December 23, 2016

Changing the Conversation to Mastery

My district is transitioning to Standards Based Grading and I'm so impressed with how well planned the rollout is. Everything isn't going perfectly, but if you're familiar with the inner workings of any schools with limited funding you probably have seen them jumping from one bandwagon to the next, picking up whatever initiative has a grant and then dropping it for the next new thing. That's typically the case here as well, but I went to a planning meeting summer of 2015 (my reflection at the time) where administrators outlined a plan that they had clearly been working hard on. It's nearly 2017 and we're still on track! Just to be working on one thing for that long would be huge but this is a downright miracle.

At this point the elementary and middle schools have transitioned to standards based report cards since they were already using (sometimes confusing) categories rather than letter grades. The Algebra 1 team is using standards based grading but translating that into a single average so we can continue to use traditional report cards. Next year the 9th grade will be moving to standards based report cards and the following year the rest of the high school will join us. There are a lot of moving parts to make this transition, and some of the work is tedious (rewriting curriculum maps yet again to fit the new language) but the shift we are working on right now is communicating progress with students and changing the conversation to mastery rather than passing.

Right before report cards, and again at sports tryouts, I saw a surge of students coming after school to improve their grades. However many students were looking to get the 60% needed to be passing and therefore eligible for sports. Some students were aiming for a 70% because their parents don't accept less than a C. I do have students with high expectations for themselves who are aiming for the A but they're not the norm.

The Algebra 1 team took one of our common planning blocks to go visit the middle school. We saw an english classroom and a math classroom. We were looking for examples of how teachers communicated with students about their progress. We saw class data on the wall, student tracking sheets and posters highlighting the priority standards. I wasn't a fan of the teachers posting and talking about CCSS codes (A-REI.1.a). As a team we gave each priority standard a name that allows us to refer to them with ease and reinforce mathematical vocabulary.  We are working on a system to identify each skill, right now we're leaning toward 4A being our shorthand for Standard 4 Skill A but I'm hoping that would be limited to my personal data tracking. But even though we didn't agree with the labeling, we loved the bar graphs in classrooms showing the percent of students who had reached mastery. We also took ideas from the student tracking sheets we saw during our visit.

The idea of drawing a new bar on three graphs for every assignment sounded far too overwhelming. Not to mention updating them with every retake or late submission. So I decided to use the students' averages for each entire standard. My version. Then every week or two I'll update the class progress. Since the priority standards are my categories in my gradebook (as opposed to averaging tests and homework separately, I average all equations assignments) it's a quick process to count up the number of kids with an 80% or higher and update the chart. The units we have completed are colored in since students can only gain mastery by doing retakes. The units that are ongoing the bars are made of sticky notes since students may lose mastery as they complete more assessments. (Also technically they can't have mastery of the whole standard until we've assessed all the skills.) At the middle school they laminated the charts, wrote titles in dry or wet erase markers and made bars out of tape. I wasn't sure I'd like my charts so they didn't seem worth laminating. Maybe next year? Also I wasn't about to laminate the versions with the random line across the middle from the copier!

When I showed the charts to my administrator I told him to look at the format but not the data. He was ecstatic about the charts. Then understandably concerned about the data. But we had a good conversation about how this is changing the conversation. If the bars were for passing rather than mastery the data would look much more encouraging. I wasn't sure how my students would react to the information but my C Block class was motivated rather than discouraged. It's interesting to note that my D block is a contained special ed group, they have 90 minutes with me every day. C block is an on level course but has a high percentage of ELL's. F Block is honors and with them I emphasized that everyone should be mastering every unit, but our first goal is to have 80% of the class mastering each unit. In the other classes the goal is to make progress toward that 80% as well but I didn't need to make a specific goal for them because they recognized they were behind. It's not a competition and it's not calling anyone out, instead I hope to create a class culture where everyone encourages each other to aim for mastery.

During the last class before vacation I gave students a motivational speech in disguise. We did some data analysis review in the form of looking at an imaginary student's scores. Data analysis handout. After they finished that assignment I handed back tests and gave them time to do corrections and other make up work. Most students took advantage of the time, an impressive feat on December 21 and 22!

Next up will be implementing the student progress tracker. When we return from break they will record their scores so far and check off skills as they master them. At this point I'm planning to give trackers out for this unit and all the units going forward. For students who haven't reached mastery in a previous standard then we can use a progress tracker to decide what they need to do to get there.

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