Grading and Assessment for E-Learning and the Modern Classroom

Saddleback Educational Publishing conducts a Webinar Series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on our webinar Four Ways To Create Effective E-Learning hosted by Dr. Katherine McKnight on August 20th 2020.

One of the things that I often notice since the pandemic is that challenges in education that have bedeviled us for the longest time have been exacerbated. There’s a magnifying lens on them in a way that they’ve never been before. For instance, as educators we know that school and schooling is part of our social makeup as human beings. Also, it’s part of our economy. Folks are really starting to notice that now. One of the other issues too, as far as equity in education and accessibility, that’s come to the forefront in a way that is really unprecedented during the pandemic is also grading and assessment. Last spring, I saw a lot of school districts were really perplexed about grades because the traditional system of A, B, C, D and F is obsolete. It’s been obsolete, but it’s even more obsolete when we’re looking at e-learning and we’re looking at distance. It’s become an issue in a way that it hasn’t before. I know a lot of districts were going to Pass/Fail. They were removing letter grades and I don’t see that necessarily as a bad thing, but we tend to grasp on to those letter grades because that’s what’s familiar to us. It’s what we’ve all experienced as learners.

Grading and Assessing Online Student Work

But what we know is that it’s actually an obsolete system and so the big picture is what should assessment look like? Neuroscience has given us a huge window into how we learn and how kids best learn. What does it need to look like in the 21st century? We’ve needed an overhaul on it for a very long time, but it’s become a hot button issue. I’m going to talk a little bit about the building blocks of formative assessment. Many of us have been to training sessions about formative assessment, but I want to talk a bit about formative assessment and how it plays into the modern classroom and what we’re doing online. As I said before, A, B, C, D and F is an obsolete system. When I was in high school, we didn’t have A, B, C, D and F. We had 4, 3, 2, 1, which is the same thing. Then we’re going to dabble a little bit on skills-based grading and proficiency scales. I’m going to introduce that just enough to make us even a little bit more dangerous. So that’s what we’re going to be covering.

What Is A Formative Assessment?

So what is formative assessment exactly? Let’s start there. It’s not a particular kind of measurement or instrument or tool. Sometimes I’ll see packages, or a company will say this is our formative assessment package and it’s all multiple-choice assessments. I really want to emphasize that it’s not a particular instrument. It’s really a process that’s fundamental and integral to the effective practice of teaching and learning. We’re already doing formative assessment. We do that all the time when we’re checking to make sure that our kids are understanding something and then we adjust it. That’s really the key. It’s never, ever, ever, ever, ever formative assessment unless instruction changes.

Benchmark Assessments

A lot of times I’ll work in schools or districts where they’re doing benchmark assessments and we get the data, but sometimes we get the data too late. I’m sure that’s happened to many of you. We’ll get performance data and it’s already a month later. I mean that data is largely obsolete, or we don’t use that data and actually change instruction. That’s basically the fuse in the fuse box. Here’s a couple of other things about the qualities of effective formative assessment. Teachers are making adjustments to teaching and learning and respond to assessment evidence. So if I use an exit slip or a multiple choice quiz, or if I give kids a little check for understanding through a google poll or something like that, and then I adjust because I see that perhaps my kids are not understanding something, that’s what we’re talking about.

Examples Of Formative Assessments

I’ll give you a really quick example. When I was in a sixth-grade classroom and I was demonstrating a mini lesson, we were looking at a passage about ancient China and there was an emperor and it referred to tapestries on the wall. One of my students said, Hey Dr. Mcknight, what’s a tapestry exactly? I started explaining it to them and I went into google images and put it up on the screen and I showed them different kinds of tapestries. The students immediately got it and they said, Oh it’s a picture with like cloth and I said, Yeah that’s exactly right and then they had a better idea. That’s an example of what I’m talking about.

A student had a question and I realized that so many of them did not have the background knowledge for tapestry. I immediately explained what it is and then we moved on. So it can be as simple as that or it can be even more complex. If I realize, for instance, that my students are having difficulty with a theme in a story and I need to help them with that. Students receiving feedback about their learning with advice on what they can do to improve, and their participation is absolutely critical. That on spot descriptive feedback is probably the most powerful practice and impact that we can have on teaching and learning. Let me say it again. On the spot descriptive feedback that we give students is probably the most powerful, impactful thing that we can do as teachers on student learning.

Suggestions For Grading

Those of us who have maybe taught high school or middle school where you literally have like 70 kids or 140 kids, the thought of doing that is overwhelming but I have some suggestions to make that happen. When we talk about descriptive feedback, you know with the little guys if you have one class and you’re teaching a group of 25 or 30 students, that should be happening on a daily basis because you see that same group. If you have five classes and you have 150 students, we should see that at least over the course of a week. We’re going to delve more into that.

Feedback and Reflection For Learning

Students have to monitor their own learning which makes feedback critical. So let me talk about that for a second. When we reflect on our own learning, when we engage in metacognition and thinking about our thinking and what we’re learning, that also has a profound effect. I saw a webinar a couple of weeks ago and he actually gave the numerical value of the incidence and the impact of it. It’s a very, very strong impact when kids monitor their own learning and they can really see what they’ve accomplished, what they’ve mastered. That takes the emphasis off of us as we just hand out the grades. We distribute the grades to our students.

The Effects Of Short Term and Long Term Learning

Dick Allington found the same thing. It actually transitions our learning from short-term to long-term. It becomes more innate. It becomes more internalized. It becomes more internalized so for teachers it’s not just feedback, it’s not just saying, hey good job..oh you got that one right. It’s not just that. It’s helping kids to understand how to understand learning and goals and assisting them to develop the skills to make judgments about their learning.

Let me give you an example. One time I was teaching high school and we were in the process of reading Hamlet, and a student said to me, Miss Mcknight, this Hamlet guy reminds me so much of when we read Native Son and the character just seemed to be disconnected from society. It’s almost like the same thing. I looked at my student and I said, You know Terence, that’s a really great connection.

Why are those two texts connected? Why do we have almost 400 years and we have a writer like Richard Wright and then Shakespeare and they’re talking about the same thing? What does that fundamentally tell you? He stopped and he thought, and we had a little bit of discussion and he came back and I said, You know what, Terence? That was great. You took something from this text, compared it to the other text, and we’re basically able to tie those two texts together with a universal idea. That’s what great thinkers do.That was the feedback I gave him. Of course, he was feeling very good about himself. That’s what I really wanted him to see. The literature that we’re studying was actually looking at common themes, but they manifest in different ways in different contexts depending on author and time.

Mastery and Formative Assessment

Margaret Heritage and Jim Popham are really our foundational theorists in formative assessment, and this is a quote actually that is one of my favorites. I think it just really sums up what formative assessment is, and it’s that process used by teachers and students together during instruction that provides feedback to adjust ongoing teaching and learning to improve students’ achievement of intended instructional outcomes. That’s really what it’s about and that’s really what we’re talking about with mastery.

Mastery is not compliance of homework. Mastery is can I demonstrate to you that I understand the content and that I’ve developed the skills. That’s what mastery is, and I think one of the things that made it difficult last spring is that we were trying to look at compliance.

They’re online, they’re getting their homework done, they’re doing that. That’s not to say that building student habits, those academic habits are not important. They are, but do we put them in the bucket of grades or is that something separate? Math teachers talk about this all the time. Why are you giving a student 40 math problems if they can demonstrate that they’ve mastered how to multiply polynomials in the first two. It’s really something for us as literacy educators to consider as well.

Building Blocks Of Formative Assessments

Here are some of the building blocks of formative assessment. The first one that we’re going to talk about is a learning progression. A learning progression clearly articulates the trajectory along which students are expected to progress to improve in an area of learning and acts as a touchstone for formative assessment. Those are our standards. So whether you’re a common core state or you’re from Texas that has their own standards, or your state’s version of common core, that’s what we’re talking about is those anchor standards.

Anchor Standards

There are generally anchor standards that follow kids K through 12, and then we have those grade level articulations of those different anchor standards. You’re not teaching all the standards all the time. When we put them in a lesson or a unit plan, that’s the one that you’re assessing because as literacy teachers, we’re always teaching the main idea, the theme, the controlling idea. We could have that on every single lesson that we do as literacy educators. You put it on a lesson plan or a unit plan when you’re going to assess it, when you’re checking to see how a student’s development is. So that’s what we would refer to as power standards. Power standards are the big encompassing ones. We don’t teach every single thing that’s there. We do teach it, but they feed into those power standards. For instance, if I’m looking for the main idea, controlling idea, theme and being able to find evidence to support it, what I’m also learning is how to understand symbols, metaphors, inferences, and how language is used. Those feed into that larger power standard but that learning progression is what goes all the way across.

Learning Goals For Students

Then we have learning goals and success criteria. Those provide the criteria for which performance is going to be compared for that standard. That’s generally where our feedback is going to come from, our descriptive feedback. Those are generally grade level articulations. So learning progressions are the big ones that usually go from K-12, and then the learning goals are generally the grade level articulations, and even those get winnowed down even more. If I took the always popular find the main idea and supporting evidence, I might in the first quarter just want my kids to be able to identify a main idea in a text, or a controlling idea, or a theme. I want them to provide some evidence but then moving along, like in the second quarter, I might say okay, not only do you have to find the main idea, controlling idea, or theme and evidence to support it, but then we have to figure out which evidence develops that controlling idea, or main idea more than others. So teaching our kids not all evidence is necessarily the best evidence.

I’m sure all of us have experienced this: when students write essays or compositions and we say oh you need at least three pieces of evidence or they just quote dump, or they evidence dump and it has nothing to do with their claim or their thesis. They don’t understand how it ties in, so that might come later on. The first is can you identify it, and then the next is can you analyze it. So whether you’re thinking of Bloom’s Taxonomy or Marzano’s Taxonomy or in DOK, that’s a higher level of understanding because you’re able to analyze and interpret it. That’s what I mean by learning goals and success criteria.

Examples Of Descriptive Feedback For Students

The third one we’ve already talked about quite a bit. It is descriptive feedback. Let me say a couple of things about descriptive feedback. It is never, ever in the form of a numerical score or a grade. it never is.

When you have a score or grade, it suggests that it’s finished, that it’s done. One of my pet peeves always is when a student would say, What did I get? or What grade did you give me? I’m like I don’t give grades, I just average what was done. That’s what I do. I’m kind of the accountant on it, but I’m not the one that actually produces it. You’re the one that produces it.

With formative assessment, our descriptive feedback is always about, hey I see that you identified the main idea and you have three pieces of evidence, but I want you to look at your evidence right now and rank order them. Which evidence do you think is most connected to your main idea? What I’ve done is I’ve acknowledged the fact that they already have a baseline for that skill and then I’m pushing them to that next level. One of our greatest challenges as educators is that with the descriptive feedback, what is oftentimes challenging for us is time. Descriptive feedback is really manifested in ideas, strategies, and tasks that the student can use towards that next level of learning. That’s what we’re getting at. Remember feedback is intended to improve while that learning is happening.

For those of you who teach writing, it’s very crystal clear that when we keep making comments on students’ papers, even if we use a rubric and we keep making comments, kids don’t read them. Nobody reads them, really. What is more effective is when we can give them descriptive feedback. One of the tricks that I’ve learned is that when I read through a student’s paper, I started recording my feedback.

I wouldn’t write on there. I actually found that I spent less time doing that than if I wrote everything out because I oftentimes repeated myself. If I just used my stream of consciousness, that was the descriptive feedback and with the technology that we have now kids can even respond back. I’m going to show you some tricks on how to do that in just a moment.

Why Does Descriptive Feedback Matter So Much?

In the handout there’s a link to a blog post that I wrote going more into it and also the research to really support why descriptive feedback matters so much student performance. Feedback always needs to be educational. It also needs to reference the skills and developing content of knowledge.

For those of us who are literacy educators or teachers in general, we teach so much. There’s so much going on. I want you to winnow it down. What are your specific power standards and learning goals for that particular learning activity? That is what you focus on. All the other things, yes, they’ll need to be addressed but they don’t need to be addressed at that point. It’s almost like I’m trying to drink from a fire hose and for most students it’s really like two, maybe three things to work on and master.

To give you an example, When I taught 10th graders, I wanted to make sure that they just had a really killer introduction and they could establish a thesis. That’s really what I was looking for more than anything else. I would cringe and then be elated as I read the rest of their paper, but that’s what I was focused on. Was there tons of work to do on the other ones? Absolutely, but that’s what I was assessing. Can they write an effective introduction and establish a thesis for their written argument? I can’t stress enough how important it is, because what we do is highly complex work as educators and something that I sometimes think the non-educator world doesn’t quite understand how really complex what we do on a given day actually is. We want to guide students towards that learning goal. To give you that example, that introductory paragraph and thesis, if they’re off I would start giving them specific feedback on what they needed to do in order to make that introduction effective.

Digital Tools For Giving Feedback

I want to show you some digital tools that are really helpful for the descriptive feedback. One is Flipgrid. Here’s my thing about web 2.0 tools and apps. There’s so much out there and all of us have been feeling kind of overwhelmed with it. Here’s my criterion for any kind of web 2.0 tool or app. First of all, nothing ever will supplant us educators. Nothing will supplant us because if it did, they would have already done it. There’s something very unique and human about the relationship that we have with students. These apps and web 2.0 tools that I recommend are exactly that. They’re tools. Then my other criteria is that it has to have an instructional purpose. It’s really got to fit in with my instruction. The second is how fast I can get it up and running. If I’m spending more than 30 minutes, it goes in the dustbin for me. Flipgrid is fast and easy. I can set up grids and kids I can pose a question or give a sample of something and the kids can respond. You can open it up or you can close it. You can set privacy settings. I really like it a lot.

Kialo is another one. It is particularly good for peer-to-peer feedback or engaging in kind of Socratic discussions as well. That’s also a wonderful thing. All of these are free my favorite word is free. Now Comment is another one that I particularly like that’s good for older kids you’re having deeper discussions to and foster collaborative writing as well. Padlet is another one, and another one too is Plickers.

Self Assessment and Peer Assessment In Education

Let’s talk about that last building block which is self-assessment and peer assessment. In addition to the process of self-assessment, peer feedback provides the opportunity for students to assess a peer’s learning against the same performance. That’s where Flipgrid could be really helpful. So a couple of things about this. I still struggle with how to have kids do that effective peer assessment and one of the things that I think is most beneficial is when you model it for kids. They have to see it. That’s the

joy of technology. I videoed and I would comment about how the kids are giving feedback, not on specifically what the feedback was because I want to develop that behavior. If you have any suggestions as far as peer writing and peer editing to get that to work, I am always all ears because after 30 years in the profession, I am still trying to figure out that one.

We can’t assume that they know how to do it. We really need to teach them how to engage in academic discourse. Again, Richard Allington cites that as one of the most impactful literacy practices. When students actually talk to their peers about their reading and writing, there is a big impact.

I’m going to give you a gold mine. NWEA has created a really great list in response to the pandemic to facilitate checking for student understanding. Pick one. You only get to pick one because I don’t want you to try and drink from the fire hose. Pick one and that’ll really facilitate that descriptive feedbackIn an e-learning platform. Many of these also can be used as well when we’re back in person in the traditional classroom. Some of you are using Padlets and checklists, too.

Tools For Online Assessment

These are some other kinds of things that you can use to support that discussion and peer to peer kind of feedback. Animoto is particularly good for a turn and talk activity and also English language learners. Edulastic is a great tool as well for online assessment and you can do standards aligned assessments for your students and you can gain immediate student performance feedback and then adjust your instruction accordingly. I know a lot of folks that use Edulastic.

Then the next one is e-survey creator and that’s a tool for building questionnaire surveys and you can also use it for anticipation guides. Anticipation guides are a fantastic tool to develop comprehension and I’ve done a webinar for Saddleback over the summer background knowledge. Background knowledge is so huge, so anticipation guides help us identify what the kids know and what they may need to know before they go into a particular text or a unit. Vocabulary plus background knowledge equals reading comprehension, period. That is the secret sauce. I like E-survey Creator as well, and of course google has a lot of forms and survey forms too that you can use. There is Spiral. I’m relatively new to Spiral. It gives teachers access to formative assessment feedback, so that’s another one that you can take a look at as well.

How To Effectively Measure With Proficiency Scales

The other thing I want to chat with you about is proficiency scales. I could spend an entire day with you just on the development of proficiency scales. This is meant to be a big overview of what they are and how they’re different from rubrics and how they’re a particularly effective tool for giving descriptive feedback and looking at mastery. Now remember, this should be true all the time but it’s going to be especially true now, for us it’s about the big picture. We want to really measure and track the continuum that students have towards mastery of content, mastery of skills that are developmentally appropriate for that grade, and this is where proficiency scales are different than rubrics.

Proficiency scales provide a continuum you go from a more basic level to the mastery level, and because you have those articulations of where you start and where you should end up, in the districts and in schools where I’ve worked in collaboration with them to develop proficiency scales, we were seeing huge improvements.

One school in particular did two things. It was a Title I middle school, so over 70 percent of the students receive free and reduced lunch, and we moved towards the literacy and learning center model. We implemented the literacy and learning center model not just for ELA but for all content areas, and then proficiency scales. When I first started working in that district, the school was an F school. It was identified by the state as an F school and within two years, the school was able to become a B school and they’re on the trajectory right now to be an A school. That really shows the power of practice when we give kids the feedback and when we give them the opportunity to actually practice and work on their skills while they’re engaged in instruction. That’s what the literacy and can improve, so it’s crystal clear to them.

Using Proficiency Scales In The Classroom

I’m going to show you a little bit about proficiency scales, what they are and how we use them in our classrooms. Here’s an example. This is 8th grade, quarter two. Each one of these proficiency scales, when you look at them, they usually represent about three weeks of instruction. Marzano has done a lot of work on proficiency scales. I want proficiency scales available to everybody. When we first look at them it seems a little bit overwhelming, but once you start getting in the groove of it, wow does it help to focus your instruction and descriptive feedback.

You’ll see that it’s scaled one, two, three, four. What most districts do, and this was never Marzano’s intention and it’s not what he recommends, is they often translate it into A, B, C, D, E, F. This one school that I was telling you about that went from an F to a B and they’re on the trajectory for an A school…Now those of us in education know getting sub coverage can be really challenging and word got out in the community that this was the school to substitute teach at because kids basically run the classrooms. We were doing literacy and learning centers and using proficiency scales. The substitute teacher comes in, the kids know what to do, how they’re going to do it, and they just do it. The other thing that’s really fascinating is that when student achievement started going up, the number of in-school suspensions, out-of-school suspensions, disciplinary actions went down. So the curriculum and the instructional practices transformed it. When I first went into the school, it was largely lecture. I saw a lot of teacher centered instruction and when we migrated into the literacy and learning center model it really just transformed things.

Let me get back to these proficiency scales. We have simple goals one, two and three. What the l8 means after each one of them is that’s language, eighth grade and then 11.6.6, that’s the actual standard that’s referred to in that particular state. Most of the proficiencies that are listed, there’s just three, and then we have a vocabulary review. These were words that we’ve already been working on as part of instruction. I don’t want you to think for a minute that the only vocabulary that the kids are doing are those six words. Absolutely not and because we can’t list all the vocabulary because our vocabulary is not all the same, these are the academic terms that all of the kids need to know that are related to the topic, which is word choice and meaning. So this is actually a writing and language instructional focus, so the kids are absolutely reading texts and reading books, but we’re focused in on language usage within their writing. This is what I’m focused on right now as far as assessment is concerned.

When you look at the complex goals, you can see that those are at a higher level and we have more vocabulary as well that they know. Verbal irony, and they know sarcasm, they’re understanding idiomatic expressions, multiple meanings of words.

Descriptive Feedback and Student Understanding: Conclusion

Providing good descriptive feedback and checking for student understanding, this is the big message for our webinar today. The key to effective instruction, whether it’s e-learning or a traditional classroom, it always boils down to this: Vocabulary + background knowledge = reading comprehension.

I’m big on these equations. Descriptive feedback + student understanding = equals effective instruction always, always, always. Those are the two components that I already shared with you.

So just to recap, identify what the essential skills and content are. What are the biggies? What are the most important? Then proficiency scales I totally recommend over rubrics and that’s another discussion, too. Rubrics tend to be limiting. They are almost like buckets to fill as opposed to proficiency scales, where it’s a continuum. We know very clearly from the research how critical relationships are with our students and that descriptive feedback is part of that relation aspect between teacher and student.

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