Teaching for understanding
That students understand the ideas we explore in class this year is an overarching goal, termed a throughline, for the 6th grade school year.
Teaching for understanding requires that concepts be applied in an unfamiliar context. By example, understanding the concept of gravity means being able to apply it to a variety of systems, be it the Earth, our solar system, or any body in space. Understanding implies that we are able to do more than simply replicate what we heard and saw in class. Learning that remains in the form of isolated facts will quickly decay. We need only look to our on experience in school. What do we remember, and why?
The application of a concept is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than knowing about it; actually piloting an aircraft is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than knowing about flight. As I said to the kids, imagine a person reads the book, How to do surgery. After they finish the book, they take a test on the information, and get an A, 100%. Do you want them operating on your mom? Why?
Knowing about something is much easier than doing it.
But how do we assess for understanding? How do we know if (or to what extent) a student understands a skill or concept?
Assessing understanding: The 5-point rubric
Most 6th graders understand how to ride a bicycle; they understand how to tie their shoes. How would we assess for understanding? We’d ask them to demonstrate it by riding a bicycle, or tying their shoes. Understanding must be practiced, and performed. The same is true for all skills and concepts we are studying: assessment must be ongoing, multiple, varied, and performed.
Miss Deb and I will use a 5-point rubric to assess a student’s understanding. In it’s most basic form, a score of
5 corresponds with a demonstration of full understanding;
4 indicates partial understanding, or that a student’s nearly mastered it, but may need to ask for a hint here and there;
3 indicates clear room for improvement, the clear need for further practice, or the inability to solve a problem without assistance;
1 and 2 are reserved for work that is either incomplete, or significantly below the standards for the student, or the grade level
Larger projects, as the masking-making activity we completed last week, are also assessed using a rubric, though whenever possible the categories and levels of achievement within categories are developed in collaboration with students. We ask: How shall we assess this project? What areas should we assess? What does a score of 5 look like in each area? Thus, the rubric is derived in advance of the project and guides student work (or so it is meant to).
A score of 6 often accompanies a project-based rubric. The score of 6 is higher than an American grade of A, and is assigned when the quality of work has gone well-beyond expectations of the teacher, the student, and/or the grade level. In the International Baccalaureate Program, this score is reserved for work that derives new knowledge. I have described a score of 6 as drawing a response of Ohhh, Woww! from classmates and teachers.
The Challenge: Converting a 5-point rubric to a percentage scale and letter grades
Being a part of the middle school, FOCUS reports grades on a percentage scale with letter grades. Thus the rub: converting a 5-point understanding-based rubric to a percentage. Were we using traditional tools of assessment – tests and quizzes – and calculating number correct to determine understanding, life would be easier. But, as said, our assessments are ongoing, multiple, varied, and performance-based.
Were we to stick with a 5-point scale without a correction factor, then a score of 5/5 (full understanding) would correspond with 100%, or the letter grade of A+; a score of 4/5 (minor room for improvement) would equal 80%, or a B-; and a score of 3/5 (need for further practice) would equal 60%, or a D-. The need for further practice is an accurate and respectful descriptor, but that it shows-up as a D- on FOCUS is a problem for everyone. Thus we add a two-part correction factor, which has proven very useful.
First, the 5-point scale is converted to a 10-point scale, and
a score of 5/5 becomes a 9/10, or 90% = A-
a score of 4/5 becomes an 8/10, or 80& = B-
a score of 3/7 becomes a 7/10, or 70% = C-
These are the scores you’ll see on FOCUS.
However, a second correction factor is added to the student’s overall grade average, which will not show up until trimester reports come out. This second correction lifts a student’s overall grade average one interval, or
an overall grade average of A- is lifted to a final grade of A
an overall grade average of B+ is lifted to a final grade of A-
and an overall grade average of B is lifted to a final grade of B+
This strategy has been well-received by parents in recent years, though it does require some getting used to. From my perspective, as my mom used to say, the proof’s in the pudding. It works, and allows us to continue assessing for understanding (and all that that implies) while paying respect to the need for reporting percentages and letter grades.
If you have any questions about this, I’d be happy to field your questions.