacy at risk. Mr. Brady did not concur.

To paraphrase the Time magazine writer, elements of student privacy are certainly being traded for all sorts of supposed benefits and Bob Freeman, a decades-long NYS DOS Director of Open Government, has stated that there is "rampant ignorance" among school employees about the student privacy protection law known as FERPA. Bottom line...student privacy is at risk even if school officials do not want to discuss it or address it.

The six previous postings on Student Privacy can be accessed at:
1. Student Privacy at Risk
2. Student Privacy - Why Parents Should Care
3. Modern Technology as a Risk to Student Privacy
4. Teachers and Student Privacy
5. Confidential Student Information Revealed
6. FERPA: What Does Legitimate Educational Interest Mean?

Friday, August 9, 2013

State Testing Results at PCS and elsewhere

The NYS testing results are out. ELA (English Language Arts) and math test results for grades 3-8 have been released and, as many predicted, the results are not good.

These NYS mandated tests are heavily weighed in teacher evaluations and are supposed to differentiate effective teachers from ineffective teachers. In addition, obviously, the tests are touted to be good indicators of student achievement and learning. The debate about whether or not this is true is a topic for another posting. In the meantime, take a look at how Potsdam Central did. The link below will enable you to compare school districts across the state.

ELA for Potsdam Central (grades 3-8)
3rd................35% (percentage meeting new NYS standards)

Math for Potsdam Central (grades 3-8)

In comparing PCS to Canton Central, there is a notable difference in grade 6 ELA. At PCS, it's 26.2% and at CCS it's 45.9%. PCS's grade 3 math is 19% and CCS is 38.8%.

It will be interesting to see what school officials have to say about the significance of the results. Parents can access more information at: