Thursday, February 26, 2015

Skill Building, Formative Assessments & LeBron James

Should everything a student does in class be graded?  Or, as students typically say, "does this count?"

Throughout most of my career, the answer was a resounding YES.  I thought that if it was something that I deemed important enough to assign, then into the gradebook it went. 

That all changed with mastery learning.  In the new system, any formative assessments (which I term "Skill Building Tasks" to students) are not officially scored or entered into our grading system.  In fact, they are not always required in the first place!

When explaining this to students, I refer back to my years coaching basketball.  These formative assessments are like practice for the big game.  We work on improving specific skills, particularly ones that we are weak at, in order to perform well during the big game. In this case, the "game" is equivalent to the summative assessment for each standard (summative assessments are graded on a mastery-learning scale). 

Now back to the idea of not having students complete all of the formative assessments.  My point here is that if you can prove mastery on the summative assessment without practicing with any of the skill building tasks, great!  Why should I waste your time?  

LeBron knows how to dribble...
If LeBron James had to prove mastery of dribbling a ball down the court, I don't think he would need weeks of ball handling drills to work his way up to the summative assessment. 

On the other hand, we all have students who think that they are the LeBron James of a particular skill, but are instead closer to rec league role player (no offense to those who were.)  It's ok, many of us overestimate our ability to do things, and so do our students.  

So what happens when a student attempts the summative assessment without practicing with the formatives and does not prove proficient? Simple: they will have to double back and attempt these skill building assignments with some redirection and instruction. When they are ready, they will tackle the summative assessment once (or twice) more.

Below is a graph I put together (linked here) that helps me organize which resources and formative assessments will help my students develop proficiency in each particular skill (Columns 3&4 from left).  The second image is a screenshot of what the "Skill Building Tasks" look like to students in our LMS.  More reflection on the role of formative assessments and their role in a mastery learning environment to come...  In the meantime, post any comments or questions below!

Resources & Formative Assessments Included in Unit Outline
Skill Building Tasks in our LMS

Friday, February 20, 2015

Visiting High School in the Community

Although mastery and competency-based learning is widely discussed in education circles, it is surprisingly difficult to find a school that effectively implements this approach.  I recently joined a team from PHS to visit one such school, New Haven's High School in the Community. We were warmly welcomed by Community Coordinator Cari Strand who led an incredible day of discussions and observations with staff and students.  To sum up their approach, High School in the Community requires all students to demonstrate mastery of specific learning targets (content and skills) in order to advance and ultimately graduate.  

School Structure
Instead of the traditional Freshman-Senior progression, they established the following "Stages of Advancement."

  1. Foundation year: Developing the basic academic skills, content knowledge, and self-discipline to succeed in high school
  2. Core year: Advancing academic skills and completing most required content study
  3. Focus year: Exploring elective content study and determining the details of a transition out of high school and into college and career training
  4. Bridge year: Finalizing the skills and preparation needed to bridge the transition into adulthood

Although this may at first seem like semantics, I witnessed first hand that it is far from it. Although it is expected that a typical student will progress through this in 4 years, it may take less time or more depending upon the student.  The focus here is not on seat time or Carnegie units.  The focus is primarily on student learning. 

To monitory and track student progress (and communicate with parents), they also use the following "Mastery Performance Levels." 

4 – Exemplary  Student has proven expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student is on track to finish this course and may move on to the next course level before the academic year has ended.

 3.5 – Approaching Exemplary   Student has proven some expertise in course material and is ahead of course pace. Student will need to demonstrate additional expertise to move on to the next course level.
3 – Mastery  Student has proven mastery through demonstration of quality work and has maintained course pace.   Currently on pace to earn credit.    
2.5 – Approaching Mastery  Although completed work may show mastery of skills, student is currently not on pace to complete material by the end of this academic year.  Successful completion of all course material is required for advancement.
2 – Developing  Student has developed some understanding, but has not demonstrated mastery of course content and skills.  Without additional academic support student is unlikely to finish course material by the end of the academic year. 
1.5—Beginning  Student has completed some work demonstrating a beginning understanding of course content.  Student is not on course pace, and will require substantial academic support in order to reach mastery and complete course work by the end of the academic year. 
1 – Limited  Student has demonstrated little or no understanding of course content and skills.  At current pace, student will not complete the course by the end of the academic year.  
So What Does This All Look Like in Practice? 
One of the first classes we visited was a Foundation year math class.  This classroom was a perfect example of how to communicate and visualize progress in a competency-based learning environment.  The entire wall was filled with charts that not only displayed student progress, but also provided a pacing guide for students whose goal was to advance by the end of the year.  (As you can see in the photos below, students are identified by code number to avoid any stigmas with advanced at a slower pace.)

We also witnessed how the learning targets ("performance indicators") for each course and level were clearly communicated and displayed for students (see photo to the right).  Each performance indicator also has aligned scoring rubrics so that students have a clear understanding of what is required for each level of proficiency.  The example below is from an assignment in a history course that is assessing student proficiency in two of the Historical Writing standards.  

In the afternoon, we had an opportunity to speak with members of the student council.  One common theme from this conversation is that they thought there was a better sense of purpose now in school.  It was less about compliance and more about learning.  Some admitted that they fell behind early since mastery learning "was harder." They did like, however, that nothing was holding them back.  If they put the time and effort in, not only could they excel, but also complete their competencies in even less than 4 years.  Some students from the school actually enroll in local college classes during their Bridge (senior) year since they have demonstrated mastery of all the learning targets. 

Grading Program

High School in the Community uses JumpRope,  a standards-based grading platform.  The teachers that we spoke with liked the program and demonstrated how standards were assessed and then reported out through the student/parent portal.  It is much more visual than a traditional program and seems to do a good job of conveying both what students are excelling at as well as learning gaps that exist.


There are many other takeaways and questions that came from this visit, and I will touch upon those in future posts.  I do, however, want to conclude by saying how courageous this group of educators are.  Despite many of the obstacles faced with this transition, they know that at the end of the day, it is best for students.  One staff member said that the most difficult part is that it "exposes" many of the issues that exist under the surface in traditional school, yet are ignored or glossed over.  Their mastery system not only unearths these issues (particularly learning gaps), but addresses them head on in a creative, thoughtful, and courageous way.  This district is a model for those who know that our traditional approach to grading and student progression is fundamentally flawed and are seeking an alternative path.

I again thank High School in the Community for hosting us and wish them the best of luck in their journey!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Which Skills Should Be "Mastered?"

For mastery learning to work, students must have a clear understanding of what skills they actually need to "master."
What skills do students need to master?

In other words, teachers must consider: which skills must students demonstrate proficiency in to earn credit for my course?  What content standards (if any) should be included in this framework? How many performance standards should be included each semester?...

Although the need to map this out ahead of time may sound painfully obvious, it is something that we continue to grapple with.  I'm sure that many of you are in a similar situation.  The problem is not that we lack standards to use, quite the opposite.  Teachers are often provided multiple sets of standards to work off of. The elephant in the room is that we are often unsure of which specific standards to use, when to use them, and how to effectively weave them into our curriculum. 

You may be thinking that this is a relatively universal issue that is not specific to mastery learning. And you are right.  However, mastery learning helps bring this issue to the forefront of our attention.  Since it will not work without established standards mapped out in a clear progression, it forces us to take a closer look at the very nature of our course.  Although it can be difficult and frustrating at times, it is absolutely worth doing and, frankly, is in the best interest of our students.  

That said, here are the three sets of standards that I'm working with.

3.  PHS 21st Century Learning Expectations

Although my course framework is far from perfect, I have clearly mapped out this semester for the students. Included in the document linked below (and in screenshot) are each performance standard, the summative assessment(s) tied to each standard, and a "checkpoint" date to let students know if they are on pace. 

Screenshot of the first 8 performance standards for World History Semester 2 (24 Total)

I purposely do not include a list of all the resources and formative assessments in this document (I will share out that "teacher version" in a future post).  Instead, I wanted students to focus specifically on the big picture.  In this case, the skills needed and the assessments that would determine their proficiency in those skills. 

Although I still have many questions regarding standard selection and student progression, we are certainly heading in the right direction with this as a class, a department, and as a school.  Moving towards mastery has helped us hone in on our curriculum in a broad sense to determine what it actually is that we want our students to know and be able to do.  

Next week I will reflect upon our department's journey to High School in the Community (New Haven, CT) and discuss the innovative school-wide approach to mastery learning that they have implemented and continue to improve each day.  

Friday, February 6, 2015

Stakeholders, Logistics & Lessons Learned

Over the past 4 days, we have met with administration, worked with an assessment consultant, developed student "road maps" of the standards and performance assessments, and went on an inspiring visit to High School in the Community to witness a successful mastery-based learning school in action.  (More about this great experience soon...)

This week has been one of energy, excitement and reinvigorated my sense of purpose as an educator.

This week has also humbled me in a way.

Although I am still in the midst of making sense of it, it is fair to say that I have learned two important lessons:

#1:  A true mastery learning approach is difficult to do in isolation (or even in a small "pilot.")

#2:  For a mastery-learning system to work, considerable time and energy must focus on stakeholder buy-in and logistics.  

I now realize that leading up to this initiative, I underestimated #1, and fell short on #2.  In a way, my excitement and zeal for this may have blinded me to some of the structural and procedural roadblocks that inevitably surface when trying to implement such a change.  In hindsight, I should have known better.  I will go into greater detail on these obstacles once I can further wrap my mind around all of this.

I want to end the week, however, by expressing that despite some initial setbacks and mistakes, I believe more than ever that mastery learning (and variations of it) is an approach to learning that truly benefits students.  I also know that despite the challenges,  I am not going to give up on this and will learn from these experiences in both the short run and looking ahead to the future.

We will continue to push ahead and implement more elements of mastery learning throughout this semester and share our experiences along the way.  Next week will be a reflection on our visit to High School in the Community, an inspiring experience that now has me fundamentally rethinking the way we educate our students.