Always Formative(?)

Screen Shot 2018-11-11 at 5.46.40 AM

At one point the “Always Formative” blog was a constant tab open in my browser. It was 2011 or so and I was teaching at a small school and struggling to find a community of educators to tap into. Somehow, I came across Jason Buell’s blog and began reading. Jason is also a science teacher so his examples appealed to me. (Unfortunate side-note: I have no idea what happened to Jason Buell. His blog has not been updated since 2014 and his twitter handle (@jybuell) is no longer active.) 

The idea of Standards-Based Grading had not been on my radar though I was struggling with giving students meaningful feedback.  After reading a few posts, I immediately began shifting my practices. In hindsight, the students I taught that year probably wondered what in the world happened to their teacher as “grading systems” were tossed on end. But, it made sense. Assessment is a conversation and if the goal is continual learning, we should continue the process of working on an idea, developing our thinking and building upon that. If a school believes in reassessment of summative assessments then why not just focus on formative assessments. (Ha! that’s a lot of edu-jargon in one sentence.)

Where am I now? Over the past few years, I have been pulled in a different direction. I have spent countless hours developing, administering and grading summative assessments. In this time, it has been rare that a summative assessment resulted in a “surprise,” meaning that a student performed in a way that did not reflect their current work. The only surprises have come from students who were performing well but did not fully understand that particular question. Is this fair for them? So after straying away from Jason Buell’s mantra of Always Formative, I again feel drawn to his reasoning. Are there others out there who believe the same way? The following tweet from Kath Murdoch, whose inquiry work is currently shift some of my practices, caught my attention.

The question that drives this article and its response nicely put together some of my own thinking when thinking about students as learners.

“We questioned: is it necessary to have a summative assessment or could each project be a continuous learning journey with formative assessment opportunities during each stage of the process? “

“After the success of the marble run, we realized that we wanted to continue our development of creative projects for assessment and learning. Our aim is to create authentic projects which require our students to demonstrate their understandings in a meaningful context. These projects will be open-ended, with students starting from the same point but with opportunities to take them in different directions according to their interests and understandings. Students will make connections and use what they are learning throughout the unit. The projects will encourage students to carry on learning by making mistakes, trying again and having conversations with each other. Students will also benefit from the conversations at home. We realized that we had gone from summative assessments to creating continued learning experiences that often stretched beyond our classrooms.”

Shifting back to the lens of a science teacher, I think about the core of the NGSS standards: do science and solve problems. The goal is to weave together the three strands of science and engineering practices, content and cross-cutting concepts. Questions…

Shifting back to the lens of a science teacher, I think about the core of the NGSS standards: do science and solve problems. The goal is to weave together the three strands of science and engineering practices, content and cross-cutting concepts. Questions…

  1. How do we design a learning space that is full of inquiry where students are continually getting feedback on their progress as scientists?
  2. Can an active science notebook that includes modeling, investigative design, data collection and explanations be used as an ongoing process? This process is formative in nature as students are continually getting feedback and ideally improving each time a new phenomenon is investigated.
  3. If students are focused on the study of a phenomenon / engineering challenge, and their thinking is directed towards being a scientist what is the purpose of tacking on summative assessment at the end?

I am curious to hear thoughts that support always formative and those that feel that a summative assessment is absolutely necessary. In the end, I would like students to leave a year of learning with me with the thought that they are scientists and have a lot of evidence to support their thinking. This evidence would come from a notebook full of phenomenon-driven inquiry where they have actively modeled thinking (capturing key content), designed and conducted investigations and engaged with cross-cutting concepts. 


SBG: From Standards to Student

I am preparing for an upcoming workshop on taking standards into a SBG system and am also trying to experiment with visual sketchnotes. Any and all feedback would be greatly appreciated. The sketchnote is linked to Prezi that includes a set of NextGen Science Standards as an example.

Screen Shot 2015-03-17 at 6.04.47 PM








The nonartist disclaimer: I like the idea of sketchnotes but wow it is challenging for me!

SBG explained to Parents

I work in a school that has a 1-5 grading scale yet many practices are aligned with a percentage / grade letter model. We’re working towards a more common understanding that may eventually shift descriptors but in meantime I find that there are many inconsistencies throughout the school. This results in parent confusion and questions. In the following, I attempt to begin with the school’s reporting scale and explain my version to parents. This process is a continuation of my efforts to write frequently (still managing a weekly email!) to parents to increase communication. Obviously, I struggle a bit with being succinct in my explanation. Suggestions? How do you provide a good description of your system to parents in a way that they will read and understand?

——to parents—-

As a teacher, I am sometimes asked what guides the units and reporting in class. Units are created in collaboration with other members of the Science Department so that students can reach a level of understanding appropriate for middle school. The standards used to develop student learning targets come from the Next Generation Science Standards. Over the course of the year, I hope to be able to provide you with detailed information regarding these standards and how they help guide the science work of your student. In the meantime, please feel free to look at the standards and let me know if you have any questions.

The following information has been copied from the school handbook regarding reporting:

The 1 to 5 scale describes a student’s growth in learning for that learning period. The scale numbers are not an average of a student’s scores for that learning period, but an evaluation of their overall achievement of the material studied. The learning periods that will be evaluated are the first quarter, the first semester (including both first and second quarters), the third quarter, and the second semester (including the third and fourth quarters). The five levels are described below:

1 to 5 Grading Scale


  • Minimal understanding of the required concepts, knowledge, and skills. Only able to apply these with high levels of assistance.
  • Limited understanding of the required concepts, knowledge and skills. Able to apply them with some assistance.
  • Fair understanding of the required concepts, knowledge and skills. Able to apply them in a reasonable number of situations.
  • Good understanding of the required concepts, knowledge and skills. Able to apply them consistently and accurately in familiar situations.
  • Excellent understanding of the required concepts, knowledge and skills. Able to apply them consistently and accurately in familiar and unfamiliar situations.


The scale above is written in a general form as it applies to the Middle School as a whole. For your student in Grade 7 Science, the scale has been modified to best fit the needs of students.  Assessments are a form of communication between teachers, students and parents and helps to describe a student’s understanding of concepts. Therefore, feedback needs to be directly related to a student’s progress on the topics.

Learning targets are broken down into levels of understanding that correspond with the 1-5 reporting scale. The general overview is provided below:

  • A “1” indicates that the student has provided little or no evidence to support their understanding on a topic.
  • A “2” indicates that the student is progressing but needs some guidance and support to explain foundational items on a topic.
  • Level 3 corresponds to the foundational information on a topic. This can be vocabulary, general topic understanding or a broad explanation of a concept. A “3” on a Level 3 concept indicates that the student has shown foundational understanding of the material. (On a Level 4 concept, a “3” indicates that the student has basic understanding of a concept but is still working to fully develop ideas related to the topic.)
  • Level 4 relates to the development of a good understanding of the material. At this level, students are asked to use the foundational ideas and vocabulary (Level 3) to connect concepts and fully describe their thoughts.
  • Level 5 indicates that a student has moved beyond what we are directly discussing in class and can apply his or her understanding to more challenging scenarios. Students are able to make thorough connections between concepts and connect ideas using a variety of examples.

Is homework a necessary part of a student’s performance? Homework can be beneficial to student improvement though it does not factor into the grade of the student. It is time to practice, to put thoughts together and to develop questions. It is not part of a grade.

The table below provides a more broken down description of the levels described below:

Level Indicators include…
Level 5.0
  • I fully understand the content/skills and can explain them in detail.
  • I can explain/teach the skills to another student.
  • I can have a conversation about the content/skills.
  • I can independently demonstrate extensions of my knowledge (go past what was taught in class).
  • I can create analogies and/or find connections between different areas within the sciences or between science and other areas of study.
  • My responses demonstrate in-depth understanding of main ideas and of related details.
Level 4.0
  • I understand the key points about the content/skills.
  • I am proficient at describing terms and independently connecting them with concepts.
  • I understand not just the “what,” but can correctly explain the “how” and “why” of concepts.
Level 3.0
  • I have a general understanding of the content/skills, but I’m also confused about some important parts.
  • I need some help from my teacher (one-on-one or small group) to do the skills correctly.
  • I do not feel confident enough to do the skills on my own and need my handouts and notes.
  • I can correctly identify concepts and/or define vocabulary; however I have difficulties making connections among ideas and/or independently extending my own learning.
  • My responses demonstrate basic understanding of some main ideas, but significant information is missing.
Level 2.0
  • I need lots of help from my teacher (one-on-one).
  • I have low confidence on how to do the skills and need more instruction.
  • I need my handouts and notes at all times.
  • I do not understand the concept/skills.
  • I cannot correctly identify concepts and/or define vocabulary.
  • I cannot make connections among ideas or extend the information.
Level 1.0
  • I do not provide any responses for which a judgment can be made about my understanding.

(Note on the table: I wish I could remember where I found it. I thank the individual(s) who provided many of the indicators.)

Intersection of PBL & SBG

Disclaimer: I’m not completely sure of my thoughts at the moment. This post is an attempt to provide some mental order but I’m searching for a balance. Thoughts are truly appreciated. 

I shifted to a standards-based grading/reporting system two years ago and fully appreciate the way that conversations have opened up. Students may still be focused on the grade but we talk about what they have learned and what steps they need to take in order to improve in an area. My lessons are more focused with the feedback I now collect by reporting on specific strands instead of facing class averages. At the same time, I’ve seen my assessment types narrow to traditional-styled assessments (a la pencil and paper variety). Why? It’s an easy and efficient way to collect data on student learning. Students take an assessment, they self-grade to get immediate feedback, I provide additional comments and a current level of achievement against a standard, and lessons are adjusted as needed.

The problem? Students are taking more assessments in my class than before and I don’t feel as if a variety of assessment types are offered. In the past, the vast majority of my assessment came from student projects. I’m searching for that sweet spot that pushes me back into a project-based/portfolio atmosphere while maintaining the data regarding student learning.

Some of my sticking points:

  • Student-initiated assessments have been a success for many students. They continue working and questioning until they reach a better understanding. But, is the scope of this understanding limited by the types of assessments I provide? I attempt to give questions that provide ample opportunity for thought processing but the context is still within the confines of an assessment question.
  • I’ve chased a project-based unit with an assessment for fairly dismal results. Students created models to build analogies for cell organelles. Projects were quite good but when I asked students about organelle functions, many did not seem to have transferred understanding. Did the project prepare them for discussing the function of a cell organelle?
  • Where does a storyline unit mesh with SBG? I see storyline as a vehicle for an integrated project-based learning unit. A framework is cast around students and they operate within the story. Students create. This could be in the form of a guide to a park, a book about dragons, a museum of Ancient Culture, the grand reopening of Camp Halfblood after mythical monsters destroyed the former camp, quilt squares used for a memorial…During these units, students are expected to be constantly working on some aspect of the project. Conversations take place between groups and with me. At the end a celebration showcases student work and is a culminating event of the story.

Now, I’m getting closer to the crux of my dilemma.

  • What is the student does not fully participate in the project?
  • What if the student does not submit any of the work?
  • What if the work submitted is not up to minimum requirements?

Student example: Imagine that student in your class who prides him/herself on being a walking encyclopedia. They are like a sponge and immediately absorb information through listening, reading, etc. This student thrives on traditional-type tests, though may have difficulty on questions asking for connections. However, when given a project to work on, this student is going to do relatively little. The bare minimum will be submitted. Should this student be given the opportunity to take a “reassessment” that is a series of questions instead of working through the project and interacting with peers? I think not. In six years of work as an engineer, I never saw the possibility of taking a test instead of completing a project. Wow, clients would not have returned to the consulting company if I decided to not meet a submittal on time.

In the past, I’ve given less traditional tests in a school year than I have fingers. Recently, my test rate has increased. I’m fully sold on the principles of standards-based grading/reporting yet want a return to a higher variation of assessment types that mesh more with a project-based classroom. Am I the only one hitting the wall on this?

I’ve fallen into the e-grade trap

The fall has been quick.  We’ve been required to use GradeQuick as a grading program but this is the first year that information opened up to parents and students. In the past, progress reports, printed by teachers, went home regularly and the physical act of handing reports to students nudged me to do more. The act was twofold: I handed out the progress report and students then logged progress on standards into a tracking sheet.

My tracking sheets now languish on the sidelines as I’ve fallen into the trap that students have access to the information online so it is easy for them to stay up-to-date. Whoa! Stop right there and remember the students in years’ past that quickly filed away progress reports without a second glance. The tracking sheets made them look at current levels and set goals. Now there is no accountability. The students who barely looked at reports in class are likely not hopping online to check each time reports are updated.

I feel that instead of getting students more involved in progress, the lack of accountability lets most ignore what is happening. A key element of a standards-based system is that students must be part of the conversation about their learning. I need to bring the active tracking back to my classroom. At the moment, I think I have to go back to regularly printing out updates but look forward to finding new solutions.

SBG explained in “a few paragraphs”

The SBG bus stop in central Taiwan is yet to be established. At least it hasn’t pulled up at my school and it seems as if I’m constantly trying to break new ground without much support. I’ve been asked to write up a couple of paragraphs about my grading policy to show that there is school support behind the idea and that I’m not being a renegade. So, here goes my first attempt – any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. I see a potential audience being the weekly school newsletter – a random email that I wrote earlier in the year somehow found its way to the newsletter so I’m a bit more guarded now.

As a teacher, I am sometimes asked what guides the units and design of my class. Our school adopted a set of standards that drive curricular goals. Units are created by deciding what are the basic skills of the material (what I consider to be a Level 3) and what are the main concepts and ideas (Level 4). I then build lessons to provide students with experiences to construct their understanding of the topic.

For me, assessments are a form of communication between teachers, students and parents. I believe that my assessment system should be one of multiple ways that we can talk about a student’s understanding of concepts. Therefore, my feedback needs to be directly related to a student’s progress on the topics. In the same way that I divide standards into basic skills and concepts, my grading system is designed to provide information on how a student is doing on each skill and concept. Feedback lets students know if they have shown understanding on Level 3 and Level 4 concepts. Level 1 indicates that the student has not provided any work on a skill or concept while Level 2 indicates that the student is progressing but needs some work to explain an idea. On the other end, a Level 5 indicates that a student has moved beyond what we are directly discussing in class and can apply his or her understanding to more challenging scenarios.

Is homework a necessary part of a student’s performance? Homework can be beneficial to student improvement though it does not factor into the grade of the student. It is time to practice, to put thoughts together and to develop questions. It is not part of a grade.

That’s it in a few paragraphs. What have I missed?

Parent Night (SBG explained)

Open up the doors, here comes the parents! A week has passed for this school year and it is time to welcome parents into the classroom. Two years ago, as a new teacher at the school, my room was packed during each session. Come check out the new guy was the motto. Last year, I was old news. Few parents came to hear my plans for the year. Maybe the whirlwind 10 minute sessions keep some away.

This year, a new online grading system is being put into place and will hopefully draw larger numbers. I have 10 minutes for each class. What would I like to say? I would want to spend time with the parents learning about their child. What lights a fire of interest for their student? What do they love more than anything? What do they do when not faced with a school day schedule and responsibilities? I would like to talk about the amazing journey that their children and are slowly embarking upon. Oh, the list can go on and on of what I would like to talk with parents about.

Instead, the 10 minutes will flash by. Introductions are a blur and, here is the kicker, Krista (wife & 6th grade teaching partner) and I don’t grade like other teachers. This is year two in my standards-based grading experience. Last year slapped down a steep learning curve and I hope to fine tune this year. But, Wednesday night is Wednesday night and parents want to know how their students will be graded. At least with a SBG philosophy, I feel that there is a place for discussion that centers around student progress instead of percentages. Here is my general presentation: