Teacher Raises Questions About Grading and Reporting Changes

Natalie Barnes is a math teacher at a Prince George’s County middle school. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Natalie Barnes

100_3373As a middle school math teacher, I wholeheartedly support some of the thirteen recommended changes to the grading and reporting policy. Teachers should provide a syllabus (recommendation #6), use approved grading systems (#12), and grade and return student work within ten school days (#9). Similarly, administers should ensure that grading is applied uniformly (#13). These seem to be teaching practices that are already common among quality educators.

Yet, there are some policies with which I disagree. Regarding behavior, attendance,and grades (#2 & #3), Gorman Brown explained during the June 9th Board of Education work session (at 40:35 in the video) that grading should be based on course standards. Yet, the mathematical standards include “use appropriate tools strategically”and “critique the reasoning of others” (Standards for Mathematical Practice). From a teacher’s perspective, if a student is throwing rulers across the room or refusing to participate in a lesson, they are failing these standards. During class discussions, Socratic seminars, or classwork in general, what grade should be given to students who do not participate appropriately? That said, a rubric or other more objective scale should be used to reduce subjectivity, but behavior is an important part of a student’s classwork. When asked about the role of participation in grading, Dr. Shawn Joseph responded that “participation is not part of our administrative procedure” (1:02:03) so it is unclear as to how this impacts behavior (1:03:14).

I also have concerns, as do many others, about the uniform minimum grade of a 50%
provided students put forth a good faith effort (#1 & #4). Even though “good faith effort” has been defined by the panel as “any assignment in which a student completes at least 50% of the required content,” this still leaves a great deal of room for subjectivity. As a math teacher, I have seen students write down random numbers and assume that this is quality work deserving of a 50%. Like Board member Ms. Perry (1:18:30), I wonder if only expecting students to turn in work half done is reinforcing good work ethic. Furthermore, I question, as does Board member Edward Burroughs (1:32:45), whether this practice actually prepares students for life beyond high school, including college. True, research shows this helps students avoid giving up. However, in my experience, it also enables students to put forth only a minimum effort.

Lastly, the policies for make-up work are of great concern to me (#3 & #10). I am supportive of make-up work and have my own procedures for it within my classroom. But I do not think a uniform sliding scale is appropriate for the entire county. Each classroom and subject area has different needs. Even within my own classroom, the policy for homework is different from that of projects and classwork. For example, I assign five equations to solve for homework, which are due the following school day; I walk around the room and check for completion. After assigning their completion grades, we review the problems as a class. Should students who did not do the homework be allowed to turn it in for a 95% just by copying down the work and turning it in that day? I think not.

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Teachers Concerned about Time-Consuming Test for Kindergarteners

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

IMG_6404I have been a teacher in Maryland for over 33 years and I have never had anything impact my instruction negatively as the administration and recording of the KRA.  — from MSEA’s Survey of Kindergarten Teachers, (Appendix I, p. 34)

Maryland’s Kindergarten Readiness Assessment (KRA), introduced during the 2014-2015 school year, is designed to measure a child’s readiness for school in four areas: Language & Literacy, Mathematics, Physical Well-being & Motor Development, and Social Foundations.

On the surface, this sounds reasonable: Teachers have always assessed their incoming students’ skills, so that they can better meet the needs of the class. But the outcry from kindergarten teachers over this new assessment was so loud that the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA) asked that the use of the KRA be suspended until “critical revisions” are made. A 100-plus page report issued by MSEA documents survey data and narrative responses from hundreds of kindergarten teachers.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly negative. Teachers are deeply concerned about the loss of instructional time, and they see little value in the data generated by the test.

  • The test is administered by the child’s kindergarten teacher — not an assistant or other staff member — on a one-on-one basis. Since the assessment occurs during the school day, instructional time is lost as teachers pull students for testing and substitutes take their place. Here are comments from three teachers who responded to MSEA’s survey:
    • The time used to administer the KRA…could be used to pull small groups, work one-on-one with students, provide enrichment to students, collect data for progress reports, etc. (p.2).
    • Some of the fun projects we do in the beginning of the year, that go along with the curriculum, have gone by the way side (Appendix I, p. 58).

    • The first few months of school are the most important in setting routines, expectations and getting to know my children. I have spent more hours ignoring their needs or handing off instruction to substitutes then I can count (Appendix I, p.1).
  • Initially, teachers were told that the test would take about 45 minutes for each child. But according to the Maryland State Education Association’s (MSEA) survey of kindergarten teachers, about 80% of teachers found that the test took more than hour to administer. Nearly one in five teachers (17.7%) reported that the test took over two hours. Multiplying this by the number of kindergarteners in each class means many hours of lost instruction.

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Writing Across the Curriculum: One Math Teacher’s Experience

In December, the Washington Post published an article describing the new literacy program in Prince George’s County Public Schools that requires teachers of all subjects to teach literacy skills in the classroom. One middle school math teacher has shared with us her experience with the new program. She has asked to remain anonymous.

Last fall, I learned that my students would be required to complete a literacy assignment as part of the new county-wide literacy initiative. Previously, our focus had been on the Formative Assessment for Maryland Educators (FAME) tasks. These tasks combine math and literacy skills by having students solve real-life problems and explain their thinking. With the new program, in addition to completing the FAME tasks, students would write five-paragraph essays.

During a subsequent school-wide professional development meeting, I learned that each department across our school would be completing the same writing task, which mirrors the SAT essay. Social studies would complete the assignment in October, science in November, math in December, creative arts, health, and physical education in January, and language arts and world languages in March. The goal is for each department to conduct the same activity with the students to see if there is marked improvement in student reading and writing across content areas.

Every prompt is nearly identical. The basic task takes the form, “Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his audience that [insert author’s claim here].”

Here is the one used for my class:

writingPrompt

With each prompt is an essay for students to read and analyze.  For math students across the county in December, Grade 6 and 7 students read an excerpt from Math Doesn’t Suck, a book written by Danica McKellar and Grade 8 students read the article “Teaching Kids Why Math Matters” by Cindy Donaldson in order to complete the analysis of an argument writing prompts.

We are told to have the students complete this assignment in ten steps.

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What’s Working: Great Teaching in Second Grade

by Genevieve Demos Kelley

My son is enjoying his second grade year so far, and I am impressed with the learning that is happening in his class. Here are some instructional practices that seem to be working well:

Spelling pretests and posttests. There are no spelling groups in my son’s class (when I was that age, we had the “green apple group” and the “red apple group”), but there is certainly differentiated instruction. Instead of being grouped by ability, children are given a pretest each Monday on ten spelling words. Students who can spell at least eight of those words correctly are given a list of more challenging words to study that week (called the “star” list), while the rest of the class sticks with the original list (the “smile” list). This means that there is no rigid differentiation between good spellers and not-so-good spellers: A child might be on the “smile” list one week and the “star” list the next.

Moreover, the spelling lists for the upcoming week are included in the weekly newsletter, which is emailed to parents on Friday. This lets my son study the easier words before he takes his pretest on Monday so that he can be on the star list that week. This is his choice, not mine! Spelling has always been a struggle for him, and being assigned the challenging words after a successful pretest seems to be a big confidence booster.

Flexible spelling assignments. Each week, students choose three spelling activities from a list of nine and turn them in at the end of the week. There is a wide range of options (they change from week to week), and students are explicitly given permission to replace any of the activities with something else that is not on the list. Some of the activities are quick and fun (e.g. writing your speling words on your parent’s back with your finger) and some are more arduous (e.g. writing down the dictionary definitions). We always do a practice test as one of the three activities, whether or not it is on the list of options for that week.

img116_readingLog

What day did he actually read Bunnicula? Who knows? But he is writing about books, and that’s what matters.

Flexible reading log. I have a hard time with reading logs. Though I understand that they are supposed to promote daily reading, I can’t stand the thought of timing one’s reading and keeping a record, as if reading is a chore to be endured. But the reading logs that my son completes each week are flexible enough that we can adapt them to our read-for-pleasure-with-abandon lifestyle.

  • For each day (Monday through Friday), there is a space for students to fill in the number of minutes that they’ve read, but we don’t keep track. My son just writes “20” for each day, though he usually reads for much longer.
  • He has to write one sentence per day on what he’s read, but the sentence can be anything at all, as long as it says something about the book. This really helps. My son needs practice writing sentences about what he reads, but at this point, he doesn’t need something overly prescriptive.
  • And here’s what really makes the reading log doable for us: We don’t worry about filling in the chart every day. My son does most of his reading before bedtime, and it would be extremely disruptive to have him fill out his reading log just before bed. Besides, reading is pure fun for him, and I don’t want the reading log — a task that he does not enjoy — to intrude on that experience. So he sometimes writes a week’s worth of sentences in one day. He still gets practice writing sentences about what he reads, but its not really a daily log anymore after we’re done with it. And that works better for us.

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The Best Thing About the First Week of School . . .

Ten Prince George’s County parents have shared with us something that a teacher, principal, or other staff member did to make the first day or week of school successful.

  • 100_3395crMy son’s teacher sent home a letter on the first day of school introducing herself and briefly telling us what to expect in the coming school year. The letter was full of warmth and enthusiasm, and I immediately felt that she was drawing me in as a participant in the class.
  • I was very happy our school organized a back-to-school event before the school year started. It is a great way to take care of some practical issues and ask questions before the often chaotic first day of school. I feel like everyone is more prepared for the year from day one.
  • My son attends a school for kids with severe disabilities that is very far from our neighborhood school. One of the children on his bus has a very hard time on the bus. The second day of the trip, I noticed the aide on his bus had brought a soft blanket with her to help the other girl feel more comfortable when she got on the bus. How sweet is that?
  • It’s so nice to walk into school in the morning and see all of the teachers at their classroom doors, smiling and greeting students! We appreciate the warm welcome.
  • My son’s second grade teacher put together a binder with tabs to keep all paperwork organized. It’s very straight forward. We also signed up for text messages from the teacher.
  • Our first day of school started off on a very positive note thanks to our children’s new bus driver. He greeted us and our children with a smile and seemed genuinely happy to be seeing children off to their first day of school. It set the tone for the rest of the day. Bus drivers are often seen as nothing more than chauffeurs, but a good bus driver can make a huge difference for kids. Continue reading

Ten Things We Love About PGCPS

arby Genevieve Demos Kelley

IMG_6342There are plenty of things to appreciate about Prince George’s County Public Schools. Here are ten of them:

1. Dedicated Staff

We have benefited from some truly remarkable, inspiring teachers and visionary, hard-working principals who really are making a difference. One parent writes, “If I go to our school at 7 am, there is staff there (school starts at 9:15). When I go there at 7 pm, there is staff there. Lots of staff are leading many extracurricular activities, there is always something going on at the school.”

2. Strong Instrumental Music Programs

Beginning in grade four, elementary school students may learn to play a string, woodwind, or brass instrument in twice-weekly classes. Instrumental music is also offered to middle and high schoolers. Here is a lovely YouTube video of the PGCPS Honor Band and Middle School Honor Chorus.

3. Career Academies and Specialty Programs

The list of career academies offered in PGCPS high schools was recently expanded in the 2014-2015 school year. It’s an impressive list! PGCPS also offers Creative and Performing Arts and STEM magnet programs.

4. Dual Enrollment

Students may enroll at any public college or university in Maryland while still enrolled in high school and have their tuition paid for by PGCPS. Read more here.

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Facilities Operations Fared Worst in Most Recent School Climate Survey

Today is the last day to take the 2015 School Climate Survey. Parents received an email in June from the Department of Research and Evaluation with an invitation to participate in the survey and an individualized survey code. Parents cannot take the survey without the code, but students may use their student identification numbers and access the survey here.

The most recent survey, given in 2013, paints a picture of stakeholders’ satisfaction in several areas (called “subscales” in the analysis) such as relevant curriculum, safety and discipline, effective teaching, and amount of parental involvement that affect their schools’ overall climate. According to the Department of Research and Evaluation, as of 2013 a “substantial majority of the district’s key stakeholder groups has a positive perception of their schools’ climate.”

Source: PGCPS Dept. of Research and Evaluation, 2013

Source: PGCPS Dept. of Research and Evaluation, 2013

For students, “Effective Plant Operations” (i.e. facilities and equipment) was the area that was least favorably perceived, with only about half expressing a positive perception. (For example, at Greenbelt Elementary School, the single survey item that had the smallest percentage of favorable responses at 23.4% was, “The bathroom at my school is clean.”) In contrast, parents in the district, who spend less time in school buildings, had a much more favorable view of facilities, with 83% expressing a positive perception. About 64% of teachers expressed a positive perception.

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