Making the Grade Count

November 1, 2013 by
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Caroline Gordon Messenger

As a teacher of high school English, the Common Core State Standards are a blessing and a curse.

And assessing a student’s competence in the standards? That can be difficult and frustrating as well. Especially when Robert Marzano has concluded in his research that teaching each Common Core State Standard to mastery would take 22 years of educational instruction to accomplish.

As our high school begins to explore standards-based instruction and curriculum revision to align with CCSS, more questions emerge for educators about not only how to create quality assessment instruments, but also how to create quality measures for assessment. In my past, every assessment had its own rubric, stating what criteria would be measured and how many points it would be worth, so that every grade would represent a number of out 100%.

It took several years and the work of Doug Reeves to make me question just what I had been doing for 10 years. So what changed?

Everything.What was the most important part of my job as an educator? The answer to that is simple: student achievement and student learning. Were zeros the best way to those goals? Not really. Were multiple assessments with varying grading rubrics helping my students? When I took a long, hard look at past students and their final grades in my English course, the answer was a pretty striking “no.”

I began to realize I had done my students a serious disservice. I had used averaging and weighting as ways to “sort” my students into categories: smart, average, low. Worse, I placated my own conscience by telling myself I always offered them opportunities to revise, resubmit, and redo. It was the students’ fault for never taking advantage of it.

The question that began to swim in my brain hurt a little. I had always thought I was a good teacher. I had always believed I taught my students worthwhile skills. But I didn’t always offer them opportunities to re-learn. I hadn’t explored what it meant to provide multiple and flexible pathways to learning goals and outcomes. My students basically learned some stuff, completed an assessment, and moved on to new stuff. In the philosophy of Rick Wormeli, I wasn’t really offering my students opportunities to learn at their pace, in their own way, to a level of proficiency and mastery that would actually help them to be successful outside of school.

What was I going to do about that?

The question collided with others from administrators in our building and our district. And I quickly came to realize that this sort of change needed to be supported on a large scale. It would take all of us to make change happen, and I was truly fortunate to be in a district where administration supported not just the idea of change, but also teachers willing to take risks.

This confluence became the greatest source of inspiration – if others felt the need to change, then we could wade into the unfamiliar pool together, and the first step for me went back to where my self-reflection first started: assessment.

If we were going to journey forth into standards-based instruction, and those standards would provide the measure by which we granted diplomas and deemed students’ skills as proficient or competent, then didn’t our rubrics for assessments need to be aligned to the standards? And then, shouldn’t my rubrics be aligned with my colleagues’ rubrics?

A quick answer that I have seen played out in other districts is a standardized assessment. We all give the same assessment, perhaps even at the same time, and then we have an accurate way to look at data.

This wasn’t working for me. It lacked personalization. It lacked personality. It gave students no choices, addressed no one’s interests, and certainly didn’t align with my students’ individual learning needs.

Instead, could there be a rubric that measured a standard from the Common Core? Or, as graduation standards and performance indicators are written down, could we create rubrics that measure these indicators so that, when gathered together, all of a student’s work in all of the indicators within a graduation standard would provide evidence over time of competency?

As I began to work with performance indicators, I found these rubrics naturally lent themselves to offering students multiple opportunities to demonstrate competency. Not only could I, as the instructor, assign certain indicators to an assessment, but students could ask that I score an essay or reading project or activity with a particular performance indicator rubric because they knew it was an area in need of development.

But how did I really know that what I was doing was shifting the focus from my instruction to their learning? I just asked them this question: “How is Mrs. Messenger’s class different from other classes you take?” Here are some responses:

  • “Yes, it’s different because Mrs. Mess wants us to know things 100% if you get a bad grade on an assignment — at any time you could go back and change that.”
  • “Mrs. Messenger’s class is different from other classes I take/have taken because she lets everyone learn at their own pace.”
  • Mrs. Mess teaches differently and doesn’t give you things that she knows you aren’t capable of. She helps whenever needed as much as possible and if you have a busy schedule with projects and such from other classes, you don’t get points taken off if late. (less stressful)
  • “This class is very different from other classes because its based off of what we know and however long it takes to learn it. In other classes we’re forced to learn the material and be tested on it and not always have the option to retake it.”
  • “[… ]as students we all work at different paces. Mrs. Messenger goes out of her way to get to know her students and work with the students one-to-one in the way she sees fit rather than having 30 students do the same amount of work at the same time.”

More than their grades, more than their class work, more than anything – their perceptions about and my role as their instructor reflected where I wanted to be professionally. Using common rubrics rather than common assessments helped me to personalize the learning – different readings, different skill levels, different learning paces could all be addressed in a way that made students feel they could “retake,” “work at different paces” and “fully understand” the concepts and skills.

The common rubrics allowed students multiple opportunities to demonstrate competency and work toward mastery – of the Common Core, of their own skill sets. Currently, the Core is far more a blessing. It provides the basis for assessment, the basis for learning and provides both students and teachers with common language and common goals.

Caroline Gordon Messenger can be found on Twitter @cjmessenger.

About the Author

Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Before earning her teacher certification, she was a professional journalist. Messenger holds a Master of Arts in Oral Traditions and a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger

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