Thursday, April 2, 2015

Proficiency Grading: Why I Like it and How I Modified it To Make it Work for Me

Ahh, educational buzz words. I've been on my break from teaching for a year and I'm already wondering if this one, proficiency learning, has moved on to greener pastures. But whether it does or not, I feel that by embracing it, with some modifications, my students learned more and my grades better captured their learning.

How it's different
What is it? Proficiency grading can mean different things to different teachers. The basic premise is that you assess students on how proficient they are at specific tasks.

But isn't that what teachers always have done? Sort of. Where proficiency grading is different is that their grade should only be for the job they did on that task. That means any practice sheets, journals, homework, etc. that prepared them for the main task (test, paper, project, etc.) does not affect their grade. Also, you should not grade them down for late work.

YOU AREN'T GRADING THEM DOWN FOR LATE WORK! Yes, I'll get to how my team dealt with that below.

Other then the ridiculously naive late-work policy, it doesn't sound that different to me. For me it was. Before proficiency grading, I graded everything on points. 10 point for this worksheet. 30 points for this paper. But with proficiency grading, those dinky worksheets were not part of the grade. Also, since I was grading them on specific learning goals, with proficiency grading I broke down all major assignments into specific skills (conventions, higher-order thinking, reading, etc.) and could let them know beforehand what I was looking for (with a rubric).

What I liked about it
1. Teaching Towards Learning Targets
 Some clear differences emerged after I switched. First of all, it helped me streamline my teaching around learning targets. Instead of what interesting assignment should I do today. I shifted to how will today prepare them for my learning goals. This made my teaching more organized and allowed me do a better job of getting them to do higher-quality projects/papers.

2. Better Distribution of Grades
This would of course depends on everyone's individual grading style, but my teammates and I both experienced this.  Our grades before the change tended to be high B's and A's, and then a lot of F's. Due to our grading so many little things, some students could bump up their grades just by diligently turning in their work. But disorganized/flaky students often failed. Although I agree that being a disciplined worker is important, I feel it was given too much weight under our previous system. Under proficiency grading for our team, we ended up having less A's and less F's.

3. Grades Better Represented Their Learning
Another change was whose grades shifted. In middle school, there are a lot of students who participate in class, are smart, and learning a lot, but have issues with organization. These students ended up getting much higher grades for me after the grading change. There are also students who don't pay much attention and aren't very engaged in class, but get every single assignment in on time. Their grades dropped. I thought this was a good thing and that their grades were now more accurately reflecting their learning. Also, if students wanted to get better grades, their focus needed to be on learning and not just getting work in. I feel that kids saw they would really have to learn at a high level if they wanted to get an A.

1. Just Collect it!
Our school did this for two years and, despite some of the advantages I listed above, teachers were really frustrated with proficiency grading due to the late-work policy. Since students could turn in work late, they did. Their homework habits got worse and I felt like half of my job was just nagging students to get work in.

And then we figured it out. Please, if you are going to do proficiency grading, read the next paragraph. SAVE YOURSELF FROM THE SUFFERING WE WENT THROUGH. Teaching so rarely has such straightforward success moments.

What we did is said, there will be no late work. On the day something was due, we collected it. If they weren't finished, we collected what they had and graded that. We made occasional exceptions based on the kid. You left it at home? Fine, turn it in tomorrow with a note. But next time I won't make this exception. A student who was passively rejecting doing anything? We might make him finish it in the hall. It's at home? How about we just open up that binder and check.

We assumed there would be more issues with the "Just Collect It" philosophy, but there really wasn't. Our work turn-in rates went up, homework habits got better, we had little-to-no late work to grade, less nagging after the due date... Seriously, all four of us felt it was the best thing ever and allowed us to reap the other benefits of proficiency grading.

2. Getting Kids To Do Practice Work
Other than the late work issue, another fear of teachers is that kids won't do the homework or practice sheets if it is not affecting their grades. I really worried about this and it went better than I expected. As any self-respecting middle school teacher, should, I harassed them if they weren't on task (as I did before) and if students asked if this was being graded, I'd explain its importance to the final task. I did not see a reduction in work effort in class. 

I should say though that (A) it was 6th graders, (B) my school is above-average S.E.S. (but not crazy above), (C) I didn't assign practice for homework (like I would if I was a math teacher). I think in a tougher school, this might be harder. And I know, having taught them for ten years, that 8th graders might be less willing to do work that wasn't getting graded. My advice is to give it a try, since they might surprise you, but to be a realistic and adjust. It would be easy to keep most of the benefits of proficiency grading while still giving some weight to practice work. (It probably wouldn't have to be much.)
3. Too Easy To Get a C?
Our team did have concerns that although we were excited to see our F's drop, that maybe a C was getting too easy. If we collected everything, eliminating the "0," it wasn't too hard to get their grade up to a C. I think this is its own discussion, but I think if it is concern, a teacher can raise their standards for how you grade them.

Is proficiency grading already passè? Maybe. But in my classroom ,I expect it to play a significant role for a while.

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