Step Three: Hack your gradebook to make it the data collection tool that will actually inform your instruction #StopGrading

Screenshot 2016-08-10 at 11.00.45 PM

I know you’ve had this conversation. We all have.

You know, the one where a student asks you to round up a semester grade.

You say no.

No because you have a policy against rounding up grades. No because you didn’t round up anyone else’s grade and it wouldn’t be fair. No because you know on a gut level that the student is getting the accurate grade.

The student persists.

So what do you do? You turn to the numbers in the gradebook and find the ones that pulled the student’s grade down and have some conversation around those.

You say things like, “I see you chose not to revise any of your papers. You could have brought up your grade there.”

Or, “If I looked just at your major/summative assignments, your percentage would actually be 88.7. The B is a more accurate reflection of your work this semester.”

End of conversation. The numbers have spoken.

The only problem is that this conversation is only about numbers, not about learning, or about what this student could do as a reader or writer, or about how the student may have grown during the semester. It is an argument about numbers, points, percentages, averages.

I never thought I would need so much math to be a teacher of reading and writing.

We do this because our gradebooks ask for numbers.

We do this because we think we need the efficiency of numbers to manage our 150 or more students.

We do this because it is what we have always done, because even those old-timey paper gradebooks only had little tiny boxes, big enough for a number and nothing more.

We must claim our gradebooks for more meaningful assessment. Our professional observations of our students’ progress matter, and we need to share those observations with students, with their parents, and with other important stakeholders in our school communities. I know my reading and writing conference notes and my conversations back and forth with my students about their revisions are the best information I have about my students, but somehow the accountability-crazed, testing-based world we teach in has told us that what matters are the numbers.

We can fight back against the number as absolute truth on our students’ progress. We can use the powerful tools we have to tell a more complete story of our students as readers and writers.

Rather than recording points in the gradebook, record your professional observations of your students as readers and writers and create a detailed, robust story of each of them as they learn and grown in your classroom.

Use available tools, but use them differently: think of your gradebook as a data warehouse.

From the world of computing comes the concept of the data warehouse. This refers to a system for pulling together multiple data sources into one central location, accessible for multiple users who can look across the data in several ways to assist in decision making. When designing a data warehouse, there is consideration for which data to include, who might use the data and how, and what kinds of reports and analyses will come from the data and for what purposes.

If only someone would create a powerful tool that could turn a gradebook into a data warehouse…

You do most likely have a powerful tool that does this. I’m talking about the online gradebook that your school or district likely requires you to use, a data management system that tracks scheduling, attendance, discipline, and grades. Your gradebook is viewable by multiple users: students, parents, administrators, counselors, other teachers, school support staff. The online gradebook is already a powerful platform to become a data warehouse.

If you think about your gradebook as a data warehouse rather than a place to collect points in order to math them into grades for your students, then you’re thinking about designing a robust collection of data that you can use to inform your instructional decisions for your students collectively and for each student individually. If your gradebook is a data warehouse, then you’re also thinking about what information might be useful for your students to have access to, or their parents, or school counselors, or special education/ELD/study hall teachers, or school administrators. You’re also thinking about how the data warehouse will represent the information you collect on your students so it’s most usable for all parties, for different purposes at different points during the school year.

ONE: Think intentionally about the data you need to inform your instruction.

Effective assessment is essentially research driven by a few huge research questions: what are students learning? Where are they struggling? How can I plan instruction to meet their needs? Hence, it has been helpful to me to put together a data collection matrix, very similar to the research methods matrices that researchers use to plan significant research studies. Click here to see it.

When looking at the last column, you’ll notice that there’s not much there that can be meaningfully quantified other than just keeping track of whether or not the students are doing the work. But there is ample opportunity for qualitative observations and notes: reading and writing conferences, class discussions, reading check-ins, notes on students’ revision efforts, and students’ own comments regarding their learning via writer’s memos, e-portfolios, and their lists of target standards. This gives me an idea of what information I might want to capture in my gradebook. (Here’s a blank data matrix if you want to use it!) 

TWO: Organize gradebook data into meaningful categories.

Once you’ve figured out what kind of data you need to see clearly how your students are doing toward your learning objectives and to inform instruction, you’ll need to plan how you will organize that data in your gradebook. It will be a complex set of information–some clear categories will make it easier for all stakeholders to use.

Using your data collection matrix, identify the categories that make sense for organizing the data you want to collect, use, and report out. For my needs, it’s completion of work, weekly reading check-ins so I can keep track of students’ reading progress weekly, reading and writing conference records, my responses to their revisions so I can track their learning from revision to revision and know at a glance where each student is on each piece of writing, and notes on my students’ learning toward our class learning targets.

I’m assuming that you have the ability to set weights for the different gradebook categories. The weighting tells the math machine in the gradebook what to do with any numerical data. I keep numerical data on only what seems most meaningfully quantified–assignment completion. You’ll see below that it’s only those two completion categories that carry any weight during the semester. The remaining categories do not calculate into the number that the gradebook creates during the semester. But at the end of the semester, the completion category numbers are unweighted and no longer calculate in the number, leaving only the final semester grade category to have any numerical effect on the grade that the gradebook calculates. See below for the gradebook categories I’ll set up for this year based on the data matrix thinking I did about the data I need to inform my instruction (or click here if you’d rather see these in a table). 

Category: Completion of work–major tasks (weekly drafts and thorough revisions, formal presentations, final group book conversations, etc.)

  • Weight during semester 90%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Completion of work–minor tasks (filling out weekly reading check-in form, completing peer feedback, Socratic Seminar tickets and participation, having new books in hand on particular days, etc.)

    • Weight during semester 10%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Weekly Reading Check-ins

    • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Conference Records

    • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Revision Notes

    • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Notes on Student Progress Toward Learning Objectives and Standards

    • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 0%

Category: Semester Final Grade

    • Weight during semester 0%
  • Weight for semester final grade 100%

What gradebook categories make sense for the data you need to collect about your students’ learning and progress?

THREE: Plan what kind of data you’ll record for each gradebook category.

Each gradebook category will need information in it–what would be most useful to you and your students? I still create assignments or tasks for each category, but some of them won’t actually be assignments or tasks for students. In the case of keeping track of completion, I will list each task I’ve asked of my students. But for a category like “conference records,” each “assignment” is instead a data point. I create an “assignment” for each conference and just label it “conference #1” or “conference #2.” In the score box I’ll indicate which type of conference it was (reading or writing) and the date so I can see at a quick glance when the last time was that I conferred with an individual student. In the comment field for each conference I’ll leave a brief note about the focus of the conference conversation. Click here for more details about what kind of data I record for each conference category.

What kind of data will you record for each category in your gradebook?

FOUR: Decide where you’ll have the gradebook crunch numbers.

Until your school as a whole steps away from grades (which may be never), you’ll still need to have some math happening in your gradebook.

As I’ve already indicated, the most meaningful thing I can think of to quantify is how much of the work we ask of our students they’ve completed. Hence, the numbers in my gradebook reflect completion of work and nothing else, and the number that my gradebook broadcasts as the “grade” throughout the semester is a reflection of whether or not students are keeping up with their work. I am not talking about completion points or compliance–it’s merely information that lets anyone who wants to know whether or not students are working. This is enough for athletic eligibility purposes, for parents keeping tabs on their students, for counselors to know if students are keeping up with their work.

I have thought carefully about how I want this particular number to work. For example, if I have a student who has chosen not to complete a major task for my course, like a revised paper, then I want that completion percentage to take a bigger hit than if the student forgot to do the ticket to be prepared for a Socratic Seminar. The revision represents possibly weeks of writing back and forth between me and the student and it is the place where students really learn and grow as writers. If students are not doing the most important work of the class, the completion percentage needs to reflect it. This is the one part of the gradebook where I use numbers, so I make those more important assignments worth more than the other routine, daily tasks that I ask of students. I want the number that my gradebook does spit out to be meaningful and to accurately reflect how much of the work my students are completing.

Oh, and get ready to say again and again, “That’s not your grade. It’s a percentage that reflects how much of the work for this class you have done. If it’s not 100%, you’ve got some work to do.” This is a shift in how to read that gradebook number as the semester progresses. Students and their parents will need reminders of just what you’re broadcasting with it. Keep talking about it.

What number data do you need in the gradebook minimally to satisfy the needs of your school community?

FIVE: Create a word-based scale to use for the categories that quantify numerically.

Emphasis on numbers in the gradebook keeps students focused on points and numbers. If possible, develop your own grade scale or set of marks that you can use in your categories that you do want to quantify numerically to keep students from being too focused on numbers and to provide for them more information about their progress.

Words like “complete,” “almost,” “keep at it,” “partial,” “review instructions,” or “missing” provide much more information to students than numbers, and if you’re able to use those kinds of words instead of just numbers, it helps students to know more about how they are doing.

I’ve made my own set of “assignment marks” (as our data management system calls them) with these words so that “complete” registers as 100%, “almost” as 90%, “keep at it” as 80%, “partial” as 75%, “review instructions” as 50%, and “missing” as a zero. With this custom grade scale, this section of the gradebook uses words to show what percentage of the work a student has completed. It’s a good idea to provide to students a clear key to what you record in the gradebook, especially if it’s different from what they are used to. Click here for the key I provide to my students to help them make sense of what they see in the gradebook.

This approach means that what goes into the gradebook on an individual assignment is not static. Update the word you record for each assignment to describe where the student is at in the process as the student keeps working. This honors the process of revision and recognizes that improving writing means working at it again and again. This keeps students focused on the work rather than the grade. It frees them to take risks, and it reduces their stress because they are not worried about losing points for anything and can instead see their work for what it is and focus on making it as strong as possible.

What could your word-based scale be?

Whew. That’s kind of a lot of detail. My apologies if this is overwhelming. What more would it be helpful for me to show you or explain? How much of this works in your gradebook world? How much of it just doesn’t work at all? I’m only familiar with my gradebook program (Infinite Campus, in case you’re wondering). There are others out there and I have no experience at all with how they work.

Or do you have other ideas for how I could go about all of this? In all honesty, I’m really still figuring it out.

You may be thinking that your gradebook can’t do that (whatever it is), right? Don’t get shut down by apparent limitations. Think like a hacker. Hackers come up with clever solutions to tricky problems. I would say our required gradebooks are a tricky problem in our teaching lives.

I’ve suggested that you put something besides numbers in the score boxes in your gradebook and maybe you are thinking that’s not possible in your gradebook? Try it! My gradebook flags my non-number entries as “invalid score input.” But that’s all it does. It still lets me put those words in there. Even if your gradebook does not permit you to put anything besides a number in the score box, can you leave the score blank and use the comment/note field instead to collect and communicate meaningful information about how your students are doing? Find a way to record and communicate out the kind of meaningful information your students can use to reflect on their own progress and that you can use to drive your instruction. The point is this: don’t make assumptions about what your gradebook can’t do. With a little creative thinking, maybe you can use your required online gradebook–with all of its limitations–to be a rich data collection and communication tool. Play around with it. See what’s possible. Ask your district or school if there are additional features to it that teachers do not currently have access to–maybe there is a possibility for more flexibility.

Here are some questions to ask to get you started exploring the possibilities of your online gradebook:

    • Is it possible to put a word or two rather than a number in a score box? How many characters can you type?
    • Does your gradebook allow space for comments or notes on every individual score? How many characters can you type?
    • Are you able to set up different categories in your gradebook and have only some of them calculate into the grade?
      • If not, can you use abbreviations on assignment titles to denote different categories? Can you leave the score box empty to keep certain assignments from calculating into the grade and just leave a note/comment?
  • Are there built-in codes/abbreviations that you can use to avoid putting in numbers? (e.g., my gradebook includes “T” for “turned in.” I can mark any assignments as “turned in” and it will not affect the number the gradebook calculates in any way.)

And finally, don’t be discouraged by what appears to be a lot of data entry that you don’t have time for. That’s been the response of some of my colleagues when I show them what I’m up to. But this qualitative data recording work has replaced all the number management I used to do. I have gained some time by setting the numbers game aside. I gain time by not having to write to students to justify lost points on assignments too. I’ve also found ways to work as efficiently as possible with data entry. For example, I carry my laptop with me from conference to conference and enter my note regarding the conversation right there on the spot, often asking the student to help me to compose it. It has been worth my time to figure out how to do this and to make it manageable.

Thinking of my gradebook as a qualitative data warehouse yields a rich set of data that tells a detailed story about my students as learners rather than a collection of numbers and points needing explanation and interpretation.

So that concludes the thinking I need to do to get things going in my classroom next week. I’m planning to write a post about the first day of school where I will begin the conversation with students about grades the moment they walk in my classroom. But if you’ve got burning questions or want to push back at my thinking or think I’m missing something–please send a note (comment here or click on the link to the form down below) and I’ll see how I can respond.

Thanks for reading!

This is the fourth post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out my resources on grading here.

This entry was posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, gradebook, grading, hacking, not grading, planning. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Step Three: Hack your gradebook to make it the data collection tool that will actually inform your instruction #StopGrading

  1. This makes my head spin a little bit, as anything with data (quantitative or qualitative) does! But it is super helpful and I have some ideas/hacks I’ll be discussing more in-depth on the forum/Google group. 🙂 Thanks!

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