Transcript #20 Going Gradeless in the Traditional Classroom with Starr Sackstein

Ti-Fen (9s): Welcome to Compass Teachers show I’m your host Ti-Fen.  My job is to interview Teachers around on the road and tease out their teaching practice, education research, or tools they use. Hopefully this show can offer us ideas for you to experiment in your classroom. Hey, this episode is all about Hacking Assessment. If you have been thinking about changing your assessment but don’t know how to do it, I hope in this episode, you can get some practical action to take. 

If you have never thought about changing this episode will give you totally different insights. Today. We are really excited to have Starr Sackstein to share with her Amazing hacks for transforming these paradigms. Starr Sackstein has been an educator since 2001 and left her role as the director of humanities in the West Hempstead Union Free School District to become a full-time consultant with the Core Collaborative. Starr was named an ASCD “Emerging Leader” class of 2016 and gave a TEDx Talk called “A Recovering Perfectionist’s Journey to Give Up Grades.” 

She has authored many books for teachers. For example , Teaching Students to Self-Assess,  Hacking Assessment: 10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School, Peer Feedback in the Classroom and the list goes on. Starr has traveled the world sharing ideas about assessment reform in Dubai and South Korea and is hoping to continue changing the system for kids everywhere. Now let’s enjoy our conversation with Starr. Starr will come to our show. 

Star: Thanks so much for having me.

Ti-Fen: So Starr from your word. We know that you put tan, so we were to help teach her changing how they Assess. But before we dive deeper into data, I guess, before you do all these endeavors or to change this paradigm, you might have been three or something wrong with you for a while. I’m curious what really triggered or you have to take action.

Star:  So for the first few years of my career, I would save it. It was pretty business as usual I did. Assess the wave that it was done to me when I was a student.  And, you know, I thought that gradeswere basically supposed to, to communicate what students knew, but there were a lot of other factors involved, like how well they were able to follow my rules and other compliance measures like late work and following directions, all of those different things kind of played in. And when I had my son and he got to middle and elementary school, those School used a standards based approach to learning and report card gave 

Star: (3m 0s): A lot of very specific information about what he knew and could do. And I was thinking about the AP students in my 12th grade English class and how ineffective report cards were. And the way that I was assessing really was because there was such little precision in the kind of feedback my students were getting in terms of their grades that I really started to rethink things. 

And at that point I started to read a bunch of books. The one that really got me going on this path would be Ken O’Connor’s book, a tool kit for broken grading, 15 fixes. And when I read that book, I really reflected deeply on the things that I was doing, that he claimed were the best practices. And the more I thought about it, the more I could see what he was talking about. 

For example, for group projects, grading group projects, and then giving that grade to everyone in the group, which is definitely something I did in my early career. And, and really what I learned was that grade was not necessarily representative of the contribution of each child in that group. So what did the grade actually represent? How well the product met the Mark, but it wasn’t necessarily fair or equitable or even close to communicating what each child’s contribution was. 

So I started to realize things needed to shift at that point. And once you could see something as not being as good as it could be, all of a sudden, you start to question all the practices that you’re doing, and that’s sort of where my journey started. Just not grading as much, giving better, more specific feedback, changing the way that I assessed both formatively and summatively. I stopped giving Traditional kinds of tests and started moving towards a student centered approach where students had a part and a voice in the kind of assessments they were engaging in. 

And then they also had a roll in, in how that assessment was then assessed after the fact, whether, you know, just making sure, but it was along with standards, but more importantly, that I wasn’t missing anything in their learning, through the use of reflection. 

Ti-Fen (5m 43s): Wonderful. So I think it’s a good time we dig into the alternative of assessment that optimizes you. This learning, first of all, I bet we need to change our perception of Assessment before doing any. And Starr, I think you have mentioned before in your story, how it triggers you to take action. So, sorry. How did you convey these to your students or parents, or even your school administrators? 

Starr (6m 14s): So that’s a, it’s a tricky question. I think when I first started doing this, I was the only teacher in my six to 12. Schools doing something that was so far outside of the normal New York city, public schools still required a grade at the end of each marking period. And so I had to find loopholes that were going to suit what I was trying to do and also fit what my school expected me to do. 

I don’t know if I really asked permission of my principal and the administration on my team. I think that I wanted to make sure I could get the results I was looking for before I had formal permission to do it, because it would have been harder to try what a, what I wanted to do and then Ask and get a no, and then have to find another way around it. So the, the first thing I sort of started to do was stop grading, everything that didn’t mean I stopped giving feedback. 

If anything, I kind of ramped up the feedback, but I didn’t actually put a grade on the formative aspects of the learning. So if my students were writing drafts, even if I was tracking the draft’s in our online communications system, rather than put a grade on the draft, they got specific feedback that aligned with the success criteria for the assignment. And they also got specific feedback that aligned with the goals they were working on individually. 

And that was the first major change I made. I made sure to reach out to parents via email and also by building a YouTube channel so that they can see what’s actually happening in the classroom and kind of explain some of the differences between what was happening in our classroom than other classrooms. And then I also tried to keep myself open if parents contacted me to answer their questions and concerns, because as the teacher of 12th grade students who were on their way into college, obviously a lot of AP students are concerned about their transcript and parents are worried that changing the approach or model at this point in a student’s career could somehow negatively affect their ability to get into college. 

So just really finding ways to alleviate concern, have parents and students that the learning would still be there, if not better and more communication about the specifics of what Students knew and could do. 

Ti-Fen (8m 58s): Right. So how did you explain to them that this way of giving feedback is a better way? 

Starr: So I’m sure, you know, and, and sort of your listeners that sometimes the proof is in the pudding as they say. So it took a little convincing at first, and there were conversations that I had with my Students very Frank and transparent about how we were going to be making the shift in. This was something new for me, but transparently explaining why we were doing it and then helping them understand how the Feedback they would get and the opportunities they would have to make revisions and spend more time with their work would increase their level of knowing. 

And the school itself was a portfolio School. So they were tracking their progress anyway, in the portfolio’s for all the classes that they were in. So this idea of using your learning as benchmarks and then tracking your progress through individual assignments was an opportunity for us to sort of say, you know, you’re going to keep working on something until your proficiency who are masterful at it. And you’re going to know if you’re proficient, who are masterful at it, because we’re going to have really clear expectations, success criteria is going to be visible. 

And then you’re going to have opportunities for, to advocate for help make revisions based on the feedback that you get, whether it’s pure feedback or feedback from me. And then you’re going to think about you’re learning over the course of that entire experience, the formative aspects of it, and then the summative, once you turn that project or a paper, and at the end, based on the feedback that you gave, you are going to write a really clear standards, aligned reflection that speaks about your process, so that you know, that I see the full picture and then your being assessed on something more completely. 

And I think when they started to see that and that they were getting so much more information than just agreed, most of my students actually really liked the fact that I took so much time to really make sure, but they were successful. And, you know, we were really using what they were learning and it, it was helping us kind of benchmark where we, where we were and where we needed to go. And again, that process just became a lot more transparent because it was their needs that were dictating how projects were developed and how quickly, or how slowly we are. 

Ti-Fen (11m 59s): All right.  Now we have talked about Feedback. So I think that’s a good segway. We can chat more about How teachers can construct the Feedback? In your blog. If you say that you will give oral and written feedback, besides one-to-one conferences with students become very important. So when you’re giving students written  Feedback, or talking with the, you know, one to one conference, what are your strategies for constructing feedback that’s helpful for students?

Starr: So, because my students were 11th and 12th graders, mostly the feedback was teaching them how to ask for the kind of help and Feedback they needed. I think a lot of students walk up to a teacher and say, is this good? Which is a pretty generic and subjective kind of question. So the first part of giving really effective feedback is teaching students to ask really good questions about what they want feedback about. 

So you’re structuring your classes like a workshop, and you have your mini lessons each day, and you see that students are struggling with specific things. The first and easiest way to determine how you’re gonna give feedback is based on the very specific skills your teaching them. So if we are learning about thesis statements or developing contexts and an introductory paragraph, or we are talking about transitions and cohesion, or we’re talking about development, any of those things, that’s where we’re going to start with the Feedback looking at what students do really well, because we want to make sure that we’re kind of building the Feedback out of their strengths and not out of their deficits. 

And we want to communicate to them why, what they’re doing is really good and how they could build on it. And then the areas of challenge we really want to make sure, but they understand, first of all, what it should look like. So there should be models and exemplars ready to point them to, there should be at least one or two strategies you could provide for them, if you want them to grow in a particular way. And then you need to give them time to ask more questions and practice the different things. 

And then come back to again and say, I tried strategies, and this is what I was able to achieve or strategy didn’t work for me. So I went to strategy be, and then I linked up with one of my friends and, you know, try to get some feedback from a peer seemed to be doing better with this area than I did. And you know, that kind of helped me try a different way. And that’s also how you get kids to start building their own goals as well, based on the feedback that we’re giving. 

So we wanna start first with were the whole class, his, and then as we are taking the status of the class before, there was one on one conferences, really trying to get a good idea of where the kids are as a group and where they are individually, so that you can really tailor the feedback that you’re giving to something more specific to this, to the student who is sitting in front of you.

Ti-Fen: That’s really great. Let’s review it first.  We know we need to teach them to act effective Feedback and in the Feedback for us, we need to ask you to why and how an O so some really practical examples that student and then give them some time to experiment and try to reflect with more questions. And I bet that Starr, you might get some questions or doubts from Teachers like saying, Hey, it sounds like it might take lots of time after day changing the letter Grades. And for that kind of question, how do you respond to Teachers or any tips that you would give them so they can keep Feedback in a more effective fashion? 

Starr: Okay. So this is also kind of a tough thing, and I do want to preface it by saying I did teach high school English in New York city schools. So I had a course load of 150 students in my five classes, or more than that, because classes were capped at 34. 

So it is possible to give really good specific feedback to that many students. It does take a lot of time. And as you’re building structures on the front end, you have to find things that are going to work for your kids. So whether you’re developing Google forms that align with the standards and what you are actually, what you’re actually Teaching, and you’re teaching students to reflect and think about learning through those forms. As you scaffold the process by midyear, it does become a lot less clunky. 

Then it is in the beginning of the year, when you are getting to know your students and your also building those structures that your going to be using, but it, but it is time consuming. And, and I would argue though, that Grades are a very efficient means of, of, of assessing students. It’s quick, it’s not terribly helpful, and it’s also not very accurate, but it is fast. So it’s a question of effectiveness versus a efficiency. 

And I think we would all agree that it’s more important that students get effective Feedback than it is for us to be efficient in the way that we’re giving them the feedback. So even another thing my teachers could consider as that, we need to relinquish the control in the space. And if we train students to be really good givers of Feedback as well, and that students need to get, get feedback from their peers before they get feedback from us, then we’re putting structures in place that diminishes the amount of time we have to spend on the front end, giving that first level of Feedback to our students, because we have made them really, really prepared to first of all, be independent in checking for their own Feedback, whether its with checklists or a success criteria or a clear rubrics. 

And then they’re going to peers who have fresh eyes who could look and give them the feedback as well. And when they decide to come to us on, let’s say the third ground, then they’ve gotten feedback from more than one person already. And those systems in itself take some of the burden off of us as teachers to make sure that every child is, is getting the Feedback they need. I will also say that you will not be able to give every child Feedback specifically every single day. 

I would think of it in terms of week long chunks instead of, you know, daily, especially if you walk around with like either an iPad or a M you know, some kind of sadness of the class where your carrying your clipboard and you’re just jotting down what you overhear, student’s talking about it and what you see them doing while you’re observing. And then you’re taking that information that you’re, that you’re gathering while you’re getting the status of the class to make some good decisions about how to adjust, adjust your lesson plans to, to really speak to where kids needs are. 

Ti-Fen: Hmm. I see. So Starr I said, I mentioned earlier in our conversation that I have read your book Hacking Assessment ,  there are two hacks, particularly stood out for me. The first one is Teaching reflection and inks do that for me, because I believe that it is useful for a lifelong. So would you mind giving us an overview about how you implement the lesson plan of teaching reflection? 

Starr: So to me, the most valuable gift I have given my students over the years is the gift of reflection and in purposeful reflection, because I think when students hear reflection, sometimes what they’ve been expected to do is maybe think about if they enjoyed a project, what they thought they got out of it, something really basic and maybe like a paragraph, but nothing that’s actually gonna speak to they’re learning and their process, but the metacognitive process, they went through to complete an assignment. 

So when I’m teaching students how to reflect effectively, there’s a whole process that I go through. The first thing that students have to do is that they have to restate what the assignment was asking them to do in their own words, not cutting and pasting from the document, but really articulating what they thought they had to do. And the reason I ask them to do this is I’m sure your listeners and your Self can empathize with sometimes thinking you created a very clear assignment and when you get the student work back, it doesn’t look anything like what you were expecting. 

And what I have learned over the time working in high school classes is it’s not always the student’s fault for, for having that miscommunication. Sometimes my directions weren’t as clear as they could be. So by asking students to tell me what they thought they had to do, it gives me an opportunity to really assess what they planned on doing. Instead of just assessing what I thought I asked them to do, which are always the same thing. 

So that’s step one paragraph where they’re talking about what the assignment was asking them to do. And then from there, they talk about how they completed the assignment. What steps did they take from start to beginning? Where did they struggle in the learning? How did they overcome those struggles? And then beyond that, they think about the standards were in the world. Do they exhibit the level of proficiency mastery around particular standards that the assignment was addressing and almost like writing an argument paper, they then have to go back to their project and find the evidence from the text that supports where they are on a particular standard. 

And Y from there they then give themselves, they give themselves a grade based on their level of mastery for the assignment. And they then also talk about what they would do differently next time, based on the experience they had with this particular assignment. So there’s a lot going on there. And if a teacher reads the student’s reflections prior to assessing the work, you can really get inside the head of the student and see what feedback you’ve given them along the way, because that will be a part of their process implementing the Feedback and then provide them more specific Feedback with their final product, or were they successful in the things they were working on? 

What should they be working on next? So those reflections really become integral in how you’re providing additional feedback and also assessing their learning because that reflection also fills a lot of gaps before I started inviting students into the process of developing the assessments as well. A lot of times what I was asking students to show me, didn’t always show everything they know. So having these reflections also gave me an opportunity to kinda see in the blind spots

Starr (24m 21s): that the Assessment  Itself didn’t really Assess the first step, What Assessment is asking them to do

Ti-Fen (24m 37s):. So is this a step before or after doing the Assessment there?

Starr: This reflection is after. So they completed the assignment and then before they submit the assignment, their doing this reflection as well, God, they are so own these a lesson plan will be implementing after they doing the Assessment right. It, it would be more goal setting before the Assessment. 

Ti-Fen: I see, I see. So the first step we’re asking them what assessments asking them to do. And the second would be how they accomplish this assessment is there any struggles in what kind of standard they accomplish and any evidence that can support that.  The final state would be a reflection on what  they can do differently next time. So the second hack impressed me a self-Grades. You said that when they’re, so report card crier, you ask your students to grade themselves, given they’re learning progress. Why do you think that we should empower students in valuing it themselves?

Starr: I think kids should know a lot more about themselves as learners. Then we give them credit for, I think a lot of the times they’ve never actually been taught to articulate with a vocabulary, the kind of things we want them to tell us, which is what the struggle is

Starr: But if we teach them about standards and we use the language of standards in our classes, and we align learning targets with the standards that we’re using, and then we co-construct success criteria together. So that the language is very much baked into what we’re doing. Students can then articulate how well they’re doing the, the, the other thing teachers can do that could make that easier as to, to develop progressions based on the standards so that students can really identify where on a progression they are based on the skill set that they have and the things they need to continue working on. 

So if we have student friendly progressions and Students can identify that they are at a specific spot on those progressions, then they know what they are shooting for as they move forward. And they know where they currently are based on that same theory. So we really just need to give kids language so that they could talk about their own learning. I know a lot of folks have asked me in the past, well, you know, won’t kids over grade themselves. 

Like, would they give themselves in a way, just because, and you’d be surprised to know that most kids are harder on themselves than we’d even be on them. There’s a really, really small percentage of students who would over, you know, that we would shoot for the delusions of grand jury. And even though they have no evidence to support where they are in those conversations, they might assess themselves higher. And really the only thing to do from there is just through, you know, turn it around and ask them again, what evidence do you have to support that assessment of yourself and then really make it a point for them to be able to demonstrate that understanding in a way that is tangible with real evidence. 

Ti-Fen: So what did you observe the changes in your students before and after you deploy gradeless Assessment or any story that you can share with us around the moment you realize your hacks are working?

Starr: Oh my God. First of all, the, the level of commitment to learning was increased completely. You know, everybody was like, well, if there were no Grades kids, aren’t going to work as hard. That was definitely not my experience. As a matter of fact, once the Grades were removed, even the students who weren’t your typical, your typical high achieving students, because they didn’t play the game of School had a much better opportunity to be successful because it wasn’t a matter of how many hoops could you jump through. 

It was a matter of how can you demonstrate what you know, and can do. And if I was being more flexible in the kind of Assessment that was going on, and students actually had a voice in the way they were assessed, some of those challenges, especially with the more School averse students, you know, became less because I wasn’t forcing them to do what I wanted them to do. I was listening to what they were saying, and I was giving them an opportunity to make decisions about how they showed they’re learning. 

And as long as their ideas were viable, I allowed them to move forward with them. And I think really over time, it became less about the Grades and more about improvement. That was the biggest shift. The conversations in class were less about, you know, what did I get on that? And more about I’m really struggling with this, or I really improved a lot on that. 

And the fact that they had the language to really articulate those things, made it even easier for me to adjust instruction when I needed too. And it really helps me see them as partners in the developing process in terms of, you know, instructionally, what was happening in the classroom. So there was more of a reciprocal relationship between me and the Students and there was a first and I wasn’t the only arbiter of what was good and great and what we learned. 

And I think that made the space a better learning environment, not just for the students, but for me also,

Ti-Fen:  That’s amazing. I think it’s definitely a win-win situation with deploying these new form or of Assessment. And thank you, Starr for sharing so much amazing ideas in a really clear steps, too, how a teacher,can take in their classroom. So the last few questions I have for you are there any books that have influenced your thinking a lot in the past few years? 

Starr: So like I mentioned before, the book by Ken O’Connor 15 fixes for broken grades, Rick Wormeli is a fair, isn’t always equal is another really good. One more recently, Joe Feldman’s grading for equity is really good. Mark barns is Assessment three point O and role reversal. Also a really good texts. Paul Bloomberg in parks and Barb Pitchfords impact team book, which is all about protocols for more specific PLC conversations around student learning. 

And, you know, I I’ve had a bunch of my, my own books, but there’s certainly a community Alfie cone also has great resources and he has been doing this work, you know, long before I was. And he’s a tremendous resource as well as somebody who knows a lot about helping kids learn without labeling their learning. 

Ti-Fen: That’s a really great list.. I will make sure that they are all in the show notes with also your books as well, to you personally, what is your a core value in education? 

Starr: I believe that every child has something valuable to add to a learning environment. And I believe that we need to honor every child and what those strengths are so that we can all grow as a group. And I think for too long education has segregated kids sort of sorted them into different categories and then ask them to play this game that often favors kids, kids with a lot, you know, whether it’s kids with money or a privileged kids of other kinds that set a lot of other students apart. 

So I think it’s really important that we know our students really well. And we create really inclusive environments that take into consideration the human beings that are sitting in front of us. And Assessment, shouldn’t make kids feel badly about the learning process. It should do the opposite. It should encourage and engage them to want to be a better learners from whatever their starting point is without judgment and without labels

Ti-Fen (33m 52s): So before we close up, do you have any other thoughts, programs or workshops? Do you want to share with our listeners? 

Starr (34m 0s): So there’s a lot of stuff going on right now. I work for the Core Collaborative right now. So would I do is I often coach teams through their assessment process? That’s that’s one thing I do on Fridays on Facebook. I do like a Q and a around Hacking Assessment and that one’s Free they could just show up and participate, ask questions while that’s happening. I have a new book coming out with ASCD in March, which is all about the intersection it’s called assessing with respect and its all about taking into consideration the social emotional needs of students when we make decisions about Assessment and there are also a bunch of online conferences that are going to be happening over the next six months that folks could participate in as well. I have all that stuff on my website 

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