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Reviewing Student Work to Norm Departmental Expectations

If your school is anything like the ones I've worked in, each teacher has an impression of what exemplary work is, and often that impression does NOT align with anyone else in the department.

It's not that anyone is right or wrong, it's just that we value different elements and therefore judge learning accordingly.

We can all agree that maybe short of multiple-choice style exams, assessing learning is extremely subjective. Each instructor/reviewer comes to the table with a personal lens through which they view the learning. Too often, that lens is clouded by a plethora of non-academic elements that cover up what students know and can do.

Have you ever looked at the work a colleague considers an "A" or "90" and said to yourself, "I don't understand?" or a failure that looks like it's meeting standards to you? This isn't an uncommon occurrence given the level of subjectivity that impacts our decisions about student work. Something as simple as grading fatigue can impair our ability to assess the bottom of the pile differently than the top.

This is why It is essential as a department, in alignment with school-wide expectations to develop a calibration that is appropriate for the learning at your school.

Here are some things to consider/questions to answer:

What does exemplary work look like? What should it include?

  • Are you using the Common Core Standards or State-wide standards? Who decides?

  • As a group, consider bringing exemplary work to professional development or vertical team meeting, hash out what elements should be included on each level, and then based on the standards, build a school-wide collection of exemplary work for each subject by mastery level for age. Allow students who are performing above grade level to be assessed higher to continue growth. Do the same for at-standards work and below standards work so there is no question.

  • It might be a good idea to partner with a colleague in your department where you can work together to assess student learning to ensure the greatest level of objectivity, understanding that completely objective isn't possible.

    • What elements/non-academic compliance issues play into the final communication of learning?

Does your attitude about the student impact the assessment even before you've read or reviewed the work?

  • How is late work handled?

  • Classroom behavior?

  • Plagiarism?

  • No work submitted?

  • As a school, there should be a policy that addresses each of the above very clearly and all teachers should be at least on the same page so that students don't get different messages from everyone.

Who determines the communication method whether it is a grade or feedback?

  • Are students involved in the process of assessment? How? If not, why not?

  • How much quality feedback are students getting during the formative process and how is it being tracked?

  • Do students reflect on the process?

  • Are goals set and reflected upon?

Are revision/redo opportunities available and for how long and will it impact the final "grade"?

  • As a school there should be a policy or at least on the department level, this should be aligned. Redos are essential to student growth and they shouldn't be used specifically to raise grades but to practice skills to increase mastery moving forward.

  • If there aren't opportunities for revision or redos, what is the rationale behind this choice? Make sure to be able to articulate it appropriately.

How can we backward plan as a department (vertical team) by grade for appropriate expectations for students of each year?

  • Consider what the expectations are in the highest level of a class inside the school like a 12th grade AP class. What skills will be needed for students to be successful in it? Then moving backward, plan as a group which skills should be taught in each grade, using precise language and building on complexity.

  • Make sure there is an appropriate level of overlap with minimum redundancy and if skills are being repeated, how and why are they?

Is there a school-wide rubric that should be used based on standards and who designs it?

  • This can be done by committee and then by department it can be revised until agreed upon and adopted. Having a central rubric allows parents, students, and teachers to really understand expectations upfront. This keeps everyone "honest".

Norming expectations around student learning is essential to being able to take data and use it on a bigger level to ensure progress as a school. If all stakeholders understand what success looks like and we have examples to point students and teachers too, the outcome can only be better. In addition to leveling out enormous discrepancies in expectations, it would also provide a more aligned understanding of what students know and can do. This in turn will help with appropriate programming.

How does your school or learning community calibrate expectations for student success? Please share

*This post originally ran on my Education Week Teacher blog in December 2015.


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