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Thursday, 30 June 2016

Easy Assessment Tool that Students and Parents Understand!

How do you grade a poem? It's a question I'm asked a lot when I tell people that I teach middle school English. Well, I use rubrics and a 4-point scale to grade poetry and almost everything else for middle school English Language Arts, Social Studies, French, and Science. This rubric method is a fantastic way to bring formative assessment and summative assessment into the class. Plus, it's simple and it's easy for the kids (and their parents) to understand. 

Why did I change to rubrics?

At the beginning of the year, I talk a lot with my students about grades and assessment. In my district, students do not receive letter grades until middle school (Grade 6).  From K-5, report cards are written with anecdotal comments and the categories Exceeding Expectations, Fully Meeting Expectations, Minimally Meeting Expectations, and Not Meeting Expectations. 

I find that anecdotal language much more clear for students and parents to understand than letter grades.  Currently, letter grades are often assigned based on percentages.  In my district, the grade scale is broken down like this:
A   = 86-100%
B   = 73-85%
C+ = 67-72%
C   = 60-66%
C-  = 50-59%
F    = 0-49%

In math, this is an easy way for teachers to assign letter grades.  If a student scores 95% on a test, it's easily an A.  If another student scores 65%, it's a C.  But for subjects like English and Social Studies, it's hard to give a percent.  I can't really grade a poem as an 83%.  

The percent-based system also confuses students and parents on what the letter grades actually mean. Students think if they get a grade lower than an "A," it means they've done something wrong, which is reinforced when we use percents to assign letter grades. In reality, a "B" or a "C+" means they've fully met the expectations and an "A" represents that they have done something to exceed expectations. That's where rubrics and my 4-point scale come in handy.

How do rubrics help clarify assessment?

Before I assign any big project, I talk with the students about how it will be assessed.  Sometimes I give them criteria, other times we create the criteria together, but they have a list of things that must be included.  

I make up a rubric with 4 columns to spell out what students need to complete in order to earn a 4, 3, 2, or 1. When it comes time for me to assess the final product, I take a paper copy of the rubric and highlight the sections that apply to the product. I can easily see at a glance which number the product deserves. Rubrics are also very effective if I ever have to defend my assessment to a parent or an administrator.
I will often assign a 2+ or 3+ if they fall in between the 2 categories
Rubrics are also useful for student self-assessment and peer-assessment.  I always have students come to me while they are working and ask, "Is this enough?" or, "Do I need to do more?" When I have a rubric, I can refer to it and ask, "You tell me, is that enough? Do you need to do more?"  I'll often have the students use the rubric to mark their own work and see where they'd end up if they handed it in right then. They know exactly how I will assess their work, so they can earn the mark they want.

So, what does the 4-point scale actually mean?

The scale is simple:

1 - Not Meeting Expectations
- If the student has not included everything in the criteria, they have earned a 1

2 - Minimally Meeting Expectations
- If they have included everything, but haven't done a great job (obviously minimal effort has been put in), they have earned a 2 

3 - Fully Meeting Expectations
- If they have included everything, and have done a reasonably good job, they have earned a 3

4 - Exceeding Expectations
- If they have added more than what was asked or has gone above the criteria in a meaningful way, they have earned a 4

When it comes time to assign a letter grade for the term, I look at the trends throughout the term for each student.  
A   = mostly 4s
B   = mostly 3s
C+ = mixture of 3s and 2s
C   = mostly 2s
C- = mixture of 2s and 1s
F   = mostly 1s

What have I learned?

Most students and parents don't actually know what letter grades represent.  As I mentioned above, they think if they get a grade lower than an "A," it means they've done something wrong, while in reality, "A" represents that they have done something to exceed expectations.

Before I started using this scale, I had students (and parents) come to me upset that they had earned a C+ or a B on a project, thinking that they should have received an A because they met all the criteria. Now, I can point to the criteria sheet or rubric and ask the student, "What did you add that was extra or exceptional?" They have no choice but to agree that they hadn't exceeded the expectations, so they deserve the 3 (or 2 or 1) that they received. 

Because I give the rubrics to the students with the project outlines, they know before they begin working what they have to do to score a 4 (if that is their goal). Using rubrics for the purpose of formative assessment, or assessment for learning helps to give the students more ownership and awareness in their grades by giving them an active role in their assessment. 

Next year, I plan to have my students track their own marks throughout the term and assign themselves a letter grade at report card time.  With their letter grade, I plan to have them write a comment defending why they deserve that grade, what they were proud of, and what they will change going forward to the next term.  Not only will this stop the almost daily chorus of "Ms. Wiens, what's my mark in Social Studies?" but it will also be a valuable learning tool for the students to become more self-aware.

Do you use a similar method? Do you do something different?  Let me know in the comments below.

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