Wednesday, July 15, 2020

If you love some science, set it free. Part 2 of 2 -- a solution

The purpose of this post is to offer a solution to the problem discussed in part 1, which is the unfair and unwise use of content standards to determine student grades. I'll break down my solution -- skills-based grading. 

It's really skills-focused learning and assessment, but I am going to assume that we are all operating in a system where we have to assign grades in the end. Until we kill that policy I'll keep the name. It has some parallels with standards-based grading (SBG), so having a similar name is useful.

My motivation for sharing this is hope that others might be inspired to try it. It changed the feel of my classes so drastically in a positive way, and they were already pretty fun. The feedback I got from students, nuch of it unsolicited, was overwhelmingly positive. But I didn't even need that feedback to see the changes in student attitude and performance. It's an easy switch too, because it is really just about adopting a more fair and focused grading system based on what is truly valuable to take away from a learning experience. No change to content activity is necessary.

I'll break it down by

What is a skills-based grading system?

A skills-based grading system is a set of tools and policies which establishes expectations and procedures for measuring growth of a set of general learner skills over time. It is used for students and teachers to assess and drive growth of skills throughout a course. Student and teachers use student work and experiences from class to assess their skills. Instead of dozens of content standards to measure for learning, student work is evaluated based on a smaller set of general skills. Assessing learning through the lens of transferable skills allows students to focus on their actual strengths and weaknesses, reflecting and planning for meaningful growth over time.

Daily class in a skills-based grading classroom looks a lot like what you already do. Where it differs for students and teachers in terms of assessment and grading.

The student and/or teacher decides it is time to assess skill mastery for one skill or multiple skills. The student submits work with self assessment, thorough reflection, and a plan for future growth. The teacher assesses that work, giving meaningful feedback and mastery ratings, which replaces whatever ratings the student had previously. The cycle continues. Ideally, students grades are determined by their most recent skill mastery rating evaluations. All skill mastery ratings are replaced with new. Growth is the focus.

Skills-based grading should focus on general science learner skills that track through an entire class, and ideally it is used in a system that offers student choice at some level. Choice can mean when things happen, what type of assessment, what platform or media, or whatever freedom of choice makes sense for the class, situation and student. 

Class-appropriate skill mastery expectations and measurement tools are developed by students with teachers and should be used by all parties to revisit and re-evaluate their skills throughout the semester/year. Also, when called for, individual learner-appropriate mastery expectations and measurement tools can be developed by a student with a teacher and used by both.

Ideally, a science department, division, or entire school would adopt a set of general skills for learners and track student progress. Each skill would have documented mastery expectations appropriate to the grade level, class and/or student. But the system works great on it's own in a single class.

In a grade book this can look like a single equal weighted entry for each skill, or one entry for each skill category, or if you decide to go the route of portfolios, a single grade with the details and breakdown living elsewhere. A skills-based grade book can look a lot like a standards-based grade book, except a skills-based grade book would look the same every quarter/semester and class.

Who needs skills-based grading?

Every single student and teacher.

Every student and teacher deserves to focus on what really matters. We are trying to prepare our youth to be contributing citizens to society, not vessels of partially remembered Wikipedia information. Every class should focus on what is relevant, what inspires, and what skills students need to learn and function responsibly and at a high level in the world. There is absolutely nothing contradictory about using a wonderful topic like physics to do this. But basing a grade from a physics class on the retention of practically useless physics content items makes it too much about the physics and too little about preparing the student for situations outside of physics. This is true for any science subject or topic.

All students deserve equal access to education and fair and useful assessment of their learning. Science, especially physical science, is full of inequity and injustice at so many levels, and it goes all the way back in time.

In order for a grading system to be inclusive, to help battle inequity, and to operate independent of access to resources, it must offer equal opportunity to all learners. It must cater to every student's interest and needs, and it must be adaptable to every student situation.

Where can skills-based grading work?

Anywhere. Everywhere. This system can work in any classroom, in any school, in any setting, and in any topic. It operates off a short list of transferable skills that are applicable and adaptable to any science learning situation. The details for expectation are in the skill mastery rubrics which are made appropriate for learner level in each class.

Why use skills-based grading?

It makes learning more relevant, meaningful and empowering. The focus is on learner skills that any learner can take away and use in any situation to learn anything. Student can be easily convinced of relevance. It is easy to show how general learner skills are useful in all aspects of life. It is tough to do this for many content standards.

It fosters the development a growth mindset over time, with regular practice of reflection, self assessment and planning for future growth. Developing awareness of one's own strengths and weakness and using that to plan for growth is a necessary ability for students, and it is often ignored on the student end in K-12 education. With an entire course to focus on skills, this effort is no rushed, but rather can be tackled strategically and thoughtfully over time.

It reduces stress associated with one-off assessments and assignments based on standardized content that get left behind, but with grades that stick around. When combined with a grading policy that encourages and rewards growth, students focus more on the present and future, using their past experiences as a foundation for understanding how to grow.

It increases risk-taking which increases engagement and makes room for passion. When students are not obsessed with a grade they are about to get that will stick around forever as a judgement of their worth, they tend to take more risks and try new things with less worry. If they know that failing at a task does not mean failing at a grade, then they won't be as afraid to fail. That is huge. Quite possibly the best reason and argument for the model. Our current systems vary rarely allow for students to use failure as a positive growth opportunity.

It's fair. It offers up the chance for a teacher to allow for choice and flexibility for students. Expectations can be catered to a student situation when needed. If done with a growth model policy, it evaluates student by where they end up, not where they started. No one is punished by where they started.

It includes the important steps of reflection, self assessment, and planning for future growth, which we often skip in K-12 education. Too often it is teachers who are the ones putting most of the thought into what students can and should do to develop and learn, which is silly because but we are they ones who already know. We create well-thought out tasks, challenges, assignments and situations for student to complete. Students are often just along for the ride and going through the motions. What if we ask students to dream up ways of showing learning and mastery? What if it is on them to figure out what is relevant and how, and what if they start using that to identify more opportunities to explore and improve?

You don't have to change much of what you do on a regular basis. Switching to skills-based grading might only means you change how assessment and grading is done. You can even use all of your regular methods of grading and feedback, but now they are initially just for feedback. Give a quiz, grade it, and give it back. The student can use that feedback for skill evaluation arguments. The same applies to everything you use in class. 

Skills-based grading might encourage you to make some improvements to what you spend time on in class. It did for me, but it was a fairly easy adjustment to time allotment for activities associated with skills, rather than a panicked pacing adjustment to content. I found that, although I claimed that reflecting was an important skill, I did not really give students time for it, so I dedicated the end of every class to reflective journaling. That was an easier adjustment to rationalize and make than moving days around to adjust to "cover" content.

It works well with remote learning. Student have various levels of access to resources and time with remote learning. Allowing for flexibility with what they use to show skill mastery and not allowing permanent records of grades they earned during uncertain crazy times is fair. 

It can increase deep learning of content. That might seem counter-intuitive and hard to believe, but it's true. How can moving the focus from content assessment to skill assessment result in students learning more content? It comes from a combination of less stress, more flexibility, more risk-taking and the resulting increase in actual interest in content. If knowing the content is not the source of worry then the content can be the source of fun, excitement and inspiration. You also spend less time reviewing for, taking, and reviewing solutions to quizzes and tests. That's more time for more useful exploration of content.

When should we start doing this?

Yesterday. Students have instant access to all kinds of digital information and they have for years, but many of us are still teaching like we are a student's greatest and fastest source of content next to a textbook or encyclopedia. That's just not the case. Education needs to stay relevant and we have been slow to adapt the the fact that content is at everyone's fingertips. The skills for how to explore, understand and apply that content are what students need.

How do I start skills-based grading?

Decide on a set of skills to use. Develop and publish expectations and evaluation tools, ideally with student input. Model using them to self assess and reflect for growth. The hardest part for many learners is figuring out how to do honest reflection. Teenagers are still trying to figure out who they are, so asking them to evaluate themselves requires some modeling.

Provide opportunity and guidance for skills growth. You already do the opportunity part, assuming you run a science class focused on active learning and inquiry. You might have to show students what applies to what skills in the beginning. After that they should be able to do it themselves, but it is easy to point out connections on the fly if they need help.

Find the right platforms for students to share their work, reflections and self assessment where you can give your feedback. Evaluate and track their progress. Update their mastery ratings accordingly as you go forward.

To what extent?

To the fullest extent if you really want to get the most out of it. It's tempting to hybridize things that are new big changes to how we do education. We like to dip our toes in the water to test how new things might work. I have learned that not only is that not the best way to see if something can work, it is often a way to set that new thing up for failure and make it seem like it could never work. 

For example, I tried student digital learning portfolios as part of a more traditional grading system and then again as part of a standards-based grading system, where they had their regular grades in the grade book as well as a portfolio grade. It was pretty lame on the portfolio end. They treated it as just another assignment they had to do at the end of the quarter. It wasn't until I made routine portfolio evaluations the only route to a grade that portfolios grew into what I always dreamed they should be. I set portfolios up for failure the first two times because I didn't go all in. Not everything is an all-in kind of deal, but what I truly desired out of portfolios was. I think skills-based grading is the same kind of deal.

Going all in on skill-based grading is not a painful change. It is easy to sell to students and parents, because the benefits to students are fairly obvious. You just need to figure out what skills, platforms and tools to use for assessing skills and how often to do it. The good news is that grading based on skill mastery does not require any changes with planning of content for a course. You probably already use digital platforms that are appropriate for this. This does not mean developing new labs, or projects, or homework, etc. Just new policy and maybe a new platform for reflection/feedback loops. You can dive right in doing the same stuff you do most days in class without changing anything except how grades are determined, and that is easier than it sounds.

Our system and my experience

Before I get into some details of what we do, I want to reiterate some of the important positive results from making the change. The feel of my classes changed drastically with this switch, and more so than I expected. It took some time to get students used to it. They had never worked in a system like this before. But once they understood it they quickly grew to appreciate the fairness of it. Stress levels went way down. I had grade-chaser perfectionists who had never gotten lower than an A+ being okay with a B for the majority of a semester, because they understood they were working on growth and that they did not have to start with perfection. Without the stress of constant imminent permanent grades happening all of the time students relaxed, they took more risks, they were more engaged, and they did more impressive work. I no longer had an issue with some students carrying others through labs or projects. And this was all during a pilot year where I had no idea what I was doing, and then a pandemic happened. I am super excited for this coming year, assuming the pandemic doesn't completely destroy it. Skills-based grading works quite well for remote learning.

I stumbled on this idea for a 100% general skills-based grading system when I was trying standards-based grading. I had a list of physics content standards accompanied by another list of general science and math standards. That list of general skills kept growing in number and importance, and we noticed how often they were used and assessed. I realized that those general skills, along with the additional of some that were less obviously tied to science content, were the skills that were actually important to the class. Assessing the physics content directly was not necessary if we used the content as a platform for assessing the general skills. The content learning would happen naturally.

I am by no means an expert in this, but I do have one full school year of 100% skills-based grading (general skills-focused learning and assessment) under my belt. My office mate, Jaime, teaches chemistry and forensics. I used to call this my system, because I dreamed most of it up initially, but Jaime was brave enough to dive into my crazy idea and help me work out the kinks, so it is no longer just mine. It is ours. And she is arguably better at implementing it than I am. I don't make any changes without her.

We both went the same route with assessing student digital portfolios for skill mastery. We made New Google Sites templates organized by skill topics, which students copied and populated with artifacts and reflection on their skills. They used SeeSaw for regular journaling and documenting everything they do associated with class, which are posts easily embedded as artifacts on their New Google Sites portfolios. We evaluated their skills via portfolio evaluation rubrics on Google Classroom. Rubrics on Classroom was in Beta at the beginning of the school year, but I believe it comes as part of Classroom now. It's pretty great.

The rubrics for skill mastery are for feedback and evaluation. Teachers or students can use them at any time. If a teacher gives feedback on a skill, outside of portfolio evaluation, or if a student self evaluates or has a peer evaluate them, those evaluations are all useful things to include and discuss in their portfolios along with their artifacts of learning. You can keep a printed stack of each rubric sitting around for a student to use or to ask you to use any time.

After the pilot year we revised our skills list, eliminating many redundancies. We started with 25 skills, but narrowed it down to 15. Here are the skills. Formatting might look kind of weird on a phone. They are currently in revision, but I believe the final set will look much like these:

General skills for science
  1. Investigation

    1. Research I can locate, evaluate, and summarize research for a question.

    2. Experimentation I can design and execute an experiment to test a question.

    3. Inferences I can draw conclusions from patterns in data and use them to drive inquiry.

  2. Solution design

    1. Visuals I can model nature with detailed diagrams and 3D models.

    2. Mathematics I can apply the design process to solve problems systematically.

    3. Simulation I can create and use simulations to predictively model nature. 

  3. Collaboration

    1. Resources I can keep my time, space, and materials organized and functional.

    2. Respect I can treat my peers and mentors with respect.

    3. Contributions I can contribute significantly to group problem-solving.

  4. Metacognition

    1. Feedback I can use feedback to drive personal reflection and plan for growth.

    2. Self-assessment I can honestly self-assess to develop metacognition and identify areas for growth.

    3. Journaling I can use regular journaling to document and reflect on my growth.

  5. Communication

    1. Reporting     I can report on investigations and projects.

    2. Presentation I can present and discuss investigation and project results.

    3. Publication   I can publish a portfolio record of my learning experiences and skills growth.

Skill evaluation

Your skill level evaluation is based on your most recent demonstration of your skills.

Skill mastery ratings

5 - Exemplary

4 - Proficient

3 - Developing

2 - Basic

1 - Emerging

The skill statements were written to be as succinct as possible. Details on how to achieve levels of mastery will be laid out in specific expectations and rubrics in class, often developed with student input.

The hardest part of adopting skills-based grading is crafting the evaluation rubrics, but when the are developed with students input, expectations are clear and students have some ownership of them. Here is an example rubric for the Mathematics skill from Solution design category. Problem-solving is a big part of high school physics. It is part of every unit. It is a skill that students continue to hone and use throughout the school year. 

1 - Emerging

2 - Basic

3 - Developing

4 - Proficient

5 - Exemplary



Showed some unorganized work.

Missing most of:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer

Missing some of:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer with units

Solve successfully including:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used it to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer with units

Solve successfully including:

-list of possible variables

-identified given information

-established zero and signs

-vector diagram

-identified equation(s) and used it to derive solution equation

-evaluated solution

-reported answer rounded appropriately with units

As mentioned, it is always good to develop as many rubrics as possible with student input. It is also useful to make rubrics that are actually useful to students. To create the rubric above, you could solve a problem in groups and then share what is important in solving with math. Use student ideas and language to craft the rubric, and fill in any gaps.

Rubrics which function like checklists are particularly useful to students. In fact, organizing and printing the exemplary requirements for mastery as a checklist is often more useful to students that the style above. Below is an example of a student checklist for the Experimentation skill from the Investigation skill category. The mastery rating could be determined by the total number of checked items.

As far as student reflection goes, I ask them to follow the guidelines below. They are written for use in portfolios but are easily modified to be used in many platforms. I do not evaluate a skill for mastery without full student reflection.

Personal reflection for growth

Reflecting allows us to

  • Gauge our own abilities and needs

  • Evaluate how our choices affect our personal outcomes

  • Process and solidify new knowledge and skills

  • Do more with feedback than just read it

  • Plan for future growth

Organize your reflection for each skill using the following

What does reflection look like in portfolios?

  • Explain the context of your artifact, relating it to the skill.

  • Reference and discuss feedback, verbal and/or written.

  • Identify strengths/weaknesses with your skill.

  • Discuss growth and progress you have made with this skill recently.

  • Identify behavior patterns which might explain your performance.

  • Plan for future growth by outlining strategies and resources for improvement in needed areas. 

Reflection as a narrative

If you are working on growth in the same skills over an extended period of time it helps to keep an organized narrative going. You don’t necessarily want to replace the old with the new, because some of the story of growth is then lost. But you also don’t want an overwhelming detailed narrative of every detail along the way when you really want to celebrate where you are. Finding a balance is key. Summarizing the rise to your current state and detailing your current level should be the goal. In order to accomplish this, it is important to keep discussion of a skill together and to keep the narrative updated.

I have tried a few versions of what a grade book would look like. Fifteen skills is a manageable number for individual entries in a grade book, depending on which grade book you have to use. Mine is not so user friendly for this kind of system, so I tend to use the five skill categories as my quarter grades. I let the details live in the Google Classroom rubrics. I have also just had a single portfolio grade as their entire quarter grade and let all of the details live on Classroom.

That's it. At first glance, my classes look a lot like they used to in previous years. I still use most of my favorite labs, activities, problems, challenges, projects, etc. To me the changes to my classes are obvious. Students are having more fun and trying harder stuff now than they used to. They also spend more time journaling and reflecting and they generally have a greater appreciation for what they are learning. If you want to learn more about portfolios I hope to blog about those sometime soon. They go really well with skills-based grading, but any system of gathering and tracking evaluations and student reflections can work.

But what about content?

Content is the platform for skills progression. It is the vehicle for exploring the skills. Without mastering content it is impossible to showcase most of the skills at a high level. This should be made evident in the expectations of the evaluation tools. For example, you can't get to the Proficient rating on that Mathematics skill on the rubric shown previously if you cannot actually do the physics problem-solving.

Content is no longer the source of stress in a skills-based grading system, so it can more easily become a source of inspiration. It is okay if a student struggles with content at first, which often happens in a physics class that runs through a traditional topic order. They can still come out the other end of class with a love for the content and an appreciation for how useful it was for developing important skills.

In summary

When students and teacher evaluate general skills repeatedly over time students can build real self awareness and a growth mindset, learning of content gets easier, grading becomes fair and less stressful for all involved, and the experience generally becomes more enjoyable and meaningful for all.

Thanks for reading. If you have any questions feel free to contact me. I hope you consider giving skills-based grading a try. You won't look back if you do.

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