kitchen table math, the sequel: Portfolios and Finals

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Portfolios and Finals

I need to know if this is common for middle school. Work gets done, stays in portfolios at school and then comes home at the end of the year. It's too late to learn from the material or to question the result. One of those portfolios came home with my son today. It was for a thematic project that covered many subjects and was completed months ago. He had to give himself a rubric grade,so he gave himself a 4 out of 5. I'm sure his friends gave themselves a 5.

However, our school uses a nonlinear rubric grading system where a 5 is something like an A+, or more, if you ask some teachers. He brought home a final test today where he got 128 out of 130 questions correct. He got a 4. The teacher told them that only those (one student) who got a perfect score received a 5. On top of that, they are not allowed to bring home the test, just the first page of the answer sheet showing the grade. Parents have to sign this page and send it back. In math, the teacher wasn't going to tell them their grades on the final. They had to ask. And forget about seeing the test or bringing it home. Apparently, they reuse tests. I find that astounding.

I told the principal earlier in the year, in a firm but nice way, that I want all homework and tests graded in a timely fashion and sent home. Apparently, that can't or won't happen. I also asked her about some related impossible 5 issues and grades and she said that it really doesn't matter. The high school won't know about the grades. Ha, ha, ha.

Then there are issues with teachers using grades as weapons against kids. They tell the class who got what grade. This isn't across the board, just selective. The school makes a big deal about their bullying policy, but they should add a section on bullying by teachers. My son didn't want to bring in a note for PE class due to a sore ankle because the gym teacher would call him a baby. He's seen it happen to other kids. That reminds me. That low/high ropes session he went to a while back wasn't about teambuilding. It was about boot camp work versus punishment. It was at a National Guard facility. All of the kids were given stupid names by the drill sergeants and had to do push-ups if they did something wrong. They had to do things in teams just like how new recruits have to do things in teams.

31 comments:

Cranberry said...

"I told the principal earlier in the year, in a firm but nice way, that I want all homework and tests graded in a timely fashion and sent home. Apparently, that can't or won't happen."

Do you think your administration directs what teachers do? Or do they only present a veneer of control?

"They had to do things in teams just like how new recruits have to do things in teams."

In a school setting, for my eldest, doing something individually would be a new experience.

Anonymous said...

Steve,

I just got a bunch of stuff home, too, and was horrified.

In English, my son was supposed to journal daily, just for himself. Well, of course, he wouldn't be revealing his deepest thoughts and opinions unless he was forced to, so he did the best he could.

Although the teacher checked to make sure it was done, there were no corrections because we want him to ENJOY writing. The notebook never came home, either.

Because no one was really checking, my son just kept misspelling several typical middle school words, searing them wrong into his brain. I don't know why I'm shocked, it's not like they give out spelling lists or correct it in their essays.

But, if I had known, i would have informed them that he was not to write anywhere that wasn't going to be looked at by a teacher or me. The damage I've had to undo the last two years is unbelievable. And my kid is not a bad speller, he's just incredibly average and doesn't care.

The other thing that kills me is how hard I work with him at home on spelling while the school just works against me. Somehow, he's supposed to fly into honors English knowing how to spell without being taught or corrected.

I also tried to get specific information about his Spanish grade since he started at an A and recently dropped to a C. I was just told he was "checked out" and needed a review.

I tried to get more specifics by asking the same thing in different ways, but to no avail.

I even asked for a test to find out where the gaps were, but that question was just ignored. I'm just supposed to spend the summer hunting for what he didn't get at the end of the year.

So, my long-winded answer is that we don't get any specifics here either, until it's too late. And we sure don't see tests.

SusanS

Anonymous said...

One of the committee report's to last year's Natl Math Panel Report talks about the obscenely high rate of errors they found in US Algebra textbooks.

If the textbook contains numerous, repeated errors, it only makes sense that the supplied tests and answer keys do as well.

The practice you're describing prevents parents and students from pointing out these mistakes.

It's not just the grade. The student who understood a problem and did it correctly is mystified and then antagonized when the teacher insists a wrong answer is right.

Catherine Johnson said...

That low/high ropes session he went to a while back wasn't about teambuilding. It was about boot camp work versus punishment. It was at a National Guard facility. All of the kids were given stupid names by the drill sergeants and had to do push-ups if they did something wrong.

Yeah, that's great.

This is why we're having a revolution in my town.

Sort of.

Catherine Johnson said...

I also tried to get specific information about his Spanish grade since he started at an A and recently dropped to a C. I was just told he was "checked out" and needed a review.

wow

boy

things are hopping around here

it's probably worth reading this entire post, starting at the bottom and moving to the top, to get a sense of how many answers we're starting to get around here

Catherine Johnson said...

we'll see how long this lasts, but it **feels** as if we've moved closer to a situation where parents ask for answers AND GET ANSWERS BECAUSE THEY'RE ENTITLED TO ANSWERS.

but, we'll see

Catherine Johnson said...

to be honest, there are several questions 'outstanding,' including a FOIL request I was turned down on

still and all, the fact that parents are FOILing documents is significant

SteveH said...

"Or do they only present a veneer of control?"

That's exactly what I was wondering. How much control do they really have over teachers? What is the culture in most schools? I get the feeling that it's not the usual manager-worker relationship.

lefty said...

These delayed, all-at-once hand backs are common in our elementary school, going all the way back to first grade. I believe it's a deliberate attempt by schools to ration top grades, while at the same time ensuring that these grades don't favor the traditional "egg heads" and "math buffs" (for that, of course, would be elitist).

The strategy, as far as I can tell, is as follows. Rather than give children conceptually challenging material and reserve high grades for those who show mastery (which would favor the eggheads and math buffs), schools assign easy stuff where most kids ceiling out at the conceptual/analytical level, and then use rubrics biased towards subjective or trivial dimensions like "creativity," "effort," "neatness" (a.k.a. "going beyond the standard").

The delayed hand-backs are to make sure not too many parents wise up to what's going on until it's too late.

SteveH said...

When my son's art portfolio came home, it included a typed note saying that we should review the daily teacher work sheets on the back (containing small rubrics with circled numbers - worthless, by the way, especially at the end of the year and not connected with any work). This is the first we've seen any of this all year. One of the rubric sheets had been glued on top of another and the teacher's note said that we could lift it off to see what was underneath. Hello! It was glued on. To cap it off, the generic teacher's note said that parents should review the work and perhaps decide to sit down with our child to determine a plan of action?!? This was a note we had to sign and return.

SteveH said...

"...delayed hand-backs ..."

I agree that it's to keep parents in the dark. I was told once that the state requires portfolios, but that isn't true. It's only required for carefully selected tasks in high school.

Schools claim that portfolios represent the total work or capability of a student, but who is the portfolio for? Surely it's not for the parents, and it's not for the teachers. They've already evaluated the work and put a grade into their gradebook. But I've been told on several occasions that work can't come home because it has to go into the student's portfolio. They claim that if it goes home, then it may never come back to the school. parents are told that they can come in any time (scheduled) to look at the work. But nobody does that. Nobody looks at the portfolios; not teachers, not students, and not parents. All I can conclude is that the school is trying to keep parents in the dark. Another possibility is that it allows teachers to take forever to look at and grade the work.

SteveH said...

Even if things are not put into portfolios, some work never comes home. Reading and LA this year were black holes. I have almost no idea what went on in those classes. The principal told me that the teacher starts each class with a grammar lesson. I told her that it was news to me. I haven't seen a single thing come home; not a worksheet or a test. We have to trust them.

Anonymous said...

Middle School LA and Reading were black holes in our school, also. I have no idea what they were doing and nothing came home.

Only in the gifted pullout did he actually write any papers or essays.

SusanS

lgm said...

We don't get portfolios at the end of the year. The English Dept is a black hole. Middle school students do not earn grades; grades are subjective and basically are there to make sure that only certain kids get into honors English. The rest of the sorting is by state test scores. 1s and 2s are mandated double period. 3s are single period. There weren't enough 4s to make a class section in any grade.


Math returns the 2 quizzes given each quarter. The tests are reviewed in class and kept by the dept. Each child has a summary sheet containing his test grades, parent must sign after each test. Parent can come in and review test. Homework is checked in class by the student as the class goes over it; h.w. never leaves student's possesion. Last year the policy changed so that the math teachers are now responsible for id'ing students that need extra help (defined as scoring under a 67 or totally messing up the h.w.) and arranging the help session rather than the student being responsible.

On the 1,2,3,4,5 grading: the elementary here uses this style. A top grade is given for perfect work if work is considered grade level. A top grade is also given for perfect to slightly less than perfect if work is considered above grade level. The state testing is very similar...in LA for example, the top grade scoring allows for 0,1,and sometimes 2 points missed out of 38-43 possible.

Susan, my kid's spanish grade was a joke this year. I don't think it's funny b/c he was trying to maintain his average to stay in NJHS. Nutshell: 2 incompetent long-term subs that just made up grades after playing bingo with the 100 words most likely to show up on the state profieciency exam. #3 is competent; kiddo's grade is where it should be. I am quite thankful that the text publisher has a CD that can be bought by parents; otherwise this would have been a wasted year.

lgm said...

>>Only in the gifted pullout did he actually write any papers or essays.

Here, compositions are only assigned routinely in the honors sections of English and Social Studies. The Eighth Grade SS DBQ was not even taught in the nonhonors sections.

Exo said...

Oh, portfolios that never come home... From my experience in teaching middle school - the portfolios are not intended for the parents, or students, or teachers... They are kept in the classroom as evidence of "students' work" in case the quality review people come in and wonder. The teachers in middle school are also required to put evidence of students' work on the bulletin boards for the visitors to see.

Exo.

SteveH said...

"They are kept in the classroom as evidence of "students' work" in case the quality review people come in and wonder."

Do officials (?) ever come in to review the portfolios? Is this a real process, or an excuse? My impression is that the school doesn't want parents to see what's going on. If less work comes home, then they will get less calls. When I get the portfolio or work back months later (or never), it's too late.

All of this brings up a question I have about high schools and GPA. High school classes must return homework and tests on a timely basis. Grade point matters, even if you aren't shooting for a top 10 ranking. Do high schools do that, or do they harass students if they seem too worried about every last grade?

Doug Sundseth said...

SteveH: "Then there are issues with teachers using grades as weapons against kids. They tell the class who got what grade."

It is my understanding that this is a violation of federal law (FERPA). For more information, you might try this page. Big sticks are not just available to schools.

FWIW, I think the law is misguided, (competition is valuable) but selective releases of information to expose students to ridicule is unconscionable.

SusanS: "The other thing that kills me is how hard I work with him at home on spelling while the school just works against me. Somehow, he's supposed to fly into honors English knowing how to spell without being taught or corrected."

Writing and spelling are the big problem my son had last year (3rd Grade). "Kid spelling" has done an amazing amount of damage. He averaged about a 95% on weekly spelling tests, but years of encouraging incorrect spelling means that when he is actually writing, he misspells at least 1 word in 6. Worst of all, when you ask him how to spell the misspelled words, he gets at least half right. (My diagnosis is that he is not transferring the skills from spelling tests to writing; they're compartmentalized.)

He had three-paragraph papers nearly every week this year (a good thing), but the teacher was a complete ignoramus about writing. Example: The teacher recommended that students start each paragraph with a "topic sentence" like, "This paragraph is about...." Remediating that (both the process and the necessity) made me angry.

When coupled with the teacher's utter incapacity at managing a classroom, the year was pretty bad.

Exo said...

"Do officials (?) ever come in to review the portfolios? Is this a real process, or an excuse?"

In NY, quality review was (and as I hear, IS) a big thing. Yes, they do.Or at least, they may. And the first place where the principal will look is also bulletin boards and porfolio stacks.

I teach in a Catholic HS now, and I always try to return tests/quizzes/labs the next day... But do they get home? I have no idea.

SteveH said...

Thanks Doug.

I don't have a problem with competition or even posting grades with no names, but it's different than that. I've noticed that a few of the teachers my son has had try to be cool with the kids, but then use a variety of tools, like barbs, sarcasm, and jokes for class control. Sometimes it escalates to much more than that, like classroom humiliation. The problem is not mainly about public grades.

I've heard these stories from my son for years, ("The teacher did what?") but I never had proof and could never trust my son's spin or lack of all the facts. He is in seventh grade and I get more of the full story, but then comes the issue of what rises to the level of making a big deal about it. For the state testing grade episode, I mentioned it nicely to the principal and found out later that the teacher denied it.

Ben Calvin said...

Well so far so good w/ us (we're in a parochial elementary school). Class work and exams are sent home, graded, each Wednesday. While we're only through 3rd I believe this is standard through 8th grade.

Coincidentally, I was chatting the other evening with a pleasant fellow who teachers 2nd grade at the local Friends school ($21,815/yr). He was busy preparing the students portfolios for the year. No work goes home before then. I asked him what math programs the use: TERC. He was surprised I had heard of it.

Anonymous said...

Don't be fooled by anyone. Portfolios have nothing to do with children. They are a tool used by the administration to control the faculty. Instead of having the courage or information to work with teachers who are not doing their jobs, they mandate portfolios so they can keep tabs. The entire system fails because every teacher is now afraid to lose a piece or have his portfolio not be as complete as his neighbor's.

Catherine Johnson said...

Don't be fooled by anyone. Portfolios have nothing to do with children. They are a tool used by the administration to control the faculty.

Anonymous is absolutely right -- I can't say why, but during one of the many paens to portfolios delivered by our various administrators it suddenly hit me: this is about checking up on the teachers.

I should have taken notes on that moment....there may have been a teacher present, who confirmed what I was thinking in the moment I was thinking it.

That said, portfolios do keep parents at bay, which is a central component of administrative policy and practice in my district.

Paul B said...

Check this out. We started the year with the following mandated sequence at the end of a unit, of which there are eight per year.

1. Daily Journal Entry
2. End of sub unit Mathematical reflection
3. End of sub unit Demand Task
4. End of Unit Project
5. Unit Post-Assessment
6. (next) Unit Pre-Assessment

Numbers 2-6 were to be graded with feedback and placed in a portfolio. Fortunately, teachers pushed back on this on the grounds that most of the year would be spent assessing the things we would not have time to teach. As a result of this push-back the pre and post unit assessments were dropped.

This turned out to be a good news, bad news result however, since those were actually useful assessments. The others? Not so much.

In order to truly assess where your kids are at you still have to come up with your own unit assessment.

Oh! By the way, nobody has asked to see my portfolios yet this year (4 days to go).

SteveH said...

"...this is about checking up on the teachers."

Wow! I would never think of that! I don't have enough information to even come close to that interpretation, but I have talked about the school veil in the past. This is one of those things. Maybe that's why I've always thought there was something funny going on. Teachers were being weird about portfolios. They wouldn't let things come home because they thought that the work would never return to school. It's an understandable reaction, but they make a REAL BIG DEAL about it. I wondered why portfolios were that important. Who were they for?


As for viewing the portfolios, it's been made quite clear that they don't want parents to come in to see the portfolios. Besides, why is the onus on parents to take time off from work to schedule meetings and come in every week or so and run around to various teachers to see portfolios. I don't even know what's in them. To top it off, my son tells me that many things NEVER come home, even at the end of the school year.

If you don't come in every week, then it's too late to close the feedback loop. On top of that, many teachers seem to take forever to grade work. I wouldn't know when to come in to see the portfolio.


Everything goes into the portfolio black hole and all we parents get are weekly stickers on a planner with rubric numbers on them. The school tells us parents to look at the numbers and ask our kids about them. OK. I ask my son and he doesn't have a clue most of the time. We have to sign the stickers and return them. This is just like my son's Spanish final where I had to sign the first page of the answer sheet and send it back in. I can't even get to see the test. He got a 4 out of 5 rubric grade even though he got 128 out of 130 questions correct. At least he knows what nonlinear means.

I'm sorry, but why am I just finding out about this now, when my son's in seventh grade. I've already told the principal and several teachers (over the years) that I don't like portfolios and that I want the work to be graded promptly and sent home. They just say that portfolios are necessary or something like that. Perhaps they just say that this is the way things are done. They are lying to me. They don't want to discuss it so they brush me off.

This is just like my astonishment that I can't find out what is being taught in each class. I ask for a syllabus and they look at me funny. They put a very vague framework online and think that's good enough. I can't really complain because how do I do I tell them that it's astonishing that parents have no say in what is taught and how it's taught? How do I tell them that it's incredible that their is no detailed syllabus of what is taught in each class? How do I get them to knock off this portfolio crap and send the work home? Do teachers really think this is somehow a better form of teaching? I always knew that many educators were infatuated with portfolios, but I never figured out why they were so weird about not sending the the work home.

OK. What else do schools and teachers know that they aren't telling parents? Please tell me that many, many teachers think that the whole system is screwed up.

Anonymous said...

Do teachers really think this is somehow a better form of teaching?

SteveH, I can speak only from my experience - I taught in middle school in NYC, and now I teach in a Catholic HS in NJ.
When I started teaching - there was NO curriculum for science in my school! Since I was hired to teach Biology Regents, I took a year plan from a HS where I did my student teaching and re-wrote it to make it more logical and to make sure to include the point important to understanding of bio. Then I looked at what I need students to know BEFORE they come to biology to be able to understand it, and wrote the plan for my 7th grade General Science class. The rest of our science teachers did whatever... (The Scope and sequence for middle school science, for instance, included simple machines in physics back to back with mendelian genetics!)
What syllabus are you talking about? In my middle school that was something unheard of.

Now, I teach HS. I have sent letters to parents and gave syllabi o students with exact sequence of topics studied for each course, grading policies, my contact info etc. I thought it was apprpriate though nobody asked me to do so. Now, at our last meeting, the principal asked that teachers started to create syllabi for their courses and gave mine as example. More than half of teachers did not have any syllabi.

In addition, I have my grades online, so students and parents can look them up (personal accounts). I have been reprimanded for giving final exam grades away (speak of showing the exams!) to students - our administaration withholds grades of students who did not pay the tuition...

Exo

Catherine Johnson said...

Wow! I would never think of that! I don't have enough information to even come close to that interpretation, but I have talked about the school veil in the past. This is one of those things. Maybe that's why I've always thought there was something funny going on. Teachers were being weird about portfolios. They wouldn't let things come home because they thought that the work would never return to school. It's an understandable reaction, but they make a REAL BIG DEAL about it. I wondered why portfolios were that important. Who were they for?

Right.

Schools are a black box, intentionally so.

I'm trying to reconstruct how I came to this perception, and I think part of it was that we kept hearing about how we were going to have uniformity and, I think, 'equity' -- which meant that every teacher was going to teach the same thing(s).

That's a good goal; what my district is trying to do is make sure all kids are receiving the same education no matter which teacher they get.

But at some point it came to me that keeping all student work at the school FOREVER was actually a means of compiling a dossier on the teacher, not the student. (Or not only the student.)

And I'm 99% positive that a teacher sitting in the board meeting where I figured that out told me the same thing outright, almost in the moment I realized what was going on.

Anonymous said...

Doug,

We had all of that "invented spelling" stuff in the grade school, too. I just had no idea they would have still been supporting that concept all the way up to middle school.

I understand teacher's complaints that old fashioned spelling lists often don't work, but doing nothing doesn't work, either. My son's basic problem was a flat-out lack of practice.

With dioramas and projects cutting into writing assignments, I've had to, once again, create an alternative school to make sure my kid can write on level. All of the coloring and keyboarding didn't help, either.

When they decided to actually do something, it always resembled their typical band-aid approach--a patchwork of packets.

I think. I'm not sure because I only heard about them through my kid.

Maybe we should just call it the Middle School Black Box.

This should be a warning to parents of grade-schoolers going into middle schools. In some respects, it's even worse there. I know we're glad to be leaving.

SusanS

SteveH said...

"More than half of teachers did not have any syllabi."


!!!???!!! In high school?

Add this to Catherine's List of Continual Amazement.

SteveH said...

I read our official grading policy online today. It says that all work must be graded in a timely fashion and returned home, ... except for the mid-term test, the final test, and anything that might go into the student's portfolio ... "for assessment purposes".


This is from the Parent/Family Involvement Policy:

"... a child's education is a responsibility shared by the school and family ..."

the school "... shall establish programs and practices that enhance parent involvement .."

"- Communication between home an school is regular, two-way, and meaningful"

"- Parents play an integral role in assisting student learning"


Whatever.

Anonymous said...

SteveH, you should have seen MY face! (Well, the curriculum for the courses did not exist either - just some papers dated in 1990 with vague objectives that did't tell me much. So I ended up creating a sequenced plan for Biology, Anatomy and Physiology, Environmental Science, and Physical Science).
I used to think about Catholic schools much better, too... Or, perhaps, it's just my luck.

Exo