Saturday, September 13, 2014

AER Strategies

Margaret Wente recently wrote about a teacher, Lynden Dorval, who was fired for giving students zeros when they didn't complete assignments.  Fellow teachers argued his case:  "They told the tribunal that when there are no consequences, a disturbing number of students – quelle surprise! – don’t do the work."  She clarifies the policy rationale:
[Ken Connor] believes “student behaviour” is entirely different from “student achievement,” and should not be lumped in with it. Therefore, students should not be marked down for late work, skipped assignments, absence, missed exams or even cheating. Instead of punishing a student by lowering their grade, schools should “apply other consequences.” 
If Alberta's policy is similar to my region's AER policies*, then this part is somewhat accurate. But then Wente suggests students need to be permitted to fail.  I agree completely - but that's a different issue.  The no-zero policy doesn't prevent teachers from failing students; it suggests, in part, that teachers shouldn't average in a zero to their other marks in such a way that it gives a skewed idea of the student's ability to master the curriculum.  So if Johnny gets 90s on 5 assignments, but misses one, his mark should likely be in the 90s, not the 70s.  We've been encouraged to assess students' most consistent and most recent marks for years - now it's more than just encouragement.  Yet it's still not cut and dried.  That final grade is always up to the professional judgment of the teacher.

I'm not sure of all the ins and outs of Dorval's case, but I suspect it's not the policy that was the problem as much as, perhaps, a dictatorial implementation of every suggestion with a scrutinizing focus on the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

The no-zero policy provokes teachers to leave a door open for students to complete work that, previously, they might have just skipped.  If we keep the goal in mind, its purpose is to prevent students from just accepting a zero rather than doing the work.  But if the knowledge that the work is still expected doesn't motivate a student to do the work, then failure could be imminent.

I don't love all of the AER ideas, but we have to find a way to make them work in our classrooms.  Over the past year, through many discussions with teachers, I've found ways to understand and implement the new policies by focusing on the rationale for each idea rather than viewing the ideas as hard-and-fast rules.  Here's what I came up with, so far, in terms of strategies that could be effective in my particular school, but my ideas could change again after another year of implementation.  I'll post this here regardless in case it helps someone get their head around the policy while also recognizing that it might provoke some debate.

We'll keep trying.

The Spirit of the AER:

Transparency. Equity. Mark integrity.

• Make sure your lessons, projects, and tests directly connect to the curriculum.
 • Let students (and their parents) know exactly how they’ll be evaluated ahead of time (weighting and rubrics). Clarify your success criteria.
• Let students know specifically what they should expect to learn in each class (or sequence of classes), and then track a variety of pieces of evidence that students are learning including observations of each student (process work, presentations, problem solving process, group skills, listening and speaking skills…) and your conversations with each student (class discussions, journals, online forums, conferences, follow-up questions…). (See page 15.)
• Offer additional supports and accommodations where needed. Read students’ IEPs early on. Also accommodate special circumstances in such a way that it doesn’t affect the integrity of the course.
• Offer lots of specific feedback on student work as immediately as possible. It is “imperative to provide students with opportunities to act on the feedback being provided” (14).
• Use a final evaluation (worth 30%) that’s made up of two or three components (13).
• At the end, after calculating a mark based on student products, observations, and conversations to get a numerical grade, go further to consider if that number is, in your professional judgment, the truest reflection of the degree to which the student demonstrated an ability to master the curriculum: limited (50s), some (60s), considerable (70s), or thorough (80s-90s). Marks will likely change significantly only for students who neglected to, or were unable to, complete part of the course.

Common Concerns:

The Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting Handbook is a bit vague, but that’s for our benefit. It allows for a variety of teaching practices. Yet it can be a frustrating puzzle to determine the best way to implement the requirements. Potential solutions follow:

If we can’t give marks for formative work, then fewer students will actually do the work.

* The burgeoning practice of marking work but not telling students that you’re not including it, goes against the goal of transparency. But, since we should ensure that students’ final marks are a true reflection of their ability, and formative work is sometimes a truer reflection than the final product, students should be made aware that those marks could be considered in the final evaluation.
 * There is some overlap between formative and summative work, which offers a grey area open to interpretation. You may include in your evaluation any work that summarizes student learning at a given point in time, which could be something that occurs at the end of a single lesson.
 * Instead of giving marks for process work, give marks for refinement of ideas. Students can be expected to do the rough work or practice work, and then must show that they read your comments and incorporated them into the final product. Without getting the comments on the process work, they won’t be able to get marks for refinement.
* The curriculum for your course might include process work as an overall expectation, so it may be appropriate to include this process work as an essential learning for your course.

If we can’t take off late marks, students will hand it all in at the end of the semester.

* Marks should reflect ability, not work habits in as far as it’s possible to separate the two (9).
* It's recommended that a missed assignment lead to students getting a different assignment and/or negotiating a new deadline, but, for students with a tendency towards idleness, this could precipitate an on-going practice of re-negotiating due dates or expecting a variation on the original assignment instead of encouraging them to develop better work habits and finishing the work by the original due date.  There needs to be a bigger "or else" to motivate students who are more challenging.
* If an assignment isn’t completed by the due date, call home and the guidance counselor immediately and arrange for the student to complete it in student success during his/her MSIP period.  This works for many students, but isn't effective if the student generally skips MSIP and/or isn't affected by parental pressure, or for whom parental response is akin to, "I just don't know what to do with him/her."
* We are permitted to have a cut-off date (42). For some courses, if the cut-off date is at the end of the semester, students might miss the benefits of doing the work during the unit, so a cut off date near the end of each unit is preferable. To prepare them for university or college, the cut-off date could be on the actual due date, and then students are responsible for asking for an extension in advance of that date if necessary. However, of course extenuating circumstances must be examined on a case-by-case basis.
* If an assignment isn’t completed by the cut-off date, use your professional judgment to decide if  the student should get an "I" (grades 9-10) or 35% (grades 11-12) in the course or if the student showed significant competence in the essential learnings on other assignments and/or the final evaluation to be able to pass the course without that assignment.
 * If students miss an assignment, it means they have fewer opportunities to show they are proficient in the course material.

We can have a cut-off date after which the assignment will not be accepted, but isn’t the punishment for not doing the work, doing the work?

* The implication of the last bit is that it’s not possible to pass someone who was unable to show achievement in one unit (or essential learning) of the course, but that’s listed specifically as one strategy used to promote student responsibility (40). If students miss the assignment and test for the unit, then they still have the final evaluation to show their ability to understand that section, and then achievement charts might show that their proficiency in the unit was limited. It might mean setting up marks by the unit (or essential learnings) rather than by the assignments and tests if that isn’t already the same thing.
* Some students have on their IEP a need for fewer assignments to demonstrate a skill. They may be given fewer assignments as long as all the essential learnings are still demonstrated by the end of the semester.
 * To get the credit, the work should be completed, but it might not happen during the semester. Once the semester ends, the student is no longer your responsibility (unless you get him/her in your class again).

If we’re using “Incomplete” instead of “Zero”, how do we get a numerical mark at the end?

* We’re not to give zeros to students for two reasons: to clarify that the work is still expected, and to clarify that we’re looking at the work they actually completed to determine their final mark: “assigning a mark of zero places a judgment on unseen work” (18). So don’t allow work habits to skew the final marks, which should be indicating student ability. But if a student’s ability can’t be seen accurately because of the lack of work completed, then that will end up being reflected in the final grade.
 * At the end, incompletes can be turned into zeros long enough to calculate a grade used as a starting point for a final mark, BUT then we must ensure that the numerical grade is an accurate reflection of the student’s actual ability in the course.
 * If an assignment is missed, and some proficiency is shown on that part of the final evaluation, the mark for that essential learning can be determined by deciding to what degree the student mastered that part of the course. If s/he only did the work on the final, without doing the assignment to show competency in that essential learning, it’s likely the mark – for that part of the curriculum – will be limited.

But work habits are part of a student’s ability to do the work.

* Zeros and late marks shouldn’t give a false impression of ability, BUT the AER policy recognizes that work habits are entwined with ability to a certain extent as evidenced by the beginning of this line (italics mine): “To the extent possible…the evaluation of learning skills and work habits…should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades” (9). Most students with poor work habits will see this reflected in their level of achievement.

How am I supposed to keep track of student ability during discussions?

* Tic sheets on the seating plan that are turned into a mark every few weeks can help. Then students can be made aware of their level of competent discussion regularly. Discussion should take several forms possibly including, for instance, on-line forums or exit cards.

My course is separated into units that aren’t the same as the way the essential learnings are divided in the curriculum guidelines. How do I show which essential learnings a student missed?

* A bit more work at the beginning – and just once per course – can make things much easier at the end:
* On the course outline or on a separate page given early on, take the time and trouble to connect specific essential learnings with tests and assignments. Alternatively, indicate the essential learning on the top of each assignment or test.
* Clearly tie all your rubrics to essential learnings from the curriculum.

There seem to be two (or more) kinds of courses with different challenges:

1. The essential learnings are assessed repeatedly throughout each unit and at the end.
 * In these cases it makes sense to have more marks assigned to later units to better indicate the students’ abilities at the end of the course.
 * One missing assignment won’t affect the ability of the student to show proficiency in the essential learnings, but the final mark may reflect the effects of a diminished level of practice.

2. The essential learnings are significantly different from unit to unit, and are only repeated at the very end.
 * It can be harder to develop numerous ways to determine proficiency in each essential learning.
 * Once the unit is over, and the cut-off date has passed, the student only has the final evaluation to show proficiency on any essential learning missed during the term.

I’m supposed to make a package of work for the student to complete in Student Success after the course is done, but that student is no longer on my caseload (for grades 9 and 10 only).

* Save one of each summative assignment or test with the essential learning indicated on it in case a student is allowed to complete it the follow semester instead of re-doing the course.
 * There needs to be a process in place in which teachers deliver missing work to Student Success as they hand in the Loss of Credit forms at the end of the semester because, legally, we shouldn’t be asked to do work for a student that’s no longer on our lists.


* This is the closest link I could find to the AER, which used to be easily accessible online.  The link on the board website is dead.  Hopefully it's just a temporary glitch.


  1. A well reasoned and insightful post as per usual Marie.

    Let me tell you an story. As a twelve year old, I moved from a city school to a country school. I was assigned to complete a science project with three other students. The other students told me that I had to complete the project without them, and that if I complained, I would be beaten.

    I completed the project on my own and the team received an 'A'. Teachers were skeptical, and I was called into a meeting with the principal, my home room and science teacher. Did the others participate in the science project? they asked me. Of course they did, I said, mindful of the beating I would receive if I said otherwise.

    I could see the disbelief in their eyes, but also their understanding that I had to survive in the culture.

    1. Thanks, Anon. I'm sorry that was your grade-school experience! We like to imagine that everything can actually be made fair in schooling, but there's only so much we can do. It's a good example of why grading students is - and likely always will be - an imperfect science. While I'm hesitant to applaud the ability of teachers to use their discretion to waver from a calculated mark (because it has the potential to allow teacher bias to affect grades), I also recognize the necessity of it in special circumstances.

    2. Thanks for your reply. The issue is not about 'tic sheets' or 'student success plans', it is about the humanity of education. The turgid formality of categorizing children does not help anyone.

  2. This is a good post. You might know that the teachers in BC are on strike. I have a feeling that our (truly incredibly)stupid provincial government would be quite dumbfounded to know that this is the kind of thing that teachers actually think about.

    1. Thanks Karen. I hope things work out for the BC teachers.


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