By Guest Blogger, Dr. David M. Schmittou

So Many Numbers!

35 students in a class. 70 standards to teach. 180 days of school. Teaching is about so much more than the numbers, but the numbers can tell a powerful story.

Many numbers are overused- Scale scores, RIT points, standard deviations, percentiles, percentages, and value-added measures, numbers that are often used as definitive data by those in authority, yet often dismissed by the real change agents working in classrooms. As a result of so many “experts” stepping in to fill the data gap prevalent in so many schools, with numbers that many of us don’t understand, don’t appreciate, and don’t value, we have often oversimplified our own reliance on more readily available data in our own schools.

Crisis Teaching & Grading

During the Spring of 2020, many classrooms adopted pass-fail, credit-no credit policies in order to ease the burden on both students and staff. At the same time, virtually every state in America decided to take a pause on end of the year-high stakes assessments in favor of focusing more on teacher anecdotal record-keeping and feedback, something many of us have been begging for since the turn of the century. What we often forget is that the only reason we have high stakes assessments in our schools to begin with is that many policymakers believe that teachers often struggle to present an honest and reflective picture of student learning and growth when left to their own measures, so they have allocated billions of dollars over the past two decades to have others collect data for them. The belief is that because we, as educators, are optimistic by nature and we believe in both our abilities to instruct and our students’ desires to improve, we often have a confirmation bias causing us to often overinflate our measures of success.

Whether you had a credit/no-credit policy or whether you presented grades based on rubrics, letter grades, or percentiles, I ask you, how certain are you that the numbers assigned to your students at the end of this past school year, based on your own observations and collection of student evidence, are an accurate reflection of what your students know, can do, or struggle with?  As a parent of four kids who spent three months learning from home, I will honestly say that a good portion of what my own children received credit for was a result of what their 42-year-old dad (me) knew and was able to help them produce. I heard from other educators who stated that “not all kids were as lucky. Those who did not have the same level of ‘support’ often showed a lot less success when learning from home than they did when they were at school.” A great deal of this may have been a result of issues of equity around digital access and the financial divide, but I also wonder, how much of this was actually an honest reflection of student independent mastery, aka, what students were actually able to do on their own or said another way, an accurate reflection of learning.

Unlike many of the other numbers we put too much emphasis on in schools, the number three is perhaps the most underutilized. Three strikes and you are out. Three outs and your team sits down. Thee plays and you punt. Three branches of government. Three sides to the strongest shape. Three folds to a chord. Three data points to triangulate a theory. Three is a powerful, yet highly underutilized number in our schools.

Making Numbers Meaningful

Let me interject now to state that I am a firm believer in mastery-based instruction. I believe that standards-based grading is a pivotal component to helping students find maximum levels of academic growth and learning, but that is not what I am advocating for in this post. It may serve as a starting point and building block, but the end result does not have to be a full conversion of your grading scales or report cards. Instead, the goal is more simplistic, and honestly more difficult and more important. I am seeking an honest and accurate reporting of student learning. I am seeking objective feedback rooted in reliable and consistent evidence.

Although this past school year, many of us attempted to simplify our grade reporting mechanisms, like with a lot of systems, this Spring magnified many of our current inadequacies and struggles. Specifically, one and done is not enough. We often complain when our students are given one test, on one day in March to prove that they are proficient, yet in our own classrooms, we often tell students they have one chance on one Friday to prove they have mastered everything learned during the week. Administrators preach for students to be given the ability for retakes and redos, yet they only enter teachers’ classrooms once or twice a year and expect mastery in every domain. One and done is not enough. It’s not enough for those who may struggle; it’s also not enough for those who may demonstrate competency. As a former classroom teacher, I was great at rolling out the red carpet on evaluation day and wowing my administrator. As a former student, I was great and cramming the night before a test and earning an A for my effort before quickly purging my short term memory the moment I turned in my test so that I could begin studying for the next game…ahemmm…assessment I would be asked to play. This is why today I advocate for something I never did as a teacher and was never asked to do as a student. I ask us all to reconsider our one and done approach to grading, to assessing, and to demonstrating mastery. Today I beg teachers to expect consistency and reliability by playing Tic Tac Toe with evidence collection.

Assume that this year you were observed twelve times by your administrator. This is your assessment of job performance. The first nine times you were observed you were scored “effective” (this is like a 3 out of 4 on a rubric). After each observation, you were given feedback and coaching so that by the end of the year, your last three observations consistently resulted in “highly effective” ( 4 out of 4) ratings.   If you were my teacher, and I were your administrator, at the end of the year, your overall designation would be “HIGHLY EFFECTIVE”. My job is to help grow teachers, to help each improve his/her practice. By the end of the year, you have shown consistency in responding to the  feedback provided, so using observations from the beginning of the year, before my incredible coaching and teaching were provided, against you, just wouldn’t be fair. I would never advocate that I needed to use the mean and just “average” your scores. Using the mean is just mean. Similarly, simply stopping by your classroom once during the school year would not give me a complete picture of your growth and skills. 

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Now, take a look at the image below. Using the same premise, this time you still have three observations identified as Highly Effective and nine as Effective during the school year, but should I draw the same conclusions about your final designation? Have you mastered teaching this year? I would argue, no. There is no consistent pattern. There is no frequency of the results. There is no evidence that what was taught actually endured. Yes, you have three Highly Effective ratings, but they are sporadic and inconsistent. Yes frequency matters, but so does recency and consistency.

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This same mindset can be used when evaluating student evidence. I am a huge proponent of using rubrics and grids to guide student evidence collection. I believe doing so allows each assessment/assignment to be used as a diagnostic to help with future planning and instruction. The question always comes up though, how many times should a student have to prove he/she can do something to get credit. I say three.

If in your classroom you are not comfortable using rubric driven assessment, so you give a more traditional paper-pencil assessment/assignment to measure student learning, how many questions must a student answer to prove he/she understands a concept? Should they answer ten questions? One hundred? All the odd-numbered questions? How about all the even? How many do they need to get correct? Is it 60%, 80%, 100%? If a child can answer nine out of ten, why did they miss one? Does that one matter? When we try to use percentages, we lose out on amazing opportunities.

If I were to give students problems to do in a math class, I would tell my students, “As soon as you answer three in a row correctly, you are done”. For some students, this may be the first three questions they answer. For others, they may need more feedback, guidance, and practice. These students may need twenty or thirty attempts before getting three in a row. Both are great as they show consistency and recency. Both sets of students are masters.

If you embrace the concept of spiraled assessment, (https://schmittou.net/2019/10/15/spiraling-to-assess-learning/) perhaps you believe that a student must show 80% accuracy on any given assessment to show understanding. When you give future assessments, bringing in historical assessment items (again…go read this post for more information), and asking them to demonstrate that they have maintained this knowledge, three more times, would be great evidence.

Perhaps you are assessing using multiple methods and tools. Students may present their evidence through a project, a test, a debate, a paper, a collage, etc… To help increase your trust in the assessment and to bring about more validity to your inferences, asking students to use three different methodologies during any given unit, marking period, or lesson may give you greater confidence that students understand the topic.

I have shared this methodology with literally thousands of educators. The vast majority think it makes so much sense. The greatest barrier is always, the question: “But how does this get translated into a letter grade?”

Trust me, I get the reason behind the question, and I have written a lot about this topic. As a matter of fact, feel free to give me a call or shoot me an email and I will talk to you about it…or better yet, join one of my upcoming webinars: visit bit.ly/SBGPart2 to register.

For now, though, a great starting point is to simply get a sheet of paper for each student you teach (this may require an entire notebook in high school). Put a child’s name at the top of the page. Down the left-hand column, simply list the essential standards you are going to teach this year. Make a grid. Each time you assess a student on a standard, identify whether or not the student was a master. You can do this with a score of 1,2,3,4. You can do this with a checkmark. You can do it with a percentage. Once you get three in a row…you’re done. That child is now a master. Move on. Teach something new. Focus on advancement. Celebrate success.

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Regardless of whether you have your students in class face to face this year or are teaching remotely, regardless of whether you use standards-based grading or use traditional points and percentages, I challenge you to find a way to make your feedback as accurate as possible. In our classrooms, grades are simply a shorthand approach to offering the feedback we value. Don’t allow a one and done approach to determine success or struggle. Support your students constantly, push them to keep growing, focus on the focus, and remember that three in a row helps you win at tic tac toe and in your classroom as well.

Learn More

Want to learn more? Visit my website for links to other posts, information on my books, or to access my contact information.

On the 15th of each month, I will send out my 2 Cents to The Lasting Learners e-mail group. Sign up today and get my latest thoughts on leadership and assessment…and honest, it’s only ONE e-mail a month:

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