How a ‘C-‘ Can Be a Good Thing

It’s about getting things down to one number. Using the stats the way we read them, we’ll find value in players that no one else can see.~ Moneyball

I often take ideas and assign a numerical scale to them, in order to compare them to other things. I always tell people that they can “make their own math”. Most people just stare at me blankly, and others just laugh like I am joking.

Believe me, all that math you may have partially studied in school is useful. Somewhere along the line someone forgot to add a few key points to the math textbooks. For example emphasising  that if a bunch of people sitting in a room can decide if a movie is a G, PG, PG-13, etc., then any group of people sitting in any room can do the same thing.

Even though they do not realize it, educators do this all the time when they make decisions about grading, grading scales, and standards. Recently I have been looking at grading scales for a Shanghai Primary School, a Shanghai Middle School, a year 9-10 IGCSE program, and a year 11-12 IB program. In my current position I am involved in implementing these scales among a common population of students.

These students will start on one scale and finish on another. They will go from letters, to numbers, to different letters, and back to numbers.

It is perplexing when considering the transcript and the key needed to decode the transcript.

I think the way schools report progress is a bit insane. It seems logical to give a student a number or letter and say, “This = Good and That = Bad” . However, over the course of time, the standards connected to these metrics change. So the logic does not hold up.

Trying to report the standards seems logical, but the number of standards per student, per subject, and per grade overtime would be overwhelming for most people to read and interpret.

So how should schools get things down to one number, using the information the way parents and students need to read it?

I suggest the answer is to stop reporting numbers and letters, and to start reporting trend lines.

Trend lines not only show a student’s performance  overtime, they clearly show if the student is on a steady, moderate, or rapid incline or decline. A trend line can group categories of things into single points, and those points can be reviewed quickly. Any points of concern can be expanded for conversation.

The most interesting thing is that a student who previously had an ‘F’ in science, but now has a ‘C-‘, will appear to be improving (Which is good, because they are improving). A grade of 55 that is now a 71 shows a 30% improvement. If this was a mutual fund, you would be smiling.

Currently, what do parents and students see in this situation? They see an ‘F’, and a ‘C-‘.
That does not seem like much of an improvement when the grade is explained as below average and described as needing significant improvement.  An 81 changing to a 91 looks great, but that is just a 10% improvement.

The truth is, the trend line would show not only improvement but some degree of effort. Effort that is not calculated by someone’s opinion, but through the interpretation of data.

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com

A Reason not to Hate Curriculum Mapping in the New Year

I never thought I would write this.  First off, I am not a fan of software or solutions that dumb-down, over-complicate, or impeded the evolution of good practice. I have always felt that teachers need to track what they do in a simple format, such as a blog, and use TAGS to connect what they are doing to the community of practice. Wikis are ok for this as well.

My reasoning is that this can be done by everyone very easily and inexpensively. A handful of people are required to add higher level functions and search, but the job is always, and only, part-time. This type of tracking also works for students, and they can even use the same platform, which saves time and resources.

The obvious downside to this system is that the people providing oversight have to look through blogs/wikis occasionally to see who is on/off track. It is not possible to run a report and create a flat map or view of the curriculum. Being someone who reads often, and is very skilled at finding things online, this seems like a trivial task. It seems like a required skill in 2014.

My world of being simple and bluntly correct has been up-turned. I ran into a situation recently as an administrator, and as a by-stander, that made me actually email the company my school school contracts for curriculum mapping software. I actually asked them for more licenses, it was a tough thing to do. My name is Tony, and I am a curriculum map hater.

I was reviewing data, which I always do, and helping show some teachers how to use spreadsheets to view grades in different ways. While doing this I noticed some areas were blank. I inquired, “Why do these classes not have grades”?  Answer #1- the teacher does not FEEL that grading is needed for this subject. Answer #2 – there is no way to grade these classes, no standards or methods.

I then let them know that when a transcript is made, this is going to show-up as BLANK and universities are going to wonder why this subject is BLANK, but for other schools it is graded. There was no answer, only a BLANK stare into the abyss.

The second event was not related to me or my work in anyway. A friend of mine is doing an online course at a well known and very respected Canadian University (This is one of those times I REALLY WANT TO MENTION THE NAME).  She had two assignments for an English course. The first assignment came back as a C-, and there were about 10 comments on it. Every comment said, “awkward”.  That is all the teacher wrote. No examples of why, or ideas for improving. Upon asking for clarity my friend receive a response just as vague as the comments, which somehow determined the paper was a C-.

My friend let others read the paper, including myself. We all made corrections and input ideas. The revision read better and had a clear thesis. Assignment two was now upon her. She completed it, it was 25% of her grade. She received another C-, and a single comment,”You have not shown any effort or improvement at all.”

This is/was just a tenured professor simply deciding to hate or like papers in a second year writing course and not giving feedback to help students improve. Students who are paying money and are on various degree tracks.  In the world of non-academia this sort of behavior would get a person fired immediately, because they are single handedly alienating all the clients.

I realized at that point, in both these situations a proper and aggressive implementation of curriculum mapping would allow for immediate oversight and action by department heads and administrators.

Many people argue, as I once did, that the curriculum mapping process relies on teachers inputting good data. In other words, garbage-in-garbage-out. However, this is only true if the foundational structure of the software is defined by the departments. This is often the case, and the practice should be suspended. It takes longer to setup, but the end result is better metrics and more a powerful use of data.

The foundational structure is in the standards and assessment criteria. If third party standards are used, and assessments are required to be entered on frequent intervals, then oversight can be done in a simple exception report. Meaning: show me all the people who have not added any assessments in the last month; show me how many people have not met at least 30% of their standards in the last four months.

In addition, terms (tags) can be set by the school to ensure all departments use the same language when adding any information to any field. For example, any lesson pertaining to World War II must be referenced as WWII. Terms such as wwii, WWii, The Second World War, etc. are not acceptable. This is known as defining taxonomy, it is a common practice when building data driven websites, and it is easy to implement for most curriculum mapping systems.

Of all the projects I have to finish by June, this one is now rising in importance. Although I enjoy setting up websites, implementing cloud driven initiatives, and building gaming servers for students, I am first and foremost a responsible educator. This type of careless behavior and disconnection from standards is bad for students and bad for the school.

My name is Tony, and I am a curriculum mapping hater, but I am trying real hard to be the Shepard.

Tony DePrato

www.tonydeprato.com