Great teachers are constantly on a journey.  It's a journey toward professional growth, toward perfecting their craft, and toward better meeting the needs of students.  Salem High School Spanish teacher, Paola Brinkley, like so many Salem educators, exemplifies a teacher on this sort of journey.

For the past several years, Salem High School has been focusing on using assessment for the purposes of learning - rather than just for the purpose of grading.  This Assessment FOR Learning journey has led to many changes in our classrooms.  Teachers like Paola have been working to assess daily, to use feedback to guide their teaching, to train students to use feedback to guide their learning, and to grade in a way that allows practice to be used as practice (see Heart of AFL)  These efforts have helped teachers like Paola become more effective teacher and have led to students being more successful than ever.  

Those AFL steps have also led to a recognition of the importance of Standards Based Learning.  Standards Based Learning - or SBL - is a natural outgrowth of AFL.  AFL leads to teachers no longer assessing just to fill a grade book up with numbers to average together; however, teachers are still required to assign a grade to a student.  

Traditional grading relies on an average of all the assignments one does - the practice, the classwork, the homework, the tests, the quizzes, the projects - everything.  The AFL teacher is not satisfied with grading this way.  The AFL teacher realizes that it does not make sense to average formative practice with summative assessments.  The AFL teacher realizes that the most recent evidence of mastery matters much more than the the first attempts.  The traditional practice of averaging everything together just doesn't seem appropriate to the AFL teacher.

So if the AFL teacher isn't going to rely solely on the mathematical average of all assignments to determine a student's grade, what will the grade be based on?  This is where Standards Based Learning comes into the picture.  A student's grade in an AFL teacher's classroom should be based on how well a student is mastering the various standards that comprise the content of the course.

SBL has become the next phase of Salem High School's AFL journey, and Paola Brinkley is one of many teachers experimenting with how best to apply the theories of SBL to the realities of the classroom.  While there is no doubt that she and other SHS teachers will in time discover even better ways to use standards to lead to mastery learning and also to determine grades, the progress report below shows an excellent early attempt at grading in an SBL-manner.  Here's what she and other teachers in her department have done:

  • SHS's World Language teachers have determined that the four key standards of learning a language are Culture, Speaking, Writing, and Grammar.
  • PowerSchool, the grade book teachers in the City of Salem Schools are currently required to use , is set up to average grades together in a traditional non-AFL manner.
  • While wise teachers have eschewed the use of category weights based on types of assignments in favor of a total points grading system, SHS World Language teachers like Mrs. Brinkley are discovering the value of using category weights when the categories represent course standards.
  • Mrs. Brinkley has set her PowerSchool grade book up based on four category weights, one for each of the four key standards of World Languages.
  • When a progress report, such as the one below, is printed for a student the student learns how he or she is doing based on standards, thus enabling the student to identify his or her strengths and to know where he or she needs to improve.

If a student asks how he or she is doing in a class, a numerical answer such as "84" isn't very helpful or descriptive enough.  How does one improve an 84?  Go find more points?  What does "84" tell someone about how to get better, about how to learn more, about how to take ownership of learning?  It doesn't.  "84" - or any other numerical answer - just puts an emphasis on accumulating points.  The AFL teacher wants the emphasis to instead be on learning.  Communication progress based on standards puts the emphasis right where it belongs.

So check out the progress report below from Paola's IB Spanish 1 class.  It happens to be my daughter, Kelsey's, progress report, by the way.  As a school administrator, I'm proud that teachers at our school like Mrs. Brinkley are journeying down this AFL/SBL path.  More importantly, though, as a parent, I truly appreciate this form of communication and find it beneficial as I try to encourage my daughter to do her best.

Notice that my daughter is progressing as she should in three of the four standards.  As a parent, I know that my daughter needs to work on Writing.  Her knowledge of Culture, her Grammar, and her Speaking are right where they need to be at this point in the school year.  Mrs. Brinkley's nice handwritten note is icing on the "excellent communication cake," but the reporting of standards is enough to help me guide my child.  

Is this the perfect way to incorporate SBL concepts into grading? I'm sure there are some SBL purists out there might find fault in the use of points at all.  Those "SBLians" might not like the fact that within the standards there is averaging going on.  Some might prefer the use of a 4,3,2,1,0 or A,B,C,D,F method instead of using numbers 0-100.  

What teachers like Paola have done, though, is creatively communicate based on standards within a grading system and with a grade book that is set up at the district level in a fairly traditional manner. They are helping our entire system - teachers, parents, and students - appreciate standards based reporting and move productively on our professional growth journey. Therefore, this is an excellent step - in fact, a leap - down the SBL road.  

Communication like this is helping to condition parents and students to look at progress not just as a grade but in terms of standards.  For example, if after receiving this progress report I were to ask Mrs. Brinkley about my daughter improving, rather than ask about how Kelsey could earn more points, it would be logical for me to ask how she can improve her writing.  Getting parents and students to think that way is a significant step to improving learning.

Thanks, Mrs Brinkley, for the wonderful communication, and thank you to all the great teachers at SHS who are bravely continuing their AFL journey!

Any thoughts? 

*Additional Note:

The progress report you see below is just that - a report of progress.  It is not a grade that is recorded in an historical record or averaged with some other grade to determine what goes on a report card.  It was given to the student on October 3; however, there won't be an officially recorded grade in the class until the end of January.  The teacher wasn't required to hand out this progress report, and it has no official bearing.  What it is is one way that a teacher is making sure that students and parents are aware of student progress.  It is a snapshot.  It is feedback.  It is given for the purpose of guidance so that students and the teacher together can make appropriate educational decisions moving forward.



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  • Visit the following link to read Ken O'Connor's response:

  • Tony - Thanks for reading and commenting.  I almost said, "Wow - you're up early!" until I noticed you're in Japan!  Pretty cool how people around the world are wrestling with the same issues.

    I must say, I have always found it strange that people would criticize an A-F system and recommend replacing it with something like 4-3-2-1-0.  Essentially A-F, if based on a rubric of sorts instead of a numerator over a denominator, is the exact same thing.  However, it has the added benefit, in the US at least, of being widely understood.  The idea of moving to an SBL system that is easily understood by the greater community intrigues me.

    I definitely understand the idea of shifting away from the use of numbers to differentiate levels of A, B, etc. 

    I'd love to hear more about how you have customized PowerSchool.  Our attempts to do so have not been very successful.

  • Yes this is a step forward but it might be a step even further to move from the A-F system to the IBO's 7-1 system. Ken O'Connor, for example, has been particularly scathing about the A-F system and the notion that a teacher can tell the difference between an 88 and 89 paper and also the mathematical illogicality of any grade below 60 being an F. Powerschool although clunky can be relatively easily customized to deal with and generate standards based report cards that are much more sophisticated than this one.

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