Thoughts on Grain Size

May 27, 2014 by
david ruff

David Ruff

As schools across the country engage with and implement proficiency-based learning, one of the first steps educators are taking is to

identify the skills, knowledge, and dispositions students should know and be able to demonstrate in order to either progress in their learning or graduate from the K-12 system. Certainly, there are significant resources for this, including state standards, the Common Core, and various other national sets of standards. However, few of these resources are shaped to best support instructional and organizational implementation of proficiency-based learning.

First off, we need to clarify the different uses of standards within curriculum, assessment, and student level accountability.  There are many standards that can help teachers shape the learning experience in the classroom—the actual curriculum that is enacted. Many of these standards are worthy of being assessed, formatively and/or summatively. However, only a handful are worth using for student-level accountability. Essentially, what standards will we require students to demonstrate in order to graduate?As an example, it may make perfect sense to create curriculum that uses learning standards concerning issues that arose during the Civil War, such as the specific political ideals that created this confrontation. A teacher also may choose to assess students on their knowledge of key political leaders in the Civil War. But for accountability purposes, the teacher—in collaboration with other teachers across the school—will have decided to hold students accountable for broadly understanding how political differences can fester, grow, mix with economic realities, and finally result in civil war in various geographies, not just the American Civil War. The American Civil War presents a context in which to study these larger issues, but students should be held accountable for understanding the concepts of conflict, not with being able to identify key American leaders during this time period.

To this end, we have set up a series of standards that follows this thinking. For each of eight content areas (ELA, math, social studies, science, arts, health & physical education, world languages, and career and education development) and a set of cross-content 21st century skills, we have created a set of “graduation standards”—the big concepts within each area that students are accountable for demonstrating. Each area has 5 – 9 graduation standards that are the same, K-12. We have then created a set of five to eight performance indicators for each graduation standard, one set at the elementary level, one at the middle school level, and one at the secondary level. While students at different levels are working on different sets of performance indicators, everyone is working towards the same set of graduation standards. Demonstration of success on the performance indicators provides insight and data to use for the final decision on achievement of the graduation standard—but successful demonstration of each and every isolated performance indicator is not required.

This differentiation between curriculum and student-level demonstration is vitally important for numerous reasons. First off, it is difficult to make a credible argument that a failure to identify key American leaders during a certain period of time is crucial for success in college, in careers, or as an active citizen. It is far easier to argue for students to understand how political and economic unrest can grow to create more consequential results.

Second, placing student-level accountability at a higher and more comprehensive level almost always ensures a deeper level of cognitive demand. Over the past 25 years, we have spent countless hours drilling students on facts and figures, only to find out that the technology of today makes most of this irrelevant. Instead, students need to be able to manipulate these facts and figures to create new understanding and new meaning. If we spend our time counting, organizing, assessing, and mandating all of the little pieces of information, we won’t have any time left for higher order thinking.

Finally, pragmatism must play in here. We have seen quite a few schools start the standard identification process in a rational manner. They identify a seemingly doable number of “anchor” or “power” or “key” standards for each grade—no more than 10 or 12. However, the school then identifies six to eight parts of each standard that need to be learned. In total, the school has identified 70 to 80 standards for a single subject area. If there are six subject areas, this total has jumped to 480! If students are held accountable for achievement of each of these standards, they will have to be assessed and demonstrate success at least three times a day—every day. In addition, teachers will have to provide remediation and support for each of these standards. What started as a strategy to increase personalization, allowing students to progress at their own rate and through a variety of learning pathways, quickly falls to the practicality of needing to march steadily onwards through all of these standards.

Only if we reduce the total number of standards for which students are accountable can we rectify this situation. In practical terms, while a teacher may formatively assess all of these different learning targets, they do so in preparation for demonstration of a smaller handful—five to nine—standards that are used for graduation or grade promotion. Accountability rests at the larger standard level rather than at the smaller learning target level.

There is a second pragmatic reason for this approach—communication with parents. While it is possible to create and implement a grading database that captures, records, and demonstrates student learning on all 480 learning targets, reporting these to parents is both unnecessary and confusing. Reporting and communicating at the graduation standard level creates a more focused conversation that can help deepen student learning. And it decreases the teacher bookkeeping time, allowing for more time to be spent on instructional practice.

About the Author

David Ruff is executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, and a founding member and director of the New England Secondary School Consortium, a five-state partnership working to promote forward-thinking innovations in secondary education. Through this work he has placed significant emphasis on proficiency-based learning and ensuring equity in the process. He currently facilitates the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium Proficiency-Based Learning Technical Work Group.

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