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July 15, 2012 / Jeff d.

How Do We Grade? – Grading and Reporting in a PBL/PrBL Math Class

It isn’t possible to describe how I graded in my math classroom last year without giving a little more background about the New Tech model that we use.  Two things are important here.  First, for everything we do we use Project-Based Learning (PBL) and Problem-Based Learning (PrBL), and it is all cooperative (group work).  Second, we use an interesting grading system that puts “soft skills” – like communication and work ethic – explicitly into the gradebook.  I’ll tackle these two issues one at a time.


Assessing Mastery with Cooperative Learning:

So our school uses all PBL and PrBL, working through complex problems and projects in small groups.  So how are we supposed to assess individuals for content mastery?  Well, the only time we work individually is when we need to demonstrate content knowledge (i.e. a quiz or other form of assessment).

So what does that look like in my math classroom?

1. We work through a problem or project in groups (though we’ll often start the problems thinking about them individually).  After we have “solved” the problem, thoroughly discussed it, made all of our thinking visible, and presented it one way or another, the learners will get another similar problem (or a problem derived from the project) to work through by themselves.  This is where the content grade comes from, while the group time is graded on things like Work Ethic, Communication, Critical Thinking, and Collaboration.  I think of it as being similar to the Formative Assessment Lessons from the Shell Centre, which I consider to be good stuff.

2. To better assess the mathematical skills (think “solving linear systems” or “factoring trinomials”) we use short content quizzes.  The quizzes almost always have two or three concepts on them, spiraled back to give learners automatic retake opportunities.  (See this presentation from Dan Meyer for where this idea came from).  Of course, there are procedures in place for learners to get extra help and instruction, and to request a retake on their own, regardless of how long ago the concepts were discussed.

As far as what constituted proficiency, it varied from quiz to quiz.  Generally I would create the quiz (usually about four questions), then make a judgement call on what would let me know that they “got it.”  It could be that three were correct, and there was a small mistake on the fourth.  It could be that they needed all to be correct, or (rarely) two of the four would suffice.  Next year I plan to create a simple rubric for each quiz that lets the students know ahead of time what will be considered proficient (I regret not having done this last year).

3.  Last year I used BlueHarvest to help the learners keep track of the concepts they had mastered and to manage some feedback.  I used it primarily because it was cool looking – there were no grades attached.  But it did help shift conversations from “I need to get my grade up, what can I do for extra credit?” to “I need to learn how to solve systems by substitution” – which is always a joyous feeling as a teacher.

Here you can see BlueHarvest in action for one of our quarters.  The blue boxes indicate Proficient, while the yellow boxes mean they have not yet mastered that concept.  (No, not every student mastered every concept – don’t judge me, I’m still learning this whole teaching thing!).

Separating “Soft Skills” in the Gradebook

So as part of the New Tech Network, we have the ability in our gradebook to separate content from other attributes that we would like to measure.  For example, this past year Content Mastery was 50% of the grade, while five school-wide learning outcomes like Collaboration,Work Ethic, and Communication were 10% each.  See as an example (though obviously this isn’t a student at my school, just a stock pic):

This has the benefit both of measuring “21st Century Skills”, and allows us to separate content mastery from behavior (something I believe strongly in – read some Ken O’Connor, et. al., if you want more convincing).

So what does this look like in my math classroom?

1.  Homework (practice) – given only when necessary, and after its purpose has been made clear by working on the problem/project – is graded strictly on Work Ethic.  This is practice for the game, and I do not believe in counting it toward the content grade.

2.  “Participation” (in the form of class discussions, working in groups, etc.) is graded strictly on Collaboration.  Again, this should not affect their content grade since it says nothing about their mastery of the content.

3.  Critical Thinking is a difficult one to define and use schoolwide (something we are tackling as a staff this summer).  In my classroom it included things like making thinking visible, taking multiple approaches, giving proof, explaining work, revising when new knowledge is acquired, and risk-taking.  Again, these only went into their Critical Thinking grade and had no effect on their content grade.

4.  Writing and presentations are graded on Communication.  I can’t imagine docking a learner’s content grade for failing to use a complete sentence.  But I have no problem giving them the feedback to improve and including this in their separate Communication grade.

5.  And if it hasn’t been made clear yet, Content is Content – it reflects nothing but what the learner knows.

What would I do if I didn’t have this grading system?

Obviously not everyone has the benefit of being able to report grades this way.  I often think about what I would do if I were to go to a different school that graded the old way.

Barring district or department mandates, this is what I would change: nothing.

At this point, I can’t imagine polluting Content grades with things that clearly reflect Work Ethic.  I can’t imagine telling a learner that they only know 75% of the math when they scored 100% on their test but didn’t turn in their homework.  And I can’t imagine killing their Content grade for failure to use commas correctly in their writing.  I just can’t do it.  I would simply have to find a way to report it this way myself.

*Special thanks to my teaching partner last year, Kelley Watson, who shared in the creation of these ideas.

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