Why I loved Thomas Guskey today

So I had my fears.  I didn’t want to go.  But, boy, I am glad I did.

First, I really didn’t understand Standards Grading.

It is not simply substituting a 4 for an A or a 3 for a B, though it will take a few years of retraining for students and parents and teachers to comprehend that.

It is not highlighting a rubric and considering that feedback. It is a paradigm shift that does a few crucial things, the most important of which is to remove process and progress feedback from product reflection.  And we need it.

In every team I have ever worked, we debate:  what should late penalties look like? how much should this assignment be weighted?  There is no answer.  In today’s conference, Thomas Guskey repeatedly proved there is no consistency among educators on how and what and why to grade.  So what if we isolate some of the feedback, and, in the process, clarify the feedback?

What if there was a bolded achievement grade and then, as Guskey provided as examples below, separate grades for participation, homework, punctuality, and effort?   What if we graded just the skills manifested in that assignment, and then used a rubric 4, 3, 2, 1 to capture the other relevant and important but non-skill based attributes of a student?


Loved it.

And what if we could take that just one step farther and then have standards supplementing that achievement grade, so parents knew what an A or a B or a C meant in my room particular to skills?   See below:


Yes, it does take a paradigm shift.  Yes, there would be fewer A’s, but this is somewhat tempered by two things:

In the ten years since I did Standards Based, colleges rely less on GPA and more on the rigor of the classes.  According to Mr. Guskey, colleges love this system, mainly because it provides better feedback.  Right now, GPAs mean little as there is no consistency across the USA.

Also, the A is not the point.  Accurate communication of skills is the point.  In some ways, it is easier to get an A as there isn’t the law (or mob rule) of averages here.

But most of all, I did not feel that my propensity to invest in comments is undermined in this system.  I do not need to highlight a rubric, but I can identify a score according to a rubric.  If I had every kid insert a table at the end of the paper with the listed standards, I could easily slip in a 4 or 3 or 2 or 1.  I do not need to resort to paper grading.  I do not need a highlighter.  I can do both and I can do it well.

So consider me ready.  On board.  Salivating.

Let’s go.

Why I dreaded going to the Thomas Guskey inservice today…

I dreaded going to see Thomas Guskey today.

I have just started at Middleton High School, which is moving to standards-based grading.  When I was hired and interviewed, I didn’t know what that meant, but as time has passed, I think I get it:  Based on what I  observe, it means taking a rubric with the standards for that assessment, and rather than giving a single comprehensive letter grade, highlight the rubric, scoring each student has a 4, 3, 2, 1 for each standard.

And as I started to understand this, I remembered my time with this grading system.  My team partner wanted to do this about ten years ago, and I tend to try anything.  I only lasted two years, though, and here is why:

There are fewer A’s under this system.  Maybe that seems trivial, and maybe that just seems like justice as so many claim that there is grade inflation, but it isn’t trivial.  Ten years ago, there was even more weight placed GPA in college admissions.  I don’t know why a 4 is so much harder to give out than an A, but I could not turn that corner, and so I disliked the 4, 3, 2, 1 system.

I hear my Middleton students talking similarly now, talking about how a science or a physical education. teacher said that work has to be stupendous to earn a 4.  The students in class bemoaned this, asking if it mattered to try, and I reflected back, thinking through what I had experienced.   Grades are gateways for kids.  A GPA can open a door or close it, so it is not something to be taken lightly.

But there was another reason I dreaded going today.  Rubrics.  I have come to question rubrics, not necessarily as tools for communicating expectations, but as grading mechanisms.  Part of that questioning comes from reading Alfie Kohn, some comes from looking at Maja Wilson, but most comes from an innate survival instinct.  Rubrics take up valuable grading time.

I love making comments via Word (though I know I will need to embrace Google more in the future) because of the precise feedback I can give.  I can link to websites that explain the colon.  I can created a voice comment through Vocaroo or other means.  I can even create a video, as I did here.  But a rubric takes time, and then I have less time for comments and less time for feedback.  I have studied my assessments habits, tallying how many comments I write on handwritten papers vs electronic papers with Word, and I am convinced: I give better, more precise feedback with comments than with a rubric.

So I dreaded going to see Thomas Guskey today.

But I was wrong.  Boy, I was wrong.

Been awhile…

First, an apology for those who were actually reading this, but most importantly to my students who followed this blog hoping for answers.

Here are headlines:  After 13 years in one district, I applied to the neighboring district, a heart-wrenching decision.  I told my students they would understand more when they read my blog… but then, days after school ended, my mom was diagnosed with a glioblastoma multiforme brain tumor, which threw my summer into chaos.  Life sorted out a bit in August, and then school started.  So despite best intentions, here it is October, and no real post.   My apologies.

Here is what I still think:  in any situation you do not like or cannot stomach, you can first try to influence it, then you can try to avoid it, but eventually you may have to leave to save part of your soul.   It sounds dramatic, but I still think it true.  Value yourself and your strengths well enough to question status quo and to think what might be.

As I think back, I am thankful for all I learned and for all the experiences my last school district gave me.  I believe, however, that the move extended the life of my career, and for that, I am grateful… grateful for colleagues who understood, family who supported, and for students- who always make me remember why I love my job.