Philly’s New Grading System Doesn’t Allow Teachers to Override Final Grades

frazzled

by Christopher Paslay

Brace yourself.  Report card mayhem is coming to a school near you.

Recently it was announced that the Philadelphia School District’s new online grade book program, designed by a Minnesota software company called Infinite Campus, will not allow teachers to override final grades when the system opens this week.

According to a memo from District officials:

Teachers will NOT be able to put in overrides for final averages and should keep this in mind when posting. They can see how the Term 4 Posted Grade will affect the final average by changing the Grading Task drop down from “Term Grade” to “Final Grade.” Every class should have a posted percent that matches the score. (This includes P/F courses). Make sure teachers hit POST and then SAVE on every section!! For a refresher, they can watch the Posting Grades video.

Bombshell revelation?

You better believe it.

Whether this information was made known in September is unclear, but the fact remains that stripping teachers of the ability to tweak and adjust final grades is mind numbing (if this is indeed the case).  For those unaware of the situation, here is a summary of how finals grades will be calculated by the District’s grade book, at least as it appears now from the information available.

First, the difference between a “composite percent” and a “composite grade” must be made clear.  A “composite present” is the actual grade the student earned (the mathematical calculation of the quarter grade based on the assignments in the teacher’s grade book).  The “composite grade” is the grade that showed up on the students report card for the quarter (which includes grades that were rounded-up or overridden by a teacher).  For example, a student’s first quarter “composite percent” might have been a 77, but the teacher may have rounded it up and given an 80 via an “override,” and this 80 would be the student’s “composite grade,” and appear on the report card.

The way it appears the District’s grade book will calculate a student’s final grade this year will be by averaging the composite percent—NOT composite grade—on each of the four quarters.  Which means the override grade will not be factored into the final average, only the original base number.  So that 80 that the student received on the report card will really go into the system as a 77 and affect the overall final grade by making it lower than anticipated (at least this is how the system is currently computing the grades, according to what is currently on Infinite Campus).  Oh, and the teacher can’t override it, which is the real kicker.

As you can imagine, this is going to cause some major headaches for teachers, not to mention students and their parents (and of course principals, who will have to deal with the irate students and parents).  The magnitude of the blowback will be both small and large, depending on the situation and how badly the student was misled about his or her grade.

For example, a student may lose little to no points and be none the wiser.  If a student’s teacher didn’t round his or her grade up more than a point or two during the first three quarters, the difference will be negligible, and no harm will be done.  However, the more points a teacher gave a student via the “override” feature during the first three quarters, the more there will be a disparity between the grades on the first three report cards and the student’s final grade.

Take this situation: a student with an IEP or a 504 plan is putting in an honest effort but still struggling nonetheless.  His percentage grade is only a 50 for the first three quarters, but he is making progress, so the teacher gives him a 60—the minimum passing grade—for the first three quarters out of good faith.  The student’s final grade will be based on the three 50’s, not the three 60’s.  Which means that in order for the student to pass for the year, the teacher will need to give this student a 90 for the fourth quarter to make the percentage come to an average of a 60, which is passing.

Should the student receive a 90 if they are nowhere near that level of achievement?  Normally, a teacher in this situation would give the grade the student deserved for the fourth quarter, and tweak the final average according to the individual situation of the student.  But since the District’s new grading system doesn’t allow a teacher to override the final average, what is the alternative?  Fail the child?

Basically, every single teacher in the Philadelphia School District who was liberal with giving students extra points via the “override” feature during the first three quarters (and all of us has at least one or two students like this, and for very good reasons), is going to be put to the squeeze.  Should I let the child fail, or give him or her an outrageously high fourth quarter grade? 

And what about the fact that the child was misled the whole year about his or her actual grades?  If the “composite percent” was the only true grade that counted toward the final average, what was the purpose of the override feature for the first three quarters?  And what if the points added via the override weren’t simply given for free?  What if students earned them?  For the past 20 years, I’ve added my students’ participation grade—points they earned through engaging in the lessons—directly to the report card at the end of each quarter; many times my best students’ quarter averages go from 88’s to 92’s because of participation.  This would mean they’d be robbed of up to 12 points they’ve earned over three quarters because of this new screwy system.

Finally, there’s the case of this working in reverse.  What about a student who games the system by getting a 70 percent on the first and second quarter, and then becomes chronically absent for the next five months, not completing a single assignment.  As it stands now, because the system doesn’t allow a teacher to give below a 50, and because there’s no override feature for the final grade, this student will pass the course with a 60, and not have learned much in the process.

Why in the world the District would allow students and teachers to be misled for nine months about their grades is beyond comprehension.  If the override feature is not available for the final grade—and the grades posted via the override function for the first three quarters don’t count toward the final average—why was the override feature available at all?  Seriously?  What in God’s name was the point?  To mislead and confuse?

Even now I’m hoping the information I’ve received about the District’s fourth quarter grade book is somehow inaccurate, and that the flaws and mind-boggling inconsistencies I’ve mentioned above are the result of some kind of miscommunication, either on my part or the part of the District.

If, however, what I’ve been told is true, brace yourself for some serious fallout from parents and students, especially from the special education department (and their lawyers).  This year’s fourth quarter grading will be historic.  Get ready for report card mayhem!

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Shakespeare and the Constructivist Learning Theory

 

 

 

 by Christopher Paslay

 

I’m currently working on a Masters in Multicultural Education at Eastern University.  This summer I just finished taking a course on teaching English as a second language.  As a culminating project for the class, we were required to pick a strategy or an idea that stood out during the six week seminar, and highlight it by writing an essay, song, poem, PowerPoint, etc.  It was an open genre assignment, with no minimum or maximum page limit.

 

I chose to write a Shakespearean sonnet on the Constructivist Learning Theory.  This philosophy teaches that learners construct knowledge for themselves—each learner individually constructs meaning as he or she learns.  In other words, teachers do not overwhelm students with a lot of facts and information, but rather act as a guide, allowing students to make connections and build knowledge on their own.    

 

Here is my sonnet, a bit clumsy at times, but adhering to Shakespeare’s strict form nonetheless:

   

The Constructivist

 

Shall I compare thee to a bank teller?

Depositing useless facts into a night slot;

Treating students like a cave-dweller,

Force feeding their brain a lot of rot.

Information must be relevant and true,

In context, meaningful, and connected;

Tying together the old with the new,

Making sure all cultures are respected.

Teachers should focus on critical thinking,

Allowing students to learn on their own;

Using past experiences while linking,

New facts to ones already known.

Constructivists make students active learners,

And help them become money-earners.

 

Thanks for reading. 

 

How do you differentiate grammar?

by Christopher Paslay

 

Once a report card period, students in the Philadelphia School District are required to take a benchmark test in every core subject to see if they are meeting the state standards set forth in the District’s Core Curriculum. 

 

After the students complete these benchmark examinations (and after they are collected and graded), teachers are required to analyze and review test results in order to see where their students’ strengths and weaknesses lie.  Teachers must complete a Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet and come up with a plan to strengthen their students’ weakest skills.  Teachers must also reflect on teaching strategies, and discuss the results of their benchmarks with colleagues and also with the students themselves.    

 

I teach three sections of 11th grade English.  On December 18th, I was required to give my students the English 3 Fall

Benchmark B test (the second benchmark of the year).  Today I analyzed my results and completed my Data Protocol Sheet.  Although my students are not where I want them to be, as a whole, they scored 14% higher than the Philadelphia School District Average (the District average for the 11th grade English Benchmark was 46% correct; my students averaged 60%).    

 

This is far from perfect.  But they are improving.  On the first benchmark that they took in October, my kids only outscored the District by 10%.  So they are improving at a rate of 4% faster per quarter than the District as a whole. 

 

My students weakest skill was the following:  PA State Standard 1.5.11.F: Edit writing using the conventions of language.  Basically, it is a skill involving grammar. 

 

Here are the two questions that stumped them (as well as the District) the most:

 

1.  Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence:

 

He faced many trials and challenges

throughout his life he never gave up on

his dreams.

 

A.  life he never gave up on his dreams.

B.  life, he never gave up on his dreams.

C.  life and he never gave up on his dreams.

D.  life; however, he never gave up on his dreams.

 

The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), you are supposed to Use a semicolon between independent clauses joined by a conjunctive adverb or a transitional expression.  EXAMPLE: Dexter knew that Judy was selfish and insensitive; nevertheless, he continued to adore her.      

 

A is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life, as well as the coordinating conjunction and be fore the word he.

 

B is wrong because you need the coordinating conjunction and before the word he.   

 

C is wrong because you need a comma (,) after the word life.

 

Only 29.3% of my students got this correct (and 29% of the District).

 

Here is another question that they bombed:

 

2.  Read the following sentence:

 

Because I was tired, I left the party

earlier than I had planned.

 

What is the adverb clause in this sentence? 

 

A.  left the party

B.  I had planned

C.  earlier than

D.  Because I was tired

 

The answer is D.  According to the Language Handbook in our textbook (Holt’s Elements of Literature, Fifth Course), an Adverb Clause is a subordinate clause that modifies a verb, and adjective, or an adverb.  It may come before or after the word or words it modifies, tell how, when, where, why, to what extent, or under what condition.  An adverb clause that begins a sentence is always set off by a comma.   

 

There are only two clauses in the sentence: Because I was tired and I left the party earlier than I had planned. 

  

The first (Because I was tired) is the only subordinate clause (it does not express a complete thought and cannot stand alone as a sentence).  There fore, it is the only correct choice. 

 

Only 24% of my students got this correct (and 22.8% of the District).

 

This benchmark data is no new information.  Students in Philadelphia have been bombing grammar questions since the beginning of time.  Why?  Because there’s been a trend in public education (especially urban education) to marginalize the importance of Standard American English grammar (can you say Ebonics?).  Writers of educational policy seem to favor ambiguity over concreteness—subjectivity over objectivity.  Or to put it another way, they favor creativity over mechanics.     

 

Feeling and inspiration come first; grammar comes second.  The hot trend in Philadelphia and the rest of the nation is differentiated instruction and higher level questioning.  That’s been the topic of every professional development I’ve been to so far this year.  It’s also one of the National Academy of Education’s recommendations found in their White Papers Initiative (a group of Washington-based scholars trying to influence education policy in Congress).     

 

Here is the irony, however: There is absolutely NO WAY to differentiate grammar.  An adverb clause will always be an adverb clause.  A coordinating conjunction will always be a coordinating conjunction.  You either know it or you don’t.  Period. 

 

And how do you learn it?  By MEMORIZING the rules.  Yes, I’m talking about rote memorization.  On Bloom’s Taxonomy, this would be low-level RECALL questioning.  Just the kind of questioning that’s become taboo in public education. 

 

Why don’t Philadelphia teenagers know English grammar?  Because you can’t dumb it down no matter how hard you try.  You can’t put catsup on it or sprinkle it in sugar.  You have to swallow it whole, every gerund, every dangling participle.  And you must do this in spite of the backward trends in education.          

 

Grammar questions still make up 25% of every District benchmark.  Why?  Because you’ll find lots of grammar on the PSSA.  That’s what makes the situation so farcical: High stakes standardized tests aren’t differentiated by a student’s ability level.        

 

In light of this information, here is how I completed my Benchmark Data Analysis Protocol Sheet.

 

Question 1:  How will you group or regroup students based on the information in the necessary item analysis and optional standards mastery reports? (Think about the strongest data and how those concepts were taught.

 

Answer: I will partner stronger kids with weaker ones.  Then: I will teach them standard American English grammar.  Period.  I will make them memorize the rules.  Period.   

 

Question 2:  What changes in teaching strategies (and resources) are indicated by your analysis of benchmark reports?

 

Answer:  This question is ambiguous.  To this day, I still do not know what it is asking. 

 

Question 3:  How will you test for mastery? 

 

Answer:  I will give quizzes (oral and written), and have students write papers and complete projects (and journals) to make sure they are using correct grammar. 

 

Question 4: In order to effectively differentiate instruction (remediate and enrich) I need to . . .

 

Answer: . . . find someone who knows how to differentiate grammar. 

 

Question 5:  Based on patterns in my classes’ results, I might need some professional development or support in . . . .

 

Answer: . . . finding someone who knows how to differentiate grammar.           

 

Question 5:  As I think about giving students a better understanding and more ownership for their learning based on benchmark assessments, I . . .

 

Answer:  . . . feel warm and fuzzy inside. 

 

Bring Tracking Back to Classes

by Christopher Paslay

 

Ask any professor of education about differentiated instruction and they’ll tell you it’s the hottest thing since Joe the Plumber.  For those not up to date with current education jargon, allow me to give a textbook definition of differentiated instruction:

 

“To differentiate instruction is to recognize students varying background knowledge, readiness, language, preferences in learning, interests, and to react responsively. Differentiated instruction is a process to approach teaching and learning for students of differing abilities in the same class. The intent of differentiating instruction is to maximize each student’s growth and individual success by meeting each student where he or she is, and assisting in the learning process.”

          Tracey Hall, Ph.D., Senior Research Scientist, NCAC

         

In other words, differentiated instruction is the idealistic belief that a teacher can be all things to all students at all times.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that appeal to multiple intelligences: verbal/linguistic; logical/mathematical; kinesthetic; spatial; musical; and naturalist.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons that accommodate every student’s learning style, whether visual, auditory or haptic.  Teachers who use differentiated instruction design lessons appropriate to students on multiple reading levels—anywhere from grade 3 to grade 11 in my case—and find ways to reach English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities who have IEPs.

 

Teachers who use differentiated instruction do all of these things for dozens of students at the same time, every period, every class, everyday. 

 

Sound wonderful?  Good. 

 

But before we start given each other high-fives, there are a few things to consider about differentiated instruction.

 

The first is the matter of standardized achievement tests.  Those who grade the PSSAs don’t differentiate their scores by ability level.  Below Basic is Below Basic; the state doesn’t care if the student is white or black, fat or skinny, a visual learner or a haptic learner (haptic is a cool word, isn’t it?).  If students don’t score Proficient or above, the school won’t make AYP.              

 

The second thing to consider is that the real world doesn’t stop to differentiate.  In other words, employers don’t hire differentiated workers.  Colleges don’t accept differentiated transcripts.  Engineers don’t build bridges according to differentiated blueprints.  No matter how hip or liberal the construction company, 1 + 1 will always be 2.    

 

Maybe this is why Americans are so far behind the rest of the world in science and math: Because you can’t B.S. your way around cold hard numbers. 

 

As you can tell, I’m not a big fan of this new learning fad.  In my opinion, differentiated instruction is educational socialism.  It’s teaching students via the path of least resistance, giving them endless choices so they don’t have to come out of their comfort zone. 

 

I am a dedicated educator so I do my best to reach all of the students in all of my classes.  I also work extremely hard to accommodate multiple learning styles in my classroom.  But teaching a room full of students with varied ability levels is an extremely difficult task. 

 

The way to effectively give a child a solid fundamental education is not through differentiated instruction.  In fact, it’s just the opposite: Schools must go back to academic tracking. 

 

The following is an article I published in the Philadelphia Inquirer on November 30, 2005.  It is titled “Bring Tracking Back to Classes,” and it is as relevant today as it was almost three years ago.

 

For more than two decades, writers of educational policy have been fighting to abolish academic tracking.  Grouping students by ability level, they argue, promotes race and class segregation, harms self-esteem and keeps students locked-in at lower tracks because of a limited access to information.

   

Although national studies have supported these claims, as a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, I believe academic tracking should be brought back into public schools—in the suburbs as well as the city.  Grouping students by ability level can strengthen a learning environment and make classrooms more efficient.

   

Arguments against academic tracking have lost their validity, in my opinion. Multiculturalism and promotion of diversity ensures that students will not be segregated by race or social class, and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act prevents children from becoming socially stigmatized. As for students getting “locked in” at a lower track, standardized curriculum guarantees that all students have equal access to knowledge and information.

   

Poor scores on standardized tests are proof that heterogeneously grouped classes—those not tracked by ability level—are failing to meet the needs of our children. In short, the “one-size-fits-all” model of education initiated in the 1980s is unrealistic.

   

The level of expertise needed to teach a class of 33 heterogeneously grouped students is beyond the reach of many educators. For starters, teaching a heterogeneously grouped class involves identifying each student’s aptitude level. A teacher might use the previous year’s scores from the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) to do so.

   

Aptitude levels as identified by the PSSA are, advanced, proficient, basic, and below basic. If there are students in the class at all four levels (and most non-tracked classes have all four levels of students) this would mean that the teacher would have to write four different variations of his or her daily lesson plan to meet the needs of all students.

   

Once ability levels are identified and materials are prepared, the teacher begins teaching the lesson. Not just once, but up to four times, modeling the activities for each unique group of learners. For example, if a 10th grade English class were composing a Shakespearean Sonnet, students at the various ability levels would have to be instructed and assessed separately. Advanced learners would be required to write the most complex form of the sonnet, following the correct rhyme scheme and syllable count, which is iambic-pentameter. Advanced students would also have to develop the poem’s theme.

   

Because writing a Shakespearean Sonnet is rather challenging, students at the proficient level would most likely be excused from writing in iambic-pentameter. They would develop the theme and write in a set rhyme structure, but be allowed to deviate from the cumbersome syllable count. Of course, these individualized instructions would still have to be modeled and explained to the appropriate students.

   

Students at the basic and below basic levels likely would be excused from fully developing the poem’s theme. In addition, they might be excused from writing in the traditional rhyme structure. Again, examples of these variations would need to be modeled and explained.

   

Is requiring an educator to simultaneously teach four different variations of a lesson to four different groups of students realistic? In my opinion it’s not. But, theoretically, this is the procedure a teacher instructing a class of non-tracked students is expected to follow. The alternative, of course, is academic tracking.

   

Academic tracking permits an educator to teach students who all are at one ability level. It allows for proper pacing, ensuring that slower students aren’t left behind and that advanced students don’t go unchallenged.

   

Despite current trends in education, acknowledging a child’s academic weakness is not something to be frowned upon. Neither is putting him in a specialized classroom where he can learn basic skills without the distraction of alternative activities going on around him.

   

In light of poor performances on standardized tests and the limited resources of many educators, academic tracking should be reintroduced into our public school system.