How do you fairly measure two students of different academic ability?
One way is to use a rubric. It’s cold and fair, giving a score on where each falls on the assignment. Aligned with the Common Core and it objectively shows if a student is on grade level. But, if you have heterogeneous classes, how can you push that scoring to better reflect progress, disincentivise coasting and add more options to your differentiated offerings?
Think sports. On a traditional scoreboard, one team earns a win and the other earns a loss–it does not matter if the teams are evenly matched, mismatched, or how close the score is. After the match, one team is 1-0 and the other 0-1. Those of us who have watched underdogs come close–or triumph–know that the score does not always reflect what happened on the field. Elo weighs those factors and results.
The Elo rating system is a method for calculating the relative skill levels of players in competitor-versus-competitor games. Created by Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-born American physics professor, it was originally used for chess. It has been adapted for other competitive sports, including football and soccer.
In short, Elo ratings give a score to two competitors prior to a match based on their ability, and update scores based on new results. Let’s say a poor team goes against a very good one. Intuitively, we expect the poor team to lose. If the poor team loses, their Elo score goes down, but not by much–no surprise in the results. The very good team rises in Elo, but, also, not by much–again, no surprise. We expect that outcome.
If, though, the poor team wins, they get a bunch of points in the Elo, and the good team loses a bunch. The poor team earns more in a victory than the very good team because their victory required playing above their norm.
If you use a more advanced algorithm, Elo can also account for the closeness in a score. If the poor team should have lost by a huge margin, but the game is close, their points lost are minimal–it recognizes they played above their norm. Similarly, the points gained by the very good team are also minimal, even with a win, because it should have been a blow-out.
Student Scores, Assignments and Differentiation
In using a rubric with a scale of 1 to 4, the struggling student will inevitably earn a 2. That score is accurate, but does not take into account risk, progress or the difficulty of the task. Similarly, a high achieving student typically collects 3s and 4s. No surprise. It is the sports equivalent of being 0-1 or 1-0.
With Elo the struggling student can score against the assignment, earning more for tackling one more difficult–even if they fall short. So, if a student who typically earns a 2 does well on a particularly difficult assignment, they might earn a personal score of 2.5. In addition, if the high flyer decides to coast, their scores will not be as stellar as if they chose a harder assignment. Perhaps, a 3.5 personal score instead of an automatic 4.
Not that the rubric should go out the window–that is the objective measure. It would make sense to have two scores–a cold rubric to have a norm, plus an Elo personal score. The former would be the equivalent of the scoreboard, the latter the classic Elo. This personal score would show the struggle.
Many teachers already offer differentiated assignments. Now, they can make it clear what each’s is score. Students could choose based not only on interest, but challenge.
Even more advanced, teachers could offer their normal assignments and use student scores to rate the assignment’s difficulty–the scores of various students would weigh it in relation to other students. There is a bit of bell-curve to this, but that’s why the Elo is for the personal score.
Elo Teacher Scoring
Another application is in balancing grades across varying teachers.
When a local high school implemented Proficiency Based Learning (PBL), and Proficiency Based Grading (PBG, aka SBG) it did not go smoothly. Those teachers who embraced the formative/summative model tended to produce higher grades, on average, than teachers who clung to the older rating system. At issue was the lead-up to assessments, supports and allowance of retakes in the PBL classes–with the emphasis on mastery, all that mattered was getting it in the end. Those old-school teachers tended to use one-and-done assessments, average everything into the grade, dock points for late assignments, and use a 100 points scale.
Whatever your position on PBL and PBS the debate exposed the age-old debate of “easy” teachers vs. the old-school hard -ss. As GPA becomes more and more important for college acceptance (even if that is only a teenager’s perception) many students are avoiding hard graders and hard classes because of real and perceived grading discrepancies. That’s a crime.
But what if teachers were graded using the Elo? Each class could be averaged for GPA and an Elo assigned to that teacher based on that average. Then, when a student earns a grade in that course, a second Elo score is used to indicate relative difficulty of the teacher. A more advanced algorithm might take into account individual student GPA in relation to each class’ earned grade. And even adjust teacher Elo based on that. If not on the transcript, it might at least give administrators and teachers an idea of grade inflation or deflation. Correlated with other measures–SAT and the like–it might show which teachers make students earn their learning, and which are just difficult.
A few years ago, I was tasked with finding a method with which we could easily create a middle school, and school-wide schedule. Each year it felt like we were reinventing the wheel. If a template could be found it might make the year-to-year slotting less stressful. Although there was a lot on philosophy–especially around block classes and integration within the middle school–it was surprising how few resources were available when it came to the nuts and bolts of laying out a workable schedule.
Traveling from site to site, some lessons did bubble up. Here are my suggestions for a pre-K through 8 school, but it would apply to any self-contained middle school program or a school with diverse needs that share resources.
Recognize that everyone has different needs, but a win-win is possible. People talk about the need for compromise. I disagree. There are some non-negotiable items for a program to run effectively–and if it’s not running effectively, why have it? If those needs are made plain, it is always possible that everyone gets them met. The trick, then, is for people to identify what they need for students to learn and get away from a) old ideas of how that happens and b) the idea that everything is essential.
Why don’t people see them? Because most of our needs are taken as a given. Much of our current practice has evolved over time (there is plenty written about the glacial pace of change in education, which is then compared, unflatteringly, to the business world, which is change, change, change). The PE teacher, for example, assumes access to the gym. But there are less obvious assumptions made all of the time.
The counter to this is that people, probably long ago, fit their needs to the old system. Why is math sixty minutes? Because it was ten years ago when the math teacher was hired and put the program together. This stuck-in-the-mud rationale is pretty familiar. The challenge, then, is to identify those underlying needs. I know of one school that would not have PE move to eighty minute blocks because, the teachers believed, kids could not sustain activity for more than thirty minutes. The focus then became creating healthy, active students with stamina. For that math teacher, can students focus on math for longer than an hour? No? Perhaps. But is that because of the delivery (lecture), or are brains unable to focus on problem solving for a set period of time before needing a break. Both have different solutions, but are solvable.
See the week. A schedule is not a day, but a school week. While people may not get what they need on Monday, or daily, they should be able to get it at some point in the week. I would encourage people to think longer than that, too. Inspired by J-Term at many colleges, where students do an intensive month-long immersion in a topic, I have tried coaxing my colleagues to host a week-long version each quarter. Imagine a solid day of writing, every day for a week. Or art, science, math or PE! It would be transformative for those students who see only the drudge of the subject day-in and day-out. So, if you’re feeling outrageous, think about trimesters or being untethered for some things.
Start with blocks. To that end, let’s assume you have a six hour day. Divide that into four 90 minute blocks. Then, divide each block into two 45 minute blocks. You now how 8 units to work with.
Note: In a pre-K through 8 school, 9 units might work better; one for each grade level. In that case, divide the six hour day into three 120 minute blocks. Divide each block into three 40 minute blocks. You now have 9 units to work with, forty minutes each. Now you will create a list.
Which classes require a full block, and which require half? A PE teacher from another school once told me her students could not sustain the class for longer than 45 minutes because of focus–they got hyper and it became dangerous, especially with the firth graders. On the other hand, Social Science teachers tend to prefer blocks because they can mix in a lesson, a video, an activity, some reading and some writing over than time. By creating 120 minute blocks, you have the option of dividing them into halves instead of thirds, or creating hour-long units. Many math teachers do not like classes longer than an hour, but don’t want only 40 minutes.
What, then, are the limits of everyone at the table? Then, who compliments whom? Can they go back-to-back? Sometimes, this is impossible. But I know of one school that is primarily multi-age put Math, which is grade level based, against World Language, also grade level based. It wasn’t perfect, but it worked better than locking Langauge Arts in by grade level against a teacher’s will. Our school divided the Unified Arts (UA) classes into those who took Band and those who did not–the split was 50:50. Unfortunately, those who did not take Band were a bit more unruly as a group and they terrorized the UA a bit.
Note people’s comfort with consistency. Many grade levels wanted predictable breaks—lunch at this time, and prep at another. Some felt kids learned certain subjects best in the morning, while PE was not recommended for Kindergarteners at the end of the day. Others, though, liked every day to be different. One year our Tuesday morning began with three UA blocks in a row. After making it through Monday, I had that morning to photocopy, correct and get ready for the week. It felt like a deep breath. These folks are your hole plugs. That odd time where the gym is open on Thursday morning, or Music has three slots on Thursday can be filled with these flexible folks. Be sure, though, to ask them what THEY need in return.
But that might drive folks nuts. Some people love it to be the same every day. For students, consistency is calming, and there is nothing more important than to decrease stress. For teachers, too. Lead participants towards their comfort level.
Reward flexibility. Some people has too many demands. Others have one, and a good reason. Work with those who are reasonable. I call them the “coalition of the willing” and they can be an administrator’s best resource. Solution people should always get the resources. Soon, the others will crawl into a hole or join. Only so many people can fit into that hole, and everyone in the sun will quickly leave them there until the administration is well justified in getting them out.
It’s a process. Some people seem disappointed when the committee has to reconvene. They expect a few tweaks, perhaps, but the idea of someone coming back to the table with real bones to pick is often a surprise. That group, often with legitimate concerns, or at least fears that need to be assuaged, needs to e respected for any schedule to have power and longevity.
Expect outright rejection. The best plans result in flaws being spotted early. With rejection, the participants have made clear they take the process seriously. Better now than in October. Your job is to manage emotions, because going back hurts. Those who got what they want are going to be loath to change a thing. And they have the power of inirtia on their side. Help people see that it is a process, and be ready to scrap everything if that’s what it takes.