Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Grade Anxiety Makes Me Nervous

I wrote this after winter break and never posted it. Now, I am home on bed rest waiting to become a mom, and I've received multiple emails from anxious students. It breaks my heart I can't solve this on my own.

I have taught honors students in the past, and I recall their heightened awareness to their grades, their point-hungry obsession with my marking system, and their fear of receiving a marked assessment even if they were confident with their understanding the day the completed it. But for some reason this year, my Honors Algebra 2 course, which has both freshman and sophomores, has raised my attention to the detriment of the anxiety caused by grades.

Now, I do not grade homework, nor include it in the determination of their overall grade. (I am required to issue a letter grade 4 times per year). I provide only feedback on all their quizzes and other formative work leading to a unit assessment. And on those summative unit assessments, students do not acquire or lose points, they get additional feedback and a rubric score describing their progress towards proficiency. I have honed my practice and re-written the rubric descriptors to be clear and distinctive. I encourage retakes if a student receives less than a 3 (demonstrates proficiency) and for approximately 60% of the standards, I have required retesting until proficiency is demonstrated to ensure that content and skills are learned to achieve a passing grade in my course.

I lead the class to focus on the learning rather than grades and we reflect and record to internalize the feedback. We use metacognitive strategies and discuss, often one on one, the preparation needed, the next steps to be taken to learn the concepts or skills, and the purpose of reflection. There are no more points to beg for and, since I don’t offer extra credit or deduct points for late or missing work, their grade is defined by what they know, and not an accumulation of arbitrarily assigned and awarded points or compliance to behaviors.

At the start of the year, I heard positive responses to fewer grades and more feedback. And I believe those feelings are still valid and present. I’d hear comments like “the quizzes in here don't make me nervous because they just tell me what I still need to work on” and my course is compared in a positive way to classes where points mean everything. I was proud that students were more relaxed on quiz days and appreciated the feedback they were getting. But then as the end of first semester crept closer, their heart rates ran faster. The panic of reassessing and the time crunch put pressure on them that was keeping them up at night. Students were desperate to retest but were not putting in the relearning to be successful. For some, when I marked the retest, they’d have missed similar questions to the original, so we’d have to conference, and I’d provide more practice specific to their learning needs.

Eventually, the deadline came. Not the ultimate deadline, but the end of the semester when I, contractually, must submit a traditional grade for each student. I was informed by my administration, who has been very supportive of my standards based learning/grading and reporting practices, that I cannot give the grade “incomplete” to every student that has not yet reached a 3 on their required learning standards. However, no one has ever stopped me from making grade changes so long as a grade was submitted in the first place.

But apparently a process I feel is a better option than one-and-done and no grade changes doesn’t alleviate all the anxiety. For many, I am being dismissive of their fear of getting a grade less than an A or B on their mailed report card. I received emails from parents, students, and guidance counselors with concern over the printed piece of paper: the report card.

I get it. Or I try to get it. Maybe because I am past that point in my life when school is all there is and I don’t live with my parents so I can see that a grade does not define my students. But to them it does-despite my efforts. The pressure applied to them by society, by previous and current teachers, and by their parents is hurting them And yet, they don’t see it. There is such little consequence to a piece of paper having a ‘C’ on it - a temporary piece of paper, a temporary ‘C’. Nothing life-altering should happen when a progress report goes home. It is not an official transcript; it is not a legal document that will be publicized; it is a report on a student’s current progress. But “we” have made it more than that. “We” have made this end of a term - send a notice home to my parents - if you don’t get As and Bs (and for some only As will do)… a scary time. And it happens two or three times each school year.

My solution is not easy. For one, parents and teachers need to help students understand that school is not a race and a grade is not a do-or-die reward. It is not a reward at all. Learning is the reward. As adults, it is best that we provide a safe opportunity for students to learn and let that be the outcome. If we could imagine a checklist for each of our students, one that is personalized and malleable to their needs and the plan they have for their future, what would it look like? As I see it, not all students need A’s but all students need to learn. And they all don’t have to learn the same things. If each student knew what was on their checklist for learning, then they only need to complete the items on their list. Learn X, get checkmark next to X. Don’t learn X, no checkmark. There are no grades and no need to compare students - which is the historical intention of the grading system we use.

Can you picture this? Several times a year the list is sent home to parents to show progress in completing the checklist. The checklist changes with the needs, plans and interests of the student. Is this even possible? Would this address the anxiety of students caused by grades? What other ways can we address the root of the problem? I am in search of a solution since I can’t take 120+ students home with me a erase 10+ years of “grade anxiety”.

Please share your thoughts here or email

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

The New Buzz Word for Software and Online Tools

The New Buzz Word for Software and Online Tools

I have recently seen quite a few websites, and software, and even my district purchased  LMS that I use with my students, advertise and promote their standards based grading features. I get excited and eager to investigate - I am always looking for ways to improve the efficiency of  workflow, feedback on learning, communication about progress towards student proficiency and more time to allow me to address the needs of my struggling students and advance my stronger students. Unfortunately, what I find most often are that the claims of a site or service to have “standards based grading features” turn out to simple be the ability to tag tasks to a standard or to enter scores as a number rather than a traditional letter grade.  

I started calling these Standards Reporting Tools. Many of these tools do not have the ability to personalize feedback and assign a proficiency rating to a student’s work. Some tools claiming to have standards based grading features use point accumulation and percentages as a scoring method. This is completely against the philosophies of SBG. I have found due dates and timed tests - also not in the SBG spirit. Quite a few of the sites and software I have investigated claiming to be great for teachers implementing SBG have failed many of these tests:

  1. Point accumulation is used to determine proficiency level
  2. Mostly multiple choice questions are used as an assessment - making learning a binary concept
  3. Not allowing for gradience in the level of understanding
  4. Averaging scores from multiple tasks aligned to a standard over time
  5. Not allowing customization of standards
  6. Providing class averages to teachers
  7. Making feedback the job of a computer rather than the instructor

As stated earlier, I want to provide more and better feedback to my students. I want to improve my instruction to reach more students at a deeper level. When a computer is doing the majority of scoring tasks, where is the room for me to internalize my students’ specific needs? How can I give meaningful feedback to each student? For me, this happens when I am marking a task. And the next steps for my instruction are based directly on the results of the understanding of my students needs on a particular standard.

Another thing to consider is the type of questions that can be asked when using a self-grading system. Multiple choice, true-false, matching, and ordering are all typically low-order thinking skills and provide students opportunity to guess - leaving the teacher no information about actual learning gains. My LMS and other math tools that my colleagues use have self-graded “fill-in-the-blank” style formatting, and I have used these for skill questioning. But there is no possibility of asking for student creativity or questions that ask students to exercise their ability to think critically if the computer software is doing the grading for you.  

The one thing I do find valuable is that these tools are now emphasising the importance of aligning each task with standards. That serves as a good reminder of my preservice lesson plan writing days when I was required to identify the objectives and state standards at the start of each lesson. This holds both the teacher and the student responsible for knowing which standard the task is addressing.

Many teachers may wish grading could be done faster but like many others, I got into teaching to see students learn, not to avoid hard working. Perhaps looking to speed up the part of the process that informs us the most about student learning is not the answer. There is a place for quickly graded formative work. Like taking the temperature of the class’s knowledge on a particular topic, you want an immediate result. It some cases, it can be extremely helpful for a teacher to know how the students are doing immediately. However, this is not a standards based grading feature if you slap a rubric or points on it. This is not quality information about where error was made within the questions and will only lead to a binary conclusion about the students’ understanding: they know it or they don’t.

Have you seen websites software or other assessment tools that advertise to be standards based but might not live up to their claim? I advise you and your schools to be aware of the tools you use and purchase that claim to be Standards Based Grading Resources. Please share you thoughts and comments here or with us at

Friday, February 12, 2016

Dear Learner - A letter to my students

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Dear Learner:

I am sure you have heard from your parents, grandparents, teachers, counselors and other advice-givers-at-least-twice-your-age, that we know what’s best for your future and everything you do now will affect you later. I am not going to go on a long rant about the philosophical life-lesson part of that concept, but I am going to explain my reasons for holding you to high standards and expecting that you learn everything that I teach you in our Algebra 2 class.

I can not predict what you will do after you leave Schaumburg High School and while you may have some idea now what you want to do, it is entirely possible that will change. I can, however, predict what you will need to know mathematically in the years that you will spend at SHS taking mathematics courses. Actually, it is not a prediction at all. The government and school board have set a list of required concepts - called standards or learning targets or objectives - and each course in high school has 9 months to teach you a portion of that list. The skills and concepts are in a specific order and each course is designed to prepare you for the next.

Think of it like this: Little league baseball prepares you to make the freshman baseball team, where you continue to perfect your skills so you are prepared for the JV team which intern prepares you for Varsity. If you are really talented and passionate about baseball, you may get the opportunity to play in college or even make it your career. Now see if you can follow this metaphor for learning mathematics. Elementary school mathematics taught you the basics - the arithmetic and number sense. You used those skills when learning Algebra 1 and applied some of those skills in Geometry where you learned the mathematics of logical, orderly argument and justification. This year you are working your algebra skills again to deepen your understanding. Why? To prepare you for upcoming classes: Trigonometry and Calculus.

The road ahead for you while at SHS is already laid out. You will take Trigonometry/PreCalculus next year where, like geometry you will exercise only some of your algebra skills, but then you will take Calculus. Whether you take AP calculus or non-AP calculus , you will need to not only have a little experience with algebra but you will need to be really good at it. More than 70% of every calculus problem is algebraic manipulation - in other words - you most likely will not find calculus difficult unless you are unprepared algebraically. That is my job - to prepare you algebraically and to create thinkers rather than robots. I know this not just because “I was your age once”, but because I have taught the next course and I work with the teachers everyday that teach the courses that you will take after you successfully complete this one. I actually know what is ahead for you because it is my job to know and to prepare you.

Imagine if the coach of the JV baseball team only practiced batting skills and never addressed running the bases or outfielding? Maybe that year his team did alright, winning just over half the games - like 60%, a ‘passing’ rating. How will this bode for the Varsity team next year when all those skills are necessary to make it to state? Are those players going to be prepared for success?

I understand that in every other math class you have been given a percent that represents an average of scores on assessments and that seems comfortable and maybe logical. Here is why I no longer average my student’s learning. For simplicity sake we will keep it to 5 learning standards, although I hope you can see how this is magnified with more standards.

Skills/Learning Standards
Percent Accuracy on Test
Graphing Functions
Solving Linear Equations
Solving Quadratic Equations
Solving Inequalities
Writing Equations

The student depicted above would earn a 75%, a C - a passing grade - if the scores were averaged. At first this appears fair and reasonable, but look more carefully and think about this student’s future. If a teacher “passes” this student on to the next course because he has an average of a 75% and never addresses the deficit of solving quadratic equations, this student will not be prepared when that concept is called upon in subsequent courses. This student may struggle not only with the new concepts in the next course but also with re-learning the skills of previous courses that were not learned when taught.

I don’t aim to make life or school more difficult for my students. Nor do I expect this course to take precedence over another at all times. I merely want to prepare my students to be successful for the future that I can predict for them - the upcoming mathematics courses at SHS.

If you share the same vision, that is being successful in future classes, then one thing you can do is take the preparation and learning opportunities that I am providing seriously. I will not average your scores because it lessens the importance of the concepts that you are not excelling at and increases the weight of those that you found success on. I will not ignore that “one standard” that you got a “2” on, because that means that I am sending you on to another course unprepared. I will provide you a safe learning environment, many learning opportunities and endless opportunities to demonstrate that you have learned the concepts - the concepts that I know you’ll need to be successful in the near future.  

Please feel free and comfortable to share a response by clicking here. My students are my job so I want to hear from you.


Your teacher - Ms Moran

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

In Progress Grades for Athletic Eligibility

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Today was the start of second semester. I asked my students what they liked about our class and what they would like to see changed. There were quite a few positive comments about retakes and the feedback that I provide on formative assessments. They liked the group work and the cup system I have in place for communicating levels of struggle as I walk around the room. Many students like the flipped videos and taking notes at home, which allow them class time to work on homework with their peers. Others would prefer if I taught in front of the class more often and suggested that I do that twice a week. All of their comments were thoughtful and it was good to see that my intentions were effective and well received.

Another suggestion, that breaks my heart a little, is the lingering desire for a traditional letter grade. The students that asked for this, and there were not many, explained why they felt they needed it. I still read their words and tear up because the reason they gave is athletic eligibility. To me this seems simple – if you’re making progress then you are eligible. Because learning is a process I don’t issue grades until I am required to do so. How do I capture a weekly grade while progress is being made but the last piece of evidence has not been submitted?

In perfect situation, I would mark “Making Progress” or “Progress Stalled” or “No Progress” for eligible or ineligible each week.  At the end of a grading period, I would only issue “Evidence of Proficiency Demonstrated” or “Has Not Yet Met Proficiency”. That’s right only two marks: Yes or Not Yet. To justify using this two-pronged approach, because I am on the SBL Island alone in my school, I can issue traditional letter grades at the end of the term. But only at the end. (I also wish there didn’t have to be an “end,” but there is an end in June-every year.) Every day before the last day of school is still an in-progress learning day – there is no grade – we are STILL learning.

So, I can stand on my Island and talk to myself and send messages in bottles hoping to be heard, but I really want my students and their parents to understand and be comfortable with my policies. The current concern seems slightly less focused on the grade for the sake of a grade, which warms me, but rather focused on the need for a grade for athletic eligibility. The thing is I am very committed to communicating with all parties involved so I complete athletic eligibility every week based on my student’s progress and use standards - “Making Progress” or “Progress Stalled” or “No Progress”.  Is this enough?  How do you determine athletic eligibility?

Please share your thoughts and the way that you address athletic eligibility for your standards based learners on twitter @stemflowerlc or by emailing Aric and Megan at

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Monday, February 1, 2016

Asynchronous Classrooms

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What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you read the words “I run an asynchronous high school math classroom”? Do you think I am crazy or that it is impossible? Does the idea make you panicked or curious? When I first heard a high school science teacher tell me that his students work asynchronously, I had two questions: has anyone been seriously injured, and if he can do it, why can’t I? And of course, I wanted an answer to my first question before I moved on the second.

I have been running an asynchronous classroom for over three years, and it has been a great change for my students. It is also a mental workout for me. I found interest after running a flipped classroom for two years and wanted to utilize the flip for differentiation. So, how did I wrap my head around this seemingly insane concept? Well, contractually I have had a math tutor supervisory position for 10 out of the last 12 years. Our academic center is staffed by one science, one English and one math teacher all day everyday in 25 minute increments. In this position, I greet and tutor 5-15 students each day with needs from “can you just check this one question?” to “I’ve been absent for 3 days and have no idea what’s going on.” The topics are anything from basic Algebra 1 to AP Statistics to ACT preparation. That means that as I roll from student to student I need to switch topics, or more often courses, and I must be ready to meet the needs of each learner regardless where they are in their learning process.

I reflected on my hours of flexibility in the academic center as preparation for an asynchronous classroom everyday. I was really good at resetting for each learner so that whatever their needs were, I could meet them, pleasantly. But what does it look like? To some it may look chaotic and that can scare both young and experienced teachers away. But look closer with me. That chaos is actually active learning. When students are learning at their own pace, not only can the slower learners “keep up” but the faster learners are also permitted to “move ahead.” Those that get bored because they “get it” can move on to the next lesson instead of nodding off, distracting others, or tuning out. It is also great for students that are planning ahead because they have a busy weekend or a basketball tournament that will get them home too late to finish their homework.

How does it work? On a learning curve of my own, which involved too much freedom for the learners at first, I realized the asynchronous classroom could be the recipe for procrastination for students if not enough guidance is given in the beginning of the school year. My first year, I planned months in advance preparing a variety of practice opportunities, formative checkpoints that, if failed, would direct students back to more practice and multiple versions of practice-including a variety of methods of assessment. I was ready for learners to be up to 2 units ahead of my typical schedule if they were proficient and driven. At the start of the year, when setting the foundation for a positive learning environment and culture in my classroom, I introduced the asynchronous classroom. Reactions were generally positive, filled with excitement and a touch of apprehension.

The go-getters were thrilled to have permission to move ahead, asking what would happen if they finished before June. The apprehensive learners expressed their concerns about the freedom being too much. What I witnessed was many students working ahead and a few that would only use class time to work, as though 45 minutes in class was always going to be enough time to complete the learning, practice, and assessments. There was a group of students whose procrastination surfaced quickly and as the first 9-week grading period drew near, were struggling to complete the work. I issued more incompletes that year than I had in the lat 8 years combined. Of course, my first thought “Was I to blame for this?
As we entered the second quarter, I began to make workload recommendations daily and created a big picture timeline; I then suggested that students plan their week of learning every Monday with me and then reflect on Friday if they accomplished it. I advised that if they set the goal of four lessons and a formative assessment in the five days we spent together and they accomplished it, then they could take the weekend off. This made them much more at ease with the freedom of my classroom. I saw more students keeping up and others realizing how easy it would be to get ahead. The reward of a “math-free” weekend was appealing to many. Others liked the idea that they could plan around athletic events and other school related commitments including work for other classes.

As that quarter rolled on and we moved into second semester, more students needed less of my guidance. They were now in control of the pace of their learning with the safety net of their teacher: me. Still a small handful asked for a pacing guide to be spelled out for them with daily in class and out of class tasks.

For each year since, I have eased my students into the freedom of being asynchronous. I offer them the support and guidance that they need to be successful. I check in with each of them at least once a week specifically about their pace and learning. I make frequent contact to parents, to coaches, and to counselors when appropriate. I encourage them to assess when they are prepared rather than when the schedule dictates. Students approach learning with some ownership and enjoy the control they have in the classroom. Their confidence is higher when they assess because it is their choice when they demonstrate their knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about asynchronous classrooms, please email Megan and Aric at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants

Friday, January 29, 2016

Let Kids Fail?

hybrid small.pngLike many of you, I have a young child at home. Watching him grow and learn has been one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. From teacher training and dad instinct, I know that letting him struggle with putting on his pants by himself, opening fruit snacks, and building Legos is best for his personal growth. However, whether it is to save time or avoid personal frustration or laziness, I sometimes “do it for him” and immediately regret that decision.

The patience and personal integrity it takes to let a learner struggle is difficult to achieve at times. This same difficulty translates to our Standards Based Learning classrooms. As my learners have zero extrinsic, mathematical motivation to complete a task or improve on already “proficient” work to achieve mastery, I am confident our assessment system is best for their learning. However, there have been multiple times this school year where I have had assignment X. For assignment X, we practice the skills necessary to succeed in class together with multi-faceted instruction, class wide feedback, multiple exemplars, differentiated instruction, and peer editing. In addition, learners have enough in class time (while I float around the room as a consultant to help) to finish 80% of the task, leaving about 10 minutes of at home time to finish. With respect to remembering due dates on assignment X, I remind the students verbally at the beginning and end of class, the date is posted on the board, and I send a text message reminder to their phone through Remind 101. On the due date of assignment X, 40% of the students complete the task on time. Many times, those that finish the task are often missing a key component or have a pronounced misconception within the task or merely replicate the exemplar.

Immediately, I turn the evaluative eye on myself and ask myself several questions about the task: Were the directions clear and given in multiple formats? Did the learners have sufficient background knowledge and practice of the standard(s) in a guided atmosphere in order to be expected to have some success on their own? Did the learners have equal and abundant access to resources that they needed in order to succeed. If the answers to these questions is yes, then I am left with the question of, “WHY?” Why did my learners not complete the task and/or struggle so prominently.

While there are a few possible answers, one of the first reactions in my head is to, “Just give them the right answer.” I know this would be the path of least resistance and easily put everyone on the same page. However, what does it do for the learner that got the right answer on his or her own on time? What does it teach the struggling learner about the standard(s) being assessed or about task completion? What will my child learn if I zip his own coat for him every time it takes his nimble little fingers an extra two minutes? The answer is, “Nothing.” In fact, just giving in, just giving the right answer, just having the teacher/parent do the work for the leaner/child is enabling, is placating, is condescending, is damaging.

If you are like me, you struggle with letting little people in your care struggle. However, you realize that this struggle is where more learning happens. If you are interested in hearing more about this idea, please email us at or follow up with the following articles below.

“When, and how, to let students struggle”

“Constructive Struggling”

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chants and Metophors

One of the criticisms in a Standards Based Learning classroom is that, “Kids won’t do tasks if they are not for points, if there are no carrots or sticks.” It is clear to see that this criticism comes from an established mentality of “the way we have always done it.” Why do toddlers build Legos without points or final grade? Why do high school athletes go to optional lifting sessions or practices without immediate, tangible rewards? While motivation is certainly part of the discussion, an overlaying paradigm that permeates students “doing tasks” without “carrots of sticks” is culture. What classroom culture have we bred to not just facilitate but also encourage learners to learn, and in many cases, “do extra”?

That’s nice, but what does building a positive SBL culture look like? While there are many factors that the teacher in the room cannot control or influence in the lives of learners, one tangible aspect that we as educators CAN control is the language used in the room. You may have noticed in these newsletters that we use the term “learners” more than students. This simple shift subconsciously, and in many cases consciously, places more emphasis on learning and being learners rather than playing school and being just students. For example, in my classroom, we call homework and activities and formative assessments “practice,” while summative assessments (that actually count towards final mathematical calculation of the final grade) “game time.” For more about the language we educators use with our learners, you might want to survey The Power of Words by Paula Denton, EdD. at

More specifically, in my classroom, we have several metaphors in class that we use to establish the cultural mood of the room. In the first week of school, we read the parable of “The Grasshopper and the Ant” ( Throughout the year, when formative practices are at hand, I remind the students that there is no extrinsic, mathematical reason to do the work of the task. Then I add that the grasshopper couldn’t see the long term damage of his present decisions either. Asking questions like, “Are you preparing for winter?” and “What did the ant do to make himself successful in the long term?” use this simple allegory as a way to help kids internalize seeing the future consequences of their immediate actions and to invest in learning, rather than put time in a chair to make the teacher happy.   

To further emphasize this point, we chant the lesson from this metaphor every day. We use one specific chant for about five weeks at a time. Starting the third day of school, then repeatedly every day, when the beginning bells rings, I walk in the door, shut it, and say, “Good morning.” After the learners say, Good morning,” I ask, “Who is going to be happy and healthy in the winter?” They respond, “The ant.” Yes this is cheesy, yes this is a bit below the maturity level of my teenagers. However, I am insistent that we say the words everyday. This enables me to consistently refer to the allegory all year and use the allegory in one-one conversations with kids who have missing work. Then, after some learners perform poorly on the first summative assessment, I don’t scold or reprimand them. I simply ask them how “ant-like” they were in the time leading up to the first “game.” They get it. And, more importantly, they start to see the vision, the benefit, the culture of Standards Based Learning.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a metaphor is worth a thousand pictures. My learners hear and practice these “one million words” everyday to build and breed an academic  culture that puts learning at the forefront.

Share you comments and thoughts below, email Aric and Megan at or visit

STEM and Flower Learning Consultants