Preparing Teachers for Grading Students With Learning Disabilities

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1 by LDW 2010 Preparing Teachers for Grading Students With Learning Disabilities Lee Ann Jung Thomas R. Guskey University of Kentucky Grading is a task faced by all teachers every day of their careers, yet it is one for which they are largely unprepared. Reporting the progress of students with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requirement for IEPs with which states struggle the most to comply (Etscheidt, 2006). In this article, the authors describe the 5-step Inclusive Grading Model (Jung & Guskey, 2007) for grading students with disabilities who are included in general education classes. They then provide recommendations for teaching the process in teacher preparation programs. T he day that report cards are sent home is one that can be filled with anticipation, excitement, and for many, anxiety or confusion. This anxiety and confusion are not only experienced by students, but also by many teachers. Grading is a task teachers face every day of their careers, and yet, it is a task for which they are largely unprepared (Stiggins, 2002). Teacher preparation programs are seriously lacking in providing teachers with adequate competencies in day-to-day assessment (Stiggins, 2007). Without sufficient preparation, teachers are missing important skills that are necessary to accurately capture student learning and make informed curricular decisions (Stiggins, 2007). In fact, reporting the progress of students with disabilities is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requirement for Individualized Education Programs (IEP) with which states struggle the most to comply (Etscheidt, 2006). Given this lack of preparation, it is no wonder that grading practices vary so widely (Reeves, 2008), leaving students and parents unsure of how to interpret the grades they see in print. Grading can be such a mystery to students that they often have no idea what will appear on their report cards. For students with disabilities, the process is even less consistent or clear. In an effort to improve the equity of grades for students with disabilities, most teachers make their own individual grading adaptations (Polloway et al., 1994). Examples of common grading adaptations include extra points for effort, altered grading scales, or differently weighted assignments (Silva, Munk, & Bursuck, 2005). Because individual grading adaptations in effect change the ruler by Insights on Learning Disabilities is published by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW). For further information about learning disabilities, LDW s many other publications and membership, please visit our website: 43

2 which achievement is measured, understanding the meaning of adapted grades is impossible. Does an A mean that the student met the criteria? Or does it mean the student demonstrated high effort? Maybe the A means the student participated well. Grading students with disabilities is not only one of the more difficult assessment tasks teachers face, but it is also one of the most common. By 5th grade, nearly 12 percent of students qualify for special education and related services (Herring, McGrath, & Buckley, 2006), with the largest category served being those with learning disabilities. The marked increase in the amount of time qualifying students spend in general education classes (Handler, 2003) means that developing teacher competencies in assigning fair and accurate grades to students with disabilities is needed in both general and special education teacher preparation programs. In this article, we describe a 5-step process (Jung, 2009; Jung & Guskey, 2007; Jung & Guskey, 2010) that personnel preparation programs can use in coursework and field placements to prepare teachers for grading students who have learning disabilities. We then provide recommendations for teacher preparation programs to teach the process. High Quality Grading Practices for All The model we have developed for grading students with disabilities builds upon a foundation of high-quality grading systems for all students. Teacher preparation programs must lay the groundwork for best practices in general for grading before adding practices for grading those with disabilities. Of the recommended grading practices in the literature, we suggest that two are the most fundamental to a high-quality grading system: (a) a standards-based approach, and (b) a distinction between achievement and non-achievement grades. First, effective grading and reporting systems base grades on clearly articulated standards for student learning. A standards-based system gives students and parents more precise information to use in recognizing accomplishments and targeting remediation when needed. Standards-based grading systems ask a very different question about student learning than traditional systems. The grade changes from a single, overall assessment of learning how did this student perform in language arts? to a description of the student s performance on an explicit set of skills how well did the student master the ability to read at the grade-level fluency expectation? (Jung, 2009; Jung & Guskey, 2007). For parents of students with disabilities, understanding how their children are achieving on individual skills is critical for meaningful participation in IEP development and implementation. The second fundamental practice is that high-quality grading and reporting systems distinguish three types of learning criteria related to standards (Guskey, 2006). 44

3 Product criteria address what students know and are able to do at a particular point in time. They reflect students specific achievements or level of proficiency as demonstrated by final examinations, final reports, projects, portfolios, or other overall assessments of learning. Process criteria include students behaviors in reaching their current level of achievement and proficiency. Examples of process criteria are effort, behavior, class participation, punctuality in completing assignments, and work habits. Progress criteria consider how much students improve from their learning experiences. These criteria focus on how far students have advanced, rather than where they are. The most effective grading and reporting systems establish clear standards based on product, process, and progress criteria, and then report each separately (Guskey, 2006; Stiggins, 2007; Wiggins, 1996). Such a system requires the collection of no additional information and eliminates the impossible task of combining these diverse types of evidence into a single grade (Bailey & McTighe, 1996). Parents prefer this approach because it gives them more useful information about their children s performance in school (Guskey, 2002). It offers parents specific feedback about their children s achievement on gradelevel standards as well as essential information on behavior and progress. This information is critical for making intervention and placement decisions (Jung & Guskey, 2007). [For additional reading on standards-based report cards that distinguish learning criteria, see Guskey and Bailey (2010)]. Inclusive Grading Model Assigning achievement grades on the basis of precise levels of performance on standards is best practice, but this approach requires a very different model that has been traditionally used for grading students with disabilities. The grading adaptations that most teachers have historically used are not well suited to a standards-based grading system that separates achievement from other indicators of learning. When grading on standards, there is little room for the teacher to report anything other than the student s performance on that particular standard. The problem arising from adapting the grading process is that it changes the ruler by which we measure a student. As a result, it is impossible to interpret the measurement. Below, we describe a 5-step process that allows teachers to report grades for students with disabilities in a way that is accurate, fair, and legally defensible. This Inclusive Grading Model (Jung, 2009; Jung & Guskey, 2007; Jung & Guskey, 2010) is designed for grading students with disabilities included in general education classrooms. See Figure 1 for a flowchart of the model. 45

4 Figure 1. A Model for Grading Exceptional Learners Figure 1. A Model for Grading Exceptional Learners For each reporting standard ask: 1. Is this an appropriate expectation without adaptations? No. The student will need adaptations in this area. Yes. The student can achieve this standard with no supports or adaptations. No change in grading is required. 2.What type of adaptation is needed? Accommodation. The required adaptations do not alter the standard. No change in grading is required. Modification. The required adaptations fundamentally change the standard. 3. Determine the modified standard. Change the standard to include appropriate skills and criteria for this student. 4. Grade based on modified standard. Use the same grading ruler as for the class, but on the appropriate standard. 5. Report the meaning of modified grades. Add a notation to the report card and the transcript, and connect to a progress report. SOURCE: Jung, L. L. A. & A. Guskey, & Guskey, T.R. (2010). T.R. Grading (2010). exceptional Grading learners. exceptional Educational Leadership, learners. 67(5), Educational Available online at: Leadership, 67(5), Available online at: el201002_jung.pdf 46

5 Step 1. Determine Whether the Standard Is an Appropriate Expectation Without Adaptations For each reporting standard, the key question is, Can we expect the student to achieve this standard without special support or changes to the standard? If the answer is yes, then no change in the grading process is needed, and the teacher grades the student with the same ruler he or she would use with any other student in the class. Some exceptional learners, however, may not achieve certain grade-level standards without special services and supports. For example, an IEP team may decide that a high school student who has a learning disability in the area of written expression needs extra supports to reach standards that depend on this skill. When an instructional team determines that the student will not be able to achieve a particular standard without special support, they move to step 2. Step 2. If the Standard Is Not Appropriate, Determine What Type of Adaptation the Standard Needs For each standard that will require support, the instructional team asks, Which is needed accommodation or modification? Accommodation means that the content of the standard remains the same, but the method for demonstrating mastery of that content may be adjusted. For example, to meet science standards, a student may require an audiotape of lectures in science class because of difficulty in taking notes. In addition, he or she might need to take a social studies end-of-unit assessment orally. Although the format for answering questions would be different, the content of the questions would remain the same, and the student would be judged, like all other students, on the content of his or her responses. Modification, in contrast, means changing the standard itself. A 3rd grade student, for example, may have strong oral communication skills, but may not be ready for the grade-level standards for writing. For this student, the instructional team may decide to provide additional support in the area of writing and to expect the student to master 1st grade writing standards. If the instructional team determines that a student needs only accommodations to reach a particular standard, then no change in the grading process is required. But if modifications are deemed necessary, the team goes through the remaining three steps of the model for this standard. Step 3. If the Standard Needs Modification, Determine the Appropriate Standard The appropriate standard is what the instructional team determines the student could reasonably achieve by the end of the academic year with special supports. The team records these modified standards as goals on the student s IEP or 504 plan, along with other goals the student may need to achieve in order to function in daily classroom routines. A student who is experiencing dif- 47

6 ficulty in reading fluency, for example, may not be ready to work on 2nd grade language arts standards. The IEP team may choose to reduce the criteria that are expected in fluency at that grade level. Instead of the grade-level standard, which includes an expectation of reading 120 words per minute by the end of the year, the team may determine after examining the student s present level of performance and growth over the past year that 90 words per minute is an appropriately challenging expectation. Similarly, a 9th grade student s plan may call for 6th grade vocabulary standards rather than 9th grade standards. Step 4. Base Grades on the Modified Standard, Not the Grade-Level Standard It makes little sense to grade a student on an academic standard everyone agrees the student will probably not meet. Take, for example, the 9th grade student who has difficulty with vocabulary and spelling and is working on 6th grade vocabulary. There is no need to report a failing grade in language based on the student s inability to use grade-level vocabulary. Nor would it be fair or meaningful to add points simply for effort or behavior. Rather than adding points for homework or promptness in turning in assignments, the teacher should grade the student using the same ruler, but on the 6th grade vocabulary standards that the instructional team deemed appropriate. Therefore, if an A means exceeds the standard, and the student achieved use of a 7th grade vocabulary, then the student has earned an A, even though the 9th grade standards have not been met. Step 5. Communicate the Meaning of the Grade The final step in the process is the simplest of the steps, but equally as important as the previous four. Without this last step, we have been clear about how we have measured, but we have not communicated what we have measured. Teachers, then, should include a special notation such as a superscript number or an asterisk beside grades on the report card that reflect achievement on modified standards. This notation should also be included on the transcript. The accompanying footnote might be worded, based on modified standards. The report card should direct families to a supplemental document, such as a progress report, that lists the modified standards on which any grade was based and a narrative of progress on each. This lets everyone know, as federal legislation requires, how the student performed on appropriately challenging learning tasks. In adding these notations to transcripts, school administrators should remember that the notations cannot identify a student as having a disability. Therefore, wording such as based on IEP goals is not legal. However, noting that a standard was modified is legal as long as modifications are available to all students who need them (Freedman, 2000, 2005; Office of Civil Rights, 2008). 48

7 Recommendations for Personnel Preparation Programs Unfortunately, teacher preparation programs devote little, if any, time to the topic of grading within coursework. With learning disabilities being the largest category of disability and one that is primarily served within the general education classroom (U.S. Department of Education, 2009), it is clear that every teacher will be faced with the challenges of assigning fair and meaningful grades to students with learning disabilities. Stiggins (2002) recommended that teacher and administrator licensing standards include an expectation of competencies in assessment and reporting. We propose that programs include the following four competencies on grading students with disabilities in coursework and field-based experiences: Teachers will demonstrate knowledge of the definitions of and distinctions between accommodations and modifications for students with disabilities. Teachers will demonstrate the ability to modify reporting standards appropriately for students with disabilities. Teachers will demonstrate the ability to measure and record students achievement, behavior, and progress separately. Teachers will demonstrate the ability to apply best grading practices to meaningfully report the achievement, behavior, and progress of students with disabilities. In order to provide the instruction and experience to reach these competencies, we propose that teacher preparation programs engage preservice teachers in five ways: 1. PRESENTATION: First, information on grading all students should be explicitly included in coursework. We suggest that standards-based grading, distinguishing learning criteria, and the Inclusive Grading Model described above are directly taught to preservice teachers within assessment or methods coursework practicum and student teaching seminars. Preservice teachers should read the literature on grading and have opportunities to reflect and discuss implications for their practice. Additionally, the concept of distinguishing modifications and accommodations within IEP development is foundational to the model. There seems to be little understanding that an accommodation in one subject area can be a modification in another subject area for the same student. An example activity would be for the student teacher or practicum student to draw upon the curriculum to identify 4 6 reporting standards for each subject and develop a draft reporting device, incorporating best practices from the literature. 49

8 2. MODEL: Second, preservice teachers need field-based opportunities to observe high-quality grading practices. These activities can be embedded in both practicum and student teaching experiences. Because many teachers do not follow recommended practices for measuring and reporting student learning (Campbell & Evans, 2000), teacher education programs may have difficulty in identifying exemplary grading in practice. An example of an activity in this circumstance might involve (1) the preservice teacher s interviewing a practicing teacher about the grading practices used in the classroom and (2) a reflective written comparison of the practices with those from the literature on grading. 3. PRACTICE: Third, teacher preparation programs should explicitly require grading and reporting of students with disabilities as a task within student teaching. Programs frequently require that student teachers take data within the context of individual lessons and intervention plans they deliver. We propose that programs take this a step further and require student teachers to practice completing report cards and progress reports as a part of their preparatory experience. If exemplary report card and progress report forms are not available within the preservice teacher s placement, the teacher preparation program could have parallel forms for the preservice teachers to use in gaining this experience. 4. FEEDBACK: In addition to giving preservice teachers purposeful practice in their field-based experiences, we propose that college and university supervisors provide specific feedback on grading and reporting. Practicum or student teaching seminars provide an excellent forum for preservice teachers to discuss the grading practices being used and how they might model or alter those in their future classrooms. Additionally, college and university supervisors should provide specific, individual feedback to preservice teachers as they practice grading and reporting during field-based experiences. 5. CONNECTION TO THE COMMUNITY: Finally, we advise universities and colleges to partner with schools to discuss and improve grading policies and practices. Reeves (2008) recommends that programs identify teacher leaders who are demonstrating high quality grading practices in their districts and provide a forum for them to discuss their ideas with colleagues and lead the change in grading policy. Colleges and universities are uniquely situated to facilitate this collaborative leadership. 50

9 Conclusion Grading is a task that all teachers will encounter every day in their classrooms. Without explicit instruction on grading, teachers have only their prior experiences as students to determine how to grade. For most teachers, this means they have no information on how to grade students with disabilities, giving way to a reliance on individual grading adaptations (Polloway et al., 1994; Silva et al., 2005) that distort the grades to the point of rendering them uninterpretable (Jung & Guskey, 2007). Consequently, we risk the likelihood of inadequately measuring student progress (Stiggins, 2002). For students with disabilities, pivotal placement and intervention decisions hinge on accurate, complete information from teachers who understand their progress. IEP teams, including families, look to process information to make decisions about what services are needed and how those services should be delivered. Without interpretable indicators of achievement, teams do not have what they need to make these choices (Jung & Guskey, 2007), and compliance with legal requirements of IDEA may be compromised. Teachers should be prepared to measure and report progress of students with disabilities in a way that is consistent with recommended practice. The Inclusive Grading Model, suggested competencies, and steps for inclusion in teacher preparation programs may offer colleges and universities a foundation for facilitating these important skills in their preservice teachers. References Bailey, J., & McTighe, J. (1996). Reporting achievement at the secondary level: What and how. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.), Communicating student learning: 1996 Yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (pp ). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Campbell, C., & Evans, J. (2000). Investigation of preservice teachers classroom assessment practices during student teaching. Journal of Educational Research, 93, Etscheidt, S. K. (2006). Progress monitoring: Legal issues and recommendations for IEP teams. Teaching Exceptional Children, 38(3), Freedman, M. K. (2000). Testing, grading, and granting diplomas to special education students (Special Report No. 18). Horsham, PA: LRP Publications. Freedman, M. K. (2005). Student testing and the law: The requirements educators, parents, and officials should know. Horsham, PA: LRP Publications. Guskey, T. R. (2002). Computerized grade-books and the myth of objectivity. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, Guskey, T. R. (2006). Making high school grades meaningful. Phi Delta Kappan, 87, Guskey, T. R., & Bailey, J. (2010). Developing standards-based report cards. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Handler, B. R. (2003, April). Special education practices: An evaluation of educational environmental placement trends since the regular education initiative. Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Chicago, IL. 51

10 Herring, W. L., McGrath, D., & Buckley, J. (2006, July). Demographic and school characteristics of students receiving special education in the elementary grades (NCES ). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics. Jung, L. A. (2009). The challenges of grading and reporting in special education: An inclusive grading model. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.), Practical solutions for serious problems in standards-based grading (pp ). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin. Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2007). Standards-based grading and reporting: A model for special education. Teaching Exceptional Children, 40(2), Jung, L. A., & Guskey, T. R. (2010). Grading exceptional learners. Educational Leadership, 67(5), Office of Civil Rights. (2008, October 17). Dear colleague letter: Report cards and transcripts for students with disabilities. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved March 2, 2010, from Polloway, E. A., Epstein, M. H., Bursuck, W. D., Roderique, T. W., McConeghy, J. L., & Jayanthi, M. (1994). Classroom grading: A national survey of policies. Remedial and Special Education, 15, Reeves, D. (2008). Effective grading. Educational Leadership, 65(5), Silva, M., Munk, D. D., & Bursuck, W. D. (2005). Grading adaptations for students with disabilities. Intervention in School and Clinic, 41, Stiggins, R. (2002). Assessment crisis: The absence of assessment FOR learning. Phi Delta Kappan, 83, Stiggins, R. (2007, October 17). Five assessment myths and their consequences. Education Week, pp U.S. Department of Education. (2009). 28th annual report to Congress on the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Washington, DC: Author. Wiggins, G. (1996). Honesty and fairness: Toward better grading and reporting. In T. R. Guskey (Ed.), Communicating student learning: 1996 yearbook of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (pp ). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Author Note Lee Ann Jung, Ed.D., is associate professor of Special Education at the University of Kentucky. A graduate of Auburn University, she has worked in the field of special education for more than 15 years as a teacher, administrator, consultant, and researcher. Thomas R. Guskey, Ph.D., is a professor in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and an expert in research and evaluation who has authored or edited 12 books, including Evaluating Professional Development (Corwin, 2000). Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Lee Ann Jung at 52

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