I’m in a new role this year at HWDSB, supporting the roll out of a new grade book application. One of the discussion items that has come up over and over, is how strands and overall expectations should be weighed. In our previous grade book application, teachers had the ability to set a weight on both strands and expectations at a class level. In the new application, the weighting of strands is currently confined to the course level (2020 editors note: this is fixed now).
This change has led us to set the strands to be equally weighted, not because we believe that this is the proper weighting in all contexts, but to ensure we don’t force teachers into using a weight they don’t agree with, and to avoid what I’ve been referring to as “nefarious multipliers” lurking in the background augmenting the grade provided to a student in unknown ways. I believe the thinking behind this configuration was to provide an equitable setting across districts: ENG1D1 can be weighted consistently at different schools around the board in order for the resulting final marks to be “fair” for all of the students. This kind of consistency isn’t new thinking. Some departments attempt to provision this consistency at a school level, agreeing upon how a course will be weighted despite different teachers covering the course. Some departments have historically come together to come to consensus on the weight of strands, with varied results.
I think there are pitfalls to attempting to configure a tool to ensure that two teachers in different schools across the district will assess in similar ways (two teachers across the hall will similarly struggle). This assumes that there aren’t myriad other factors that may come into play. How the teacher covers a given Overall Expectation is probably a much larger variable, yet we aren’t arguing for consistent lesson delivery plans at a district level. Anyone who has participated in the moderation of student work will attest to the ways in which our biases will always make grading a mix of determination and calculation. We may consistently hit broad levels of achievement when looking at student work (two teachers may be able to consistently identify level 4 work), but ultimately the chances that two teachers would come up with a matching percentage grade is much less likely.
Should we consider the idea of setting district weights on courses? Departments across the board will struggle to agree, and the sheer number of courses we offer in Ontario make the upkeep on something like this incredibly daunting. Does one stop at the strand? Are there Overall Expectations that should be weighted more heavily within each strand? Are the weightings set at a Curriculum Document level, or do the weights vary from course to course within a curriculum?
I will say that the task offers some rich opportunities for pedagogical dialogue. Our Physical Education departments posits that Active Living skills should be weighed more heavily than Healthy Living skills. Does the curriculum support this view? Does the Modern Languages curriculum espouse Speaking and Listening over Writing? Should the Arts place more emphasis on creation, rather than analysis? In History, should my ability to understand how to analyse causes and consequences, and historical significance, outweigh the importance of knowing who Arch Duke Ferdinand was?
I think we will find that equal weighting on strands doesn’t align with every curriculum document, and that there is merit to putting a differential weight on a strand in some circumstances; but I don’t support setting this weight at a district level. Not only because I believe this has to happen at a teacher/class level, rather than set universally on a course (whether at a school or across a district), but also because I believe this kind of weighting should happen at the end of the course, rather than at the beginning, if it needs to happen at all.
I believe teachers need to be able to augment weighting from one semester to another:
- when five snow days affect the ability to cover a strand as fulsomely as they normally might;
- when current events guide our inquiry towards focusing on one section of the curriculum over another;
- when teachers accommodate the direction that the students have led the learning in a particular direction during a particular course;
along with a host of other factors I’m not listing here.
Waiting on the Weight
How can I pre-calculate the weight of a course for students I haven’t met yet if I am running a student-centred program that attends to the strengths, needs, and interests of the students I have in front of me? As a professional, my program is constantly in flux as I explore different ways to engage the students who are in my class right now, and as I learn from past delivery mistakes. When I take advantage of current events and authentic opportunities to bring life to my subject matter, pre-determining becomes problematic. If my program is constantly changing, can the weight on the strands within that program remain static? How could the district setting possibly attend to the rich and varied learning environments scattered across our district? The 21st Century Competencies document released in draft by the Ministry of Education states that in our classrooms there should be an “emphasis on “deeper learning” (which) requires a shift in the role of teaching from “focusing on covering all required content to focusing on the learning process, developing students’ ability to lead their own learning and to do things with their learning. Teachers are partners with students in deep learning tasks characterised by exploration, connectedness and broader, real-world purposes” (Fullan & Langworthy, 2014, p. 7)” (21st Century Competencies, 2018, p. 32). Pre-calculating a weight on a strand only works if my focus is on content, and the delivery of that content doesn’t change from year to year.
I’ve developed a workflow in our resources to be able to look at the calculation and provide differential weights at a strand level, providing a mechanism for teachers to confirm how weight may alter the grade, and thereby feel more confident in the grade they are submitting. You can find it here:
One thing we have noticed is that often, once a teacher works through the steps to add a calculated weight to their strands, the resulting number is either consistent with the grade calculated in an equal weighting set-up (the difference between weighting a strand 5% or less than another, across three or more strands, is insignificant math, even when students achieve disparately), or is consistent with the grade they would have overridden when determining a final grade using their professional judgement. Additionally, the workflow is only beneficial when students are achieving inconsistently within the strands, as consistent achievement isn’t impacted by weight. Viewing how the students are achieving in the strands, and being able to view those percentages, can oftentimes be enough information to make a determination of what the grade should be on the report card, which can be done without resorting to a spreadsheet.
An Assessment Concordance
The ways in which our new grade book tool has been configured is an attempt to realize the Growing Success policy document within the confines of a technological tool. I’ve been in a number of conversations where Growing Success is used to support an argument. I’ve started annotating Growing Success with some of these ideas. You can find the content, and participate, at the following link: https://hyp.is/1kJGlhTiEem55m-Iky91pQ/www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/policyfunding/growSuccess.pdf. You’ll need a Hypothes.is account to join the conversation, but then I think you need a Hypothes.is account regardless (not only because the tool is awesome, but because having our education policy documents marked up and annotated by a diverse group of educators would create a rich and powerful resource ).
Talking about assessment can sometimes feel like talking about religion. There are strong views, and deeply held beliefs. Growing Success has some nebulous areas that can be used to support a number of sometimes conflicting practices. Users want to have faith in the calculation provided by a grade book program, but ultimately the math will only take them so far. Believing in their students, and having a willingness to provide every opportunity for them to succeed, deserves significant weight.