Yesterday I attended the first session of GRREC's Principals Learning Network, featuring Steve Ventura of Doug Reeve's Leadership and Learning Center. Co-author of Standards and Assessment: The Core of Quality Instruction, Ventura is a former superintendent who writes about and presents on a variety of topics including power standards, formative assessment, data teams (PLC's, properly understood), and effective grading practices.
A pdf file of Ventura's complete presentation is available here.
Ventura covered a wide landscape of topics in his presentation, all of which are excellent parallels to work my students are doing this semester in EDAD 683, Leading Teaching and Learning, and to the formative assessment work Tom Stewart and I do through Contemplative Learning Solutions. I'll probably post more in coming days about the information he shared, but Ventura's primary topic yesterday was on making a compelling case for revising our traditional approaches to student grading.
Using straightforward mathematics, Ventura illustrated how a 100-point grading scale with zeroes for incomplete work devastates the possibility of students who get a few bad grades from missing assignments or botched tests from every passing a class. This point was part of a larger argument that traditional grading practices do not align well with measures of what students actually know and are able to do. Some students have mastered our learning targets, but their grades fail to show it for a variety of reasons. And likewise, some students get fair or even excellent grades, but have major gaps in their learning. Ventura offered several suggestions for specific alternative grading practices:
- Offer an early final exam (say, two weeks before the end of term) and any student who passes it can be excused from additional class work for the remainder of term (allowing for further remediation on learning targets the rest of the students have failed to demonstrate mastery).
- Rather than give students zeroes for missing work, simply make them do the work before, during, or after school.
- Replace large, "semester killer" projects that take weeks to complete and have large point values with a series of smaller, incremental assignments each worth a smaller point total.
- Encourage students who are failing to engage in extra-curricular activities, since there is a direct positive correlation between extra-curricular participation and higher grades.
Unfortunately, in the limited time available for Ventura's session, I'm afraid he didn't make the compelling case he hoped. My sense from talking to some participants is that they remain skeptical. Ventura will return for a follow-up session in January, during which time he might address some of the lingering doubts and questions, but I think what we didn't spend enough time discussing yesterday was what a signficant cultural shift such changes in grading practice really represent.
Ventura's suggestions only make sense in the context of a total revamp of the teaching and learning process. A truly "balanced" assessment system has to be established in which:
- Teaching is driven by collaboratively-written, student-friendly learning targets that emerge from an intentional process of unpacking and prioritizing standards
- Commonly-developed formative assessment techniques are regularly used to measure student progress toward learning targets
- Students (and their parents) are given rich, specific feedback on their progress relative to learning targets
- Data teams (PLC's) meet regularly to review student progress toward learning targets as measured by formative assessments and make immediate instructional adjustments
- School-wide systems of intervention are available to support students with continued intervention toward learning targets when classroom level differentation has been exhausted
In this kind of context, traditional grading practices naturally make little sense, and the alternatives Ventura suggests would be natural outcomes. To just adopt one of these alternatives without addressing the total need for balanced assessment (and changes the grade-driven culture that currently reigns) would be a recipe for failure.
At any rate, I'm happy for what Steve Ventura offered and will be eager to hear him again in January. GRREC's Principal Learning Network will feature three more sessions throughout the school year. Space is still available for enrollment. Contact GRREC for more information.