Teachers across Orleans Central Supervisory Union have been working on shifting their grading and reporting practices over the last few years. In a standards based or proficiency based grading system, the emphasis is on student demonstration of learning towards proficiencies. This is done by collecting student evidence and using learning scales to assess if students have met the proficiency. Learning scales are synonymous with rubrics with a distinction that learning scales describe what students can do, are void of frequency words, and focus on the positive development of skills.
At Lake Region, several teachers have been using and refining learning scales to assess students for several years now. This month, I sat down with Christina Suarez, Social Studies Department Chair, to discuss the evolution of learning scales in her classes, the project that she participating in with Great Schools Partnership, and how learning scales have changed her grading practices.
Q: When did you first learn about learning scales and what was your impression of them?
My memory goes back to Common Core and our work implementing those standards. In 2012-13 we started using a rubric concept but it was more of a tool for teachers. Once the state started moving to proficiency (with Act 77 & the Education Quality Standards) rubrics started to be student focused and having students own the language of each proficiency. For example, Bloom’s Taxonomy traditionally is about teacher talk not student talk. The kids needed to understand this language, so that is were the idea of learning scales evolved from thanks to LR social studies teacher Johanna Pastel. She attended a kids’ cognitive workshop a few years ago, which resulted in us switching to “I can…” statements, but kept the academic vocabulary embedded in the learning scale. This was to make sure that we were keeping with academic rigor
My first impressions of learning scales? The switch became a conceptual shift that focused on skills. For example, in social studies it was about using primary source documents to support claims and arguments...so it became more about students using skills compared to just memorizing and regurgitating facts.
Q: Tell me about the project that you did with Great Schools Partnership?
Back in 2014-2015 when Great Schools Partnership was working with the Vermont Agency of Education (AOE). We were tasked with working on the language of transferable skill proficiencies. It was a knitty gritty and tedious process. The most difficult thing about the work was that it was hard without student work. Two years after we did that initial work, we went back to the AOE with student work and it was really eye opening. The conversation became about revision and what was missing. The student examples really helped shape our thinking of the design of the performance indicators.
Q: What was the learning curve like for designing learning scales and using them to assess students?
The debate has always been whether or not to include all categories in the 1 through 4 system of grading. Looking at learning scales, you can see the building blocks but it is all inherent in the process. The learning is all scaffolded:
Q: How have students responded to the use of learning scales to determine their grades?
Before learning scales, students use to not be required to do the revision process. They got what they got for a grade and moved on. Change was less significant with this approach to learning. We still get some of that but kids are starting to adjust and we believe after students have experienced this for a few years students will internalize this growth-mindset. Especially the students who are coming up through this new system. The days of judgement are over. The use of the targets is so foundational now. The number or grade isn’t as significant, it’s the learning and growth over time that occurs.
Q: How did that experience change your thinking or understanding of assessment?
For me it is about the revision process. My next challenge is supporting students and providing time for them. Especially for those who are struggling learners. Differentiation is key and I like some of the models that I see in elementary classrooms but it can be a hard balance with kids in high school sometimes.
Q: What has been your biggest take away from using learning scales to communicate student learning?
Grain size. Finding the medium ground with what to communicate in a grade. That idea of not too little or not too much so that it is overwhelming and is a turn off. And that is dependent upon the audience. The sand size details needed for teachers to assist students and for students to internalize their work, versus the bigger glass that parents want to see. For both parents and teachers, it’s ultimately about ensuring that we are measuring long term yearly goals and growth.
Q: For teachers new to the concept to learning scales, what would be your advice to them?
Student involvement is key. Make the kids as involved as much as possible with the language of the learning scales so that they know exactly what they are expected to know and do.
Christina Suarez has been a teacher at Lake Region High School for the past 16 years. During that time she has served as department chair of the Social Studies Department for 5 years and served on teacher leader groups for 8 years.