First Person

Outcomes-Based Assessments

Midway through my third year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, not too long after our disappointing school quality review, the principal asked all teachers to read a long article on the limitations of “traditional” methods of assessments for underperforming students. The paper, written by a public school teacher from Chicago, detailed how one school increased student achievement by doing away with grades and report cards in favor of records assessing student performance in very specific areas. Our principal invited a guest speaker from this school to promote this form of assessment, and teachers were asked to join a pilot group on a voluntary basis.

I opted out of the pilot group, preferring instead to remain consistent with the system I’d had in place from the beginning of the year. I tallied grades according to student performance on exams, projects, daily class work and homework. This approach to assessment acknowledged many factors of student performance beyond particular learning goals. A student who worked hard and always turned in homework had a chance of receiving the same or better grade than a student who skipped classes but still demonstrated understanding of class material. By contrast, with an outcomes-based assessment system students need only demonstrate “mastery” or “proficiency” of specifically articulated “learning outcomes.” Students have multiple pathways to demonstrate such outcomes (essay writing, oral exams, etc) and can do so at any time in a given marking period. Class attendance, homework, and effort are not necessarily assessed.

At the end of that year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, we were informed that all teachers would be required to use outcomes-based assessments the following year. I even heard that our school had paid $10,000 to a consultant to help set up an on-line computer program that would organize and track our student’s performance on each outcome (this program was decidedly not user-friendly, as I had to click from student to student when entering data, instead of being able to press tab like I could using “Gradekeeper”). The administration asked us to write 12-15 outcomes for our classes for each semester and encouraged us to align them with “key cognitive strategies” as outlined in David Conley’s book “College Knowledge”.

This task proved quite difficult. At least within social studies, our curriculum, as standardized by the state of New York, is organized by content. Thus, we had to think about how to write outcomes that spoke both to content and skills. As a result, I wound up with the following outcomes for my first unit about political systems:

  • Students can demonstrate an understanding of multiple points of view by comparing and evaluating their own cultural and societal values (about parenting, gender, government, etc.) to those of Confucian China
  • Students can explain the basic philosophies of both Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, and can use evidence to support an argument about which philosopher’s ideas more accurately describe human nature
  • Students can evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of both democratic and totalitarian societies
  • Students can apply knowledge about governmental systems by designing a school based on the principles of democracy, monarchy or totalitarianism.

For each outcome, I then had to write a rubric of what it meant for a student to be “highly proficient,” “proficient,” or “not yet proficient.” These rubrics were difficult to conceptualize because students could submit many different forms of evidence for each learning outcome. For example, for my outcome about Hobbes and Locke, would a detailed Venn diagram be considered evidence of proficiency, even if it led to a poorly written essay? If the student filled in the Venn diagram accurately but could not articulate his or her ideas orally, has he or she shown adequate understanding? It was challenging to provide clear criteria to my students for what they needed to show me to be considered proficient or highly proficient in a given outcome.

Though returning teachers had been told to write outcomes over the summer, the new teachers were finding out about it near the beginning of the school year and had to scramble to compose them. There was little coordination between the outcomes written by teachers in a given department. For example, there was no clear coherency between the ninth-grade global teacher’s outcomes and my own for 10th grade global, since we both wrote them independently of one another.

Our department was instructed to create a scope and sequence of outcomes that would scaffold the development of specific skills as students moved from the ninth grade to the 12th grade. We worked on this during twice-weekly department meetings throughout the course of the year, though without ever having a model of what the end product should look like. Meanwhile, we taught our current students using the learning outcomes we came up with on our own.

I still taught historical content-knowledge that I hoped would cultivate a deep understanding about certain places and times and the ability to make connections between them. I simply adapted my own way of teaching to a new method of assessment. Similarly, there was no paradigm shift in the way my students approached their schoolwork. The outcomes-based assessment system may have been meant to break the institutionalized norm of doing schoolwork in order to gain points and make a grade, but many of my students just treated HP as the new A and NY as the new F.

But, at least for the sake of the school and its upcoming SQR, the school could now point to a system of data collection that charted specific academic strengths and weaknesses of the students in each of their teachers’ classes. After last year’s “underdeveloped with proficient features” SQR rating, the administration was determined to not be rated so poorly again, and outcomes-based assessments was only the beginning.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede