Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Special education vs. standards based grading: I think we have a problem

Number one reads and writes at a 3rd-4th grade level. Lately, at age 15, his handwriting has become fairly legible.

We're proud of him. I didn't think he'd learn to read or write at all. it has been a long road with a lot of help from teachers, aides and, yeah, his parents.

Now, as a non-diplomate Setting II student with modifications, he's straining his brain to label mitochondria and endoplasmic reticulum while answering questions about demographic transitions. It's probably not the best use of his time, but he seems to enjoy the work and it's good practice for his reading and writing skills, and even for his very (very) short term IQ 60 verbal memory. We're proud of that too. 'A' work by our standards.

Not by the current standards of his mainstream teachers though. He's getting C- or Fail grades -- despite his IEP. At least one teacher feels this is appropriate since he's "minimally meeting expectations".

Yes, we have a problem.

It's not a new problem. It amazes me how many of his teachers have been unable to read an IEP, and how many seem to lack any low IQ experience. Usually this responds to some education and orientation, but things have been getting worse over the past two years. I think part of the problem is that his school is moving to a recent educational fashion: 'standards based grading'...

Educational Leadership:Expecting Excellence:Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading Patricia L. Scriffiny

... standards-based grading, which involves measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives (Tomlinson & McTighe, 2006). Although many districts adopt standards-based grading in addition to traditional grades, standards-based grading can and should replace traditional point-based grades....


An A means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives and advanced work on some objectives.
A B means the student has completed proficient work on all course objectives.
A C means the student has completed proficient work on the most important objectives, although not on all objectives. The student can continue to the next course.
A D means the student has completed proficient work on at least one-half of the course objectives but is missing some important objectives and is at significant risk of failing the next course in the sequence. The student should repeat the course if it is a prerequisite for another course.
An F means the student has completed proficient work on fewer than one-half of the course objectives and cannot successfully complete the next course in sequence....


Students who struggle can continue to retest and use alternate assessments until they show proficiency, and they are not penalized for needing extended time. I guide students with special needs to modify their work and, if needed, develop different ways of demonstrating that they've met their proficiency goals. Their working styles can be easily accommodated in this system because modified assignments and assessments require no special adjustments in the grade book. The grade book simply shows where they are in meeting the standards, without reference to how they are demonstrating their learning or what modifications needed to be made....

I wonder what Ms. Scriffiny means by 'meeting the standards'. Does she mean the unadjusted course objectives, or does she mean adjusted standards? Her meaning is unclear, and that is the crux of the question. Other articles I've found on 'standards based grading' suggest that grades for non-diplomate Setting II students are problematic.

This really isn't a complex problem. There are two ways to think about this, and they both lead to the same outcomes.

One approach is to adjust the goals, and then grade on the adjusted goals. This is an excellent approach, though it requires some thought and help to formulate goals and modifications. That can be a problem

There's also a budget approach. Start by asking what purpose grades serve for both mainstream (diplomate) students and corporate executives. They motivate work, they measure teacher or manager quality [1], and they are used to stream students and employees along different paths including promotion, lateral moves (from physics to biology for example), and termination. 

In that context a fixed standard makes sense. But number one is not going to graduate from High School. He is not going to go Michigan State University (his current dream). He is probably not going to have unsubsidized employment. He will probably never live independently. There is no point in streaming him, because he is not in the water. He was beached at birth. For him grades serve only two purposes - they can incent him or they can demoralize him

At the moment, his teachers seem to working on the second mission. Our job is to try to change that, working with both teachers and school leadership. Failing that, our job is to find him a better learning environment.

[1] Alas, both corporations and classrooms are prone to the stack-ranking disease.

See also:

Update: A valued advisor of mine suggests this language be added to the IEP. It says to the teacher, "STOP.... you can't grade the way you normally do."

The case manager may reduce course assignments in number, length, content or weight. Alternative assignments need to be arranged between case manager and teacher.

Grading Modification:

Grading may be based on a student’s personal effort in consideration of the student’s own skills/strengths and disability. Casemanager will help determine appropriate grading. Factors such as attendance, class participation, or other appropriate measures should be used to determine a grade if necessary.
Student should not be graded based on meeting the course requirements set for non-disabled peers. Instead, grading should be based on ...

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