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  • Why Good Grades Don’t Always Match Good Test Scores

    by LearnEd

    Close-up of a school report

    This article originally appeared in Noodle.

    Dr. Kimberly O’Malley is a public school teacher, a mother of two boys, and a Pearson researcher at the Pearson Research & Innovation Network. She specializes in ways to measure student growth and in finding new ways to interpret test scores so that they’re more meaningful.

    Parents and caregivers usually receive and review several report cards throughout the school year.

    They may also see the quizzes and read the papers that result in their kid’s average grades. But sometimes when standardized test reports go home, children’s scores don’t match the grades they’ve earned for their work in school. How can this be?

    Grades and test scores do not always (or even often) agree; generally speaking, school grades usually reflect better performance and higher achievement than test scores.

    For example, the Texas Education Agency administered the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) to all public school students from grade three to eleven between 2003 and 2011. During that time, the organization conducted studies comparing the rates at which students passed their courses and passed the state tests. In 2009, the study showed that 88 percent of the 200,000-plus students in Algebra I passed the course, yet only 56 percent passed the 10th grade TAKS exam. Most of the other study results showed similar outcomes, with more students passing courses than standardized assessments.

    Why the disparity?

    First, and most importantly, grades and test scores measure different indicators of achievement. One factor that may contribute to the gap between them could be test anxiety, from which many students suffer during high-stakes assessments. But there’s more to it than nerves.

    Let’s take a closer look at the specific differences between grades and scores.

    Class-Based Grades

    Students earn grades based upon their performance on a range of assessments, activities, and behaviors: quizzes, attendance, class participation, oral and written reports, group assignments, discipline, homework, and in-class work. Some districts align grades mainly with quantitative measures of performance. For example, the New York City Department of Education website explains that a student’s grade at the end of a marking period “represents an average of tests, quizzes, oral and/or written reports, homework, and class work as determined by school policy and the teacher.”

    Other districts weigh different factors in student marks. The Seattle public school system, for instance, allows teachers to include measures like attendance, tardiness, and class participation when calculating student grades.

    Grading policies can vary district by district, school by school, and even teacher by teacher. These rules are complicated even further by policies like minimum grade rules, extra credit, make-up work, homework, and good behavior. The combination of grading policies sometimes results in wide grade ranges, even within the same school.

    Take minimum grade rules as an example. In Maryland, Montgomery County Public Schoolsenforce a policy that the minimum score for 6th-to-12th-grade assignments is 50, unless the student completes no work at all on a given assignment (in which case she gets a zero). Other districts, such as in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, have also instituted a minimum grade of 50 percent. Similarly, Shaker Heights Middle School in Ohio uses 45 as a minimum score for a missed assignment. Many school districts lack minimum grade policies, leaving individual educators to create their own rules, which, in turn, contributes to the variation among student results.

    Another major difference between these two means of evaluation is that students can speak with teachers about grades to get a better sense of how and why they earned the marks they did. While they may receive some kind of explanation via a score report on a standardized assessment, these are usually not tailored to individual students.

    Hands raised

    Standardized Tests

    In contrast to grades, standardized test scores are not assigned based on a very wide range of factors. Instead, they are designed to obtain a measure of student proficiency on a specified set of knowledge and skills within a few academic areas, such as mathematics or reading.

    Because these tests are uniform, there are no policies or practices that vary across districts, schools, or teachers for the same exam. The scores from standardized tests reflect student performance under roughly the same conditions, so the results can be compared. It may go without saying, but this regularity is the biggest difference between class-based grading and standardized test scoring.

    Most standardized exams are built to a test blueprint, which is a rubric-like tool that defines what a given assessment should measure and how it should measure it. Educators and administrators build blueprints before they create tests. These serve as specifications for exams, and set guidelines for how many sections and questions they should include, what types of questions they should pose (e.g., multiple choice, short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or essay), and the ways in which different questions will be used to measure different skills. Blueprints and standardized tests can be a tremendous source of data, which is difficult to gather through grades (where there is considerable variability).

    Many states — like Indiana, Tennessee, and Missouri — offer blueprints covering multiple subjects (mostly for students in third grade and up) to families online at no cost. If you’re interested in checking these out, look online for your state’s department of education website and enter words like “assessment blueprint” into its search field.

    How can we better align test scores and grades?

    Since grades and test scores measure different things, parents can go through the school year thinking that their child is on track both to passing grades and acing assessments. However, as you might now guess, this isn’t a given.

    One growing practice that may bridge the gap between grades and test scores is personalized learning, also known as competency-based learning. The U.S. Department of Education provides a resource for families seeking additional information on personalized learning, though it stops short of endorsing the practice.

    In a competency-based learning environment, students’ performance is directly tied to their mastery of a particular set of skills as opposed to the various assessments and behaviors outlined above. Thus, competency-based grading only reflects the acquisition of certain knowledge and skills. Depending upon the alignment (or lack thereof) between material being taught and material being tested, personalized learning has the potential to change the relationship between test scores and grades.

    To risk being reductive, critics of competency-based learning point out that the practice can be applied to standardized assessments, which is often called “teaching to the test” — in which curricula are geared toward high scores on evaluations. On the other hand, personalized learning can be applied to any number of constructive and worthwhile pursuits that most standardized exams don’t yet cover, like speaking a foreign language, building a useful website, designing a piece of energy-efficient technology, or writing a compelling piece of fiction.

    Are there alternatives to grades and scores in general?

    While competency-based learning and grading are becoming popular across the United States (and should help parents to understand grade and test information better), they’re still quite rare.

    Even more of a departure from the norm are schools that choose to forgo grades altogether, opting instead for project-based learning, phenomenon-based learning, or experiential learning, all of which aim to prepare students for real-world challenges rather than for specific standardized exams.

    For now, most parents can make better sense of the relationship between their child’s grades and test scores by figuring out exactly what each number — or letter — measures.

    By asking questions about your school’s policies and the factors that make up each grade (extra credit, attendance, minimum grades for assignments, homework, make-up work), you can make better sense of report cards throughout the year. And by reviewing test blueprints, you may grasp more precisely what a test is meant to measure.

    Putting these pieces together will give you a more holistic, and more accurate, picture both of your child’s achievement and of the areas in which she could use some extra help.

    Read the full story on Kimberly’s blog.

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  • The Ah-Ha Moment: Mapping Out the Steps of Learning

    by LearnEd

    A young boy thinking


    Somewhere between third and fourth grade, most students learn that area is calculated by multiplying length and width. It's a formula that's easy enough to memorize ... but it's also a formula that many students don't fully understand.

    "Many students know the area formula length times width, but don't know that a square unit is the unit of measure for area," says Jennifer Kobrin, a senior research scientist at Pearson. "A full conceptual understanding of area involves knowledge that the area formula yields a count of the square units that cover a shape."

    "Students gain this understanding by first learning to count individual units, then progressing to more sophisticated strategies that involve multiplication of rows and columns. Putting it all together requires moving through these stages one step at a time."

    Learning Progressions

    Jennifer and her colleagues are mapping out these steps of learning.

    They're working to understand HOW children learn the concepts associated with complex topics like area, from basic concepts to more abstract concepts:

    Learning Progressions Box

    "These 'learning progressions' are based on research on student learning," Jennifer says. "They can be used to develop map that gives teachers new insight about how students think about problems."

    Classroom Pilot Programs

    More than a dozen classrooms around the U.S. and Australia participated in research about learning progressions. Teachers participated in professional development on the learning progressions and used progression-related classroom activities, performance tasks, and even a digital game called Alice in Arealand to gain a better understanding about the stages their students had mastered on the concept of area measurement—and the stages that still needed work.

    "It's an integrated learning system," Jennifer says. "And the main takeaway is that we can assess students without explicitly testing them."

    "Our thinking goes like this: if you have a learning system built around learning progressions," Jennifer says, "students will learn better."

    "Traditional assessments show whether students know a standard," Jennifer says. "Teaching with learning progressions helps us understand and enrich what students are thinking."

    Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 3.37.54 PM

    Alice in Arealand

    For nearly two years, Jennifer and her colleagues have been using a game to help understand students' thinking with regard to the learning progression on area measurement. It's part of an integrated learning system that involves classroom activities, performance tasks, and professional development.

    The game is called 'Alice in Arealand'—and you can play it online here. Early levels challenge learners with basic concepts about area. Later levels get more difficult.

    Kids love it. And teachers can know, in real time, what students are learning and where students need help.

    "Teachers may not always know why a student is having a difficult time with a concept in class," Jennifer says. "This kind of approach gives teachers new clarity about what kids are thinking and how to help them get to the next stage in their learning."

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  • News Update from a Minnesota School Raising Graduation Rates

    by LearnEd

    Student in a classroom

    There is news today from the Department of Education with comment from America's Promise Alliance that high school graduation rates are at the highest they've ever been. Still, large numbers of students are falling through the cracks: students of color, low-income students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

    Here's a quick update on a partnership between Pearson and America's Promise to help communities raise graduation rates for students who often fall through the cracks.

    Pushing the Boundaries of Personalized Learning

    Listening Pull

    "We pride ourselves on strong relationships with students," says Alexia Poppy-Finley, Assistant Supervisor of Academics at West Education Center Alternative school in Minnetonka, Minnesota.

    "And these relationships help us push the boundaries in personalized learning."

    Consider a recent chemistry unit on essential oils. One of Alexia's colleagues heard students ask again and again about these oils. Something about the topic seemed to have piqued their curiosity.

    "Many of our young people are our care and treatment students, leaving their residential programs in the morning to spend the educational portion of the day with us," Alexia says. "They might have heard about oils like lavender used as a pathway to support treatment for depression or anxiety."

    So Alexia's chemistry colleague crafted an entire project-based learning unit on essential oils. They studied where they come from, what they do to our senses, and how they can help with therapy—all while connecting back to chemistry standards.

    Another colleague, a biology forensics teacher, recently helped his students study cancer and why it seems to affect so many people.

    "They're Starting to Get Anxious"

    It's an approach that helps the teachers and staff at West Education Center Alternative address the whole student, Alexia says, and respond to emotional and social as well as academic needs.

    When students and teachers gathered this week to celebrate some recent accomplishments, Alexia says "things were different, the energy was different."

    "Over the holidays, some of our students will be leaving the safety and security we're building here at school—and entering situations outside of school that are more challenging," Alexia says. "They're starting to get anxious."

    "We're working hard to keep our normal routines between now and break," Alexia says. "That way we can minimize anxiety and stress."


    Multiple Photos

    Clarity About What's Working, What's Not Working

    The pictures of students on this page were taken at the West Education Center, just south of Minneapolis. We wrote about how the Center and other schools are reaching out to students in their community who might be on the verge of dropping out.

    Pearson has partnered with the America's Promise organization to fund and assist these programs in Minnesota and elsewhere. The collaboration was launched this fall.

    "The first thing I noticed, was that the class had only three students," says Hillary Stroud. She was in Minnesota recently as a Media and Communities Manager for Pearson, paying a visit to classrooms working hard to graduate the kinds of students who've been tough to graduate.

    "Smaller classes mean teachers can tailor their lessons to student needs, even individualize classroom rules," Hillary says. "It also means teachers can spend more time with their students one on one."

    "The partnership puts equal focus on addressing the needs of the whole child as well as research," says Stacy Skelly, who is a Director of Media Relations at Pearson.

    "This allows us to have pretty good clarity about what's working, what's not working—and about how we might scale these kinds of programs to every state."

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  • Twitter in the Classroom! And Other Things I Learned As Teacher For a Day

    by LearnEd

    Classroom of students

    A Unusual View Inside the Classroom

    When Peggy Rubero first arrived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, she fell in love with the people and the quality of life. “It felt like home,” she said, “ I had moved eighteen times before graduating from high school. My father was in the Air Force.”

    That’s why Peggy, who is Director of Human Resources at Pearson, jumped at the opportunity to join a program for community leaders in Iowa. “Anything I can do to help in this town—to make this community stronger—I’m happy to do it.”

    Teach for a Day Pull Quote

    Through the program, Peggy learned about an “Educator for a Day” event. Participants shadow a teacher to better understand classrooms and learning in the twenty-first century.

    Peggy was paired with Dana Melone who teaches AP Psychology at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids.

    “I was so impressed,” Peggy says.

    A Better View of America's Teachers

    From the start—very early in the morning—Peggy marveled at how Dana's class brought high energy to a group discussion about homework reading on cognition and perception theories.

    Peggy was shocked to realize students use Twitter to connect with classmates on assignments.

    When the class was divided into groups, they were given two instructions: Define a series of terms in their own words, and associate an image with the term they're defining.

    “Dana wanted her students to work together, collaborate, use effective communication and build on ideas,” Peggy said. "If they didn’t recall a particular word from the reading—they were able to look it up—but had to write it with a blue marker."

    It was assessment in real time, Peggy says. By looking at the words in blue, Dana was able to easily identify which words and concepts her students didn’t grasp from the reading. Her future lessons could be tailored to fill in those gaps.

    “Dana was measuring the class’ collective understanding of the reading, but, by asking them to engage with what they didn't know, she was also instilling values of what it takes to be a twenty-first century employee.”

    “Being in the classroom was such a great learning experience,” Peggy says.

    “We need to do a better job of exposing the public to the modern day experience of teachers.”

    What Peggy Learned4


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