Meaningful Grades in Physical Education
by Joey Feith
This post is part of a new series (I really like series, ok) called The #PhysEd Lab. The series focuses on ideas that I am currently exploring in my teaching. The ideas are past the “half-baked” phase and I feel comfortable sharing them, but I know that there is still more to learn. That’s why I will be coming back in a couple of months to update this post with my latest findings, as well as any wins, fails, struggles, and successes that I may have experienced along the way. Sound good? Let’s get into it!
Let’s be honest: grades are the worst. In many situations, you – the qualified, expert teacher – are forced to use somebody else’s system despite knowing that it is flawed. Also, society puts so much darn emphasis on school grades that they (wrongfully) become the sole indicator of a student’s success and play a role in how that student defines themselves as capable in that subject area.
When I think about it, the real problem with grades is that there is a whole lot of uncertainty in regards to what that grade actually means: where did it come from, what is it telling me, what was being graded, what needs to happen next in order to improve it? What we really need is a system that makes grades meaningful to all stakeholders (teachers, administrators, parents, and – most importantly – students).
Creating such a system has been my focus over the past couple of weeks and I’m finally at a place where I’m feeling pretty good about it. Good news: it works, it’s simple, and it’s pretty easy to explain (I’ve actually been practicing doing so on a bunch of colleagues/friends… they’re all sick of hearing about it so here I am with you!)
Let’s check it out!
Meaningful Grades: Three System Components
Before we get rocking and rolling here, let me just clarify what I mean by “meaningful grades”:
Meaningful grades are grades that make sense. They make sense before the start of the unit, they make sense during a unit, they make sense in the report card at the end of the unit. They are easy to understand and are useful in helping students know what to focus on next. They can be explained in a clear, objective way to parents who have never produced a rubric/gradebook of their own. They actually mean something and inform stakeholders on the student’s learning progress.
Ok, now that that is out of my system, let’s look at the three components of this meaningful grades system:
🗺 Learning Roadmaps
📊 Student Grade Scale
📋 Student Gradebooks
You’re probably thinking “Joey, you’ve blogged about Learning Roadmaps before!” You’re right! You’re right! I’ve been using Learning Roadmaps in my teaching for years. I make them for every unit I teach. Last year, I even started making learning target-level Learning Roadmaps for individual lessons (which was way too time-consuming). I like Learning Roadmaps!
… but they were also kinda terrible.
In most situations, I had a really hard time writing a milestone descriptor (i.e. what defined the “Not Yet”, “Getting There”, “Got It”, and “Wow” levels of the Learning Roadmap) in a way that really capture all of the unpacked learning pieces I pulled from the grade-level outcomes. Another issue I had was there there wasn’t a strong flow from one milestone to the next (e.g. elements that appeared in “Getting There” didn’t necessarily map out across the other levels). Also, the boundaries between each milestone weren’t always super clear, which led to me “guesstimating” if a student had reached a specific milestone or the next/previous one. It was messy and I knew it was messy and it needed to change.
So I changed it!
Here is the process I am now using to make Learning Roadmaps that are meaningful and useful for both teacher and students.
Step One: The Rule of Three
This is absolutely the most important part or else the whole system doesn’t work: for each outcome, you need to select three student indicators that will help you determine whether or not learning has taken place. These indicators should be based on the information you pulled out of the grade-level outcome during your unpacking and should be written in student-friendly language. You won’t find these word-for-word in the GLO: you will need to reflect and determine them. These indicators will define the “Got It” milestone of your Learning Roadmap.
Here’s an example from my Chasing and Fleeing Games unit:
Step Two: Map Out Each Indicator
Once you have determined your three student indicators and written them in student-friendly language, it’s time to look at each indicator and map it out across the three other milestones.
You can do this in any order you like. I prefer to work backwards from “Got It” (i.e. work from “Got It” to “Getting There” and then from “Getting There” to “Not Yet”) and then end with the “Wow” milestone. Pro tip: don’t think of “Not Yet” as the worst milestone, think of it as the first.
Here’s that Chasing and Fleeing Games Learning Roadmap fully mapped out:
Step Three: Don’t Complicate It
This step is simple: stop.
For each outcome, you’ll be looking for three student indicators. Be realistic in what you will actually be able to collect evidence on when determining how many grade-level outcomes you base your unit on. You may think you can assess five GLOs in a unit, but can you realistically and objectively measure progress on FIFTEEN student indicators at a time? Most likely not.
Personally, I’ll be limiting myself to up to three outcomes per unit this year. That would mean a total of nine student indicators. If I can assess 1-2 per lesson, a unit of 5-6 lessons makes sense given the amount of time I see my students (twice a week for 75 minutes, in groups of 14-28 students).
Good news: you can access the new Learning Roadmap template as part of the free Meaningful Grades System Tools download in the Shop!Download The Tools
🎉 UPDATE (January 2020): I put together an episode of The #PhysEd Show Vlog in which I go over how I design my new Learning Roadmaps. You can watch it below.
Student Grade Scale
The Learning Roadmap makes it really easy to know what is being assessed and what it looks like across the learning journey. It also becomes a reference tool throughout the unit to help students understand where they are at in their learning and what are the next steps when it comes to moving their learning forward.
However, it does not produce grades. Unfortunately, we’re still required to produce grades for our students so we need a way to know how to convert a students progress into a percentage score that makes sense.
This is where I always struggled the most. I teach in Quebec, where a single percentage grade (that represents a student’s progress towards all three of our physical education competencies) is still required for each report card. My school used to be on a five-point scale, so they created a competency scale to try and set assigned percentages to each level of their scale.
I mean, it works. I just hated how random the actual percentages that go on the reports are. Also, imagine explaining it to parents:
Parent: “Why did Ollie get 77% in PE?”
Teacher: “Ollie is showing acceptable competency development.”
Teacher: “Well, Ollie was meeting many of the expectations with increasing independence in regards to the competencies he was assessed on in class which puts him at a 3+ on my five-point (but actually eleven-point) scale. That puts him in the 74%-79% range, which averages out to about 77% which is why you see that on his report.”
I have always like breaking learning down into the four-point “Not Yet!”, “Getting There!”, “Got It!”, “Wow!” Learning Roadmaps that I present to my students. It just makes sense to them. That being said, it’s not easy to convert a four-point scale into percentages when trying to produce grades.
Last year, I tried to solve this breaking each milestone into three levels of achievement:
Doing so allowed me the break up each milestone into smaller parts. A student is beginning if they are starting to show indicators of that milestone. A student has attained a milestone if they meet the full description. A student is surpassing a milestone if they are beginning to show indicators of the next level up.
Having three levels within a milestone made it easier for me to break down the grades into smaller ranges.
I was digging this so much that I even started using it in my gradebooks/teacher observation sheets (which you can find in every Game Pack in the shop). There was still one issue though: determining whether a student was at the “beginning”, “attained”, or “surpassing” level was still very objective in most situations. Although I felt comfortable explaining these levels to my students, it definitely required an explanation. In other words, it didn’t really make sense.
Now, this is where the idea of having exactly three student indicators per grade-level outcome becomes so important.
Having three indicators makes it easier to quantify where a student is at in their progress. Here’s how:
👀 A student is beginning to reach a milestone when they have demonstrated two indicators of that milestone and one indicator of a previous milestone.
✅ A student has attained a milestone when they have demonstrated all three indicators of that milestone.
🎉 A student is surpassing a milestone when they have demonstrated two indicators of that milestone and one indicator of an upcoming milestone.
Let’s look at this visually:
Combined with the Learning Roadmap, the visual representation of this Student Grade Scale just makes sense. You can see exactly how a student arrived at a mark for the outcome and easily identify the next steps they can take in order to keep moving their learning forward.
Ok, so this being a post in the “The #PhysEd Lab” series and all, there is a bit of a remaining hiccup in this layout: what about combinations of indicators that aren’t on the Student Grade Scale (e.g. combinations like “Not Yet”, “Getting There”, and “Wow”).
I’m not going to lie, I’m a little hung up on this. The solution I am currently moving forward with is to assign points to all indicators within a category (e.g. “Not Yet” is worth one point, “Getting There” is worth two, etc) and assign a point total to each milestone level. Here’s how I’ve laid it out:
So, for example, if a student got the “Not Yet”, “Getting There”, and “Wow” combination mentioned above, here’s how it would play out:
Not Yet: One Point
Getting There: Two Points
Wow: Four Points
Total Points: 7
Achievement Level: Getting There (Surpassing)
I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t super great. But, it’s where I’m at in regards to objectively taking on these situations. This is one of the items I’ll be updating later on this year.
Good news: you can access the new Student Grade Scale as part of the free Meaningful Grades System Tools download in the Shop!Download The Tools
Before I jump in here, let me get straight to the point: you need a tool that will let you easily track your students progress towards the indicators you have identified. Preferably, it would automatically identify the milestone achievement for you. Oh and if it calculated the overall grade for the unit. Also, if it gave you some space to keep track of students’ stars (their wins) and stairs (their next steps)… well, that would be fantastic.
You don’t need to use my version of these Student Gradebooks. Find a tool that works for you and use it to help you be a better teacher for your students.
That being said, let me show you my updated Numbers Gradebooks because I think they’re pretty cool!
If you haven’t checked out my past Numbers Gradebooks blog post, you might want to start there.
When I was redesigning my Gradebooks for this year, I wanted to make sure they could do the following things:
✅ Allow me to track a student’s progress in regards to each indicator.
✅ Automatically determine the milestone level based on the new Student Grade Scale.
✅ Automatically calculate overall grade for the unit, taking into account the weight of each outcome
✅ Allow me to keep track of students’ stars (wins) and stairs (next steps) for each unit, which will accelerate my report card comment writing.
My updated Numbers Gradebooks do all this. I’m just not in love with them… yet! Here’s the layout:
In this demo gradebook, there are four main elements:
🔢 Revised Competency Scale (in an actual table version)
📊 Student Grade Scale (just an image for reference)
🗺 Unit Learning Roadmap (in a table version)
📋 Unit Table (for student grades)
Let’s focus on the unit table (the big one). As you can see, each row in the table is assigned to a student and their learning. The GLO descriptions and indicators (which I take from the Learning Roadmaps) are also in each row. This has to do with how I wanted things to appear in Form View in the iOS version of Numbers (more on that in a second).
Using a combination of hidden columns, VLOOKUP formulas, and conditional formatting, I managed to get the table to behave in this way:
🚦 When I use the pop-up menu from each GLO’s Indicator Level cells to select either “Not Yet”, “Getting There”, “Got It”, or “Wow”, the cell automatically changes to that milestone’s assigned colour. This gives me a quick visual overview of where students are at in their learning.
🔘 Once all three indicators for a GLO have been assigned either “Not Yet”, “Getting There”, “Got It”, or “Wow”, the GLO Achievement Level cell automatically updates with the assigned level from the Student Grade Scale in text of the colour of the level’s milestone (again, for visual purposes).
💯 Once all of the indicators for each GLO have been assigned a milestone, the student’s current grade for the unit automatically appears and will continue to update as I continue my assessment. The formula in the Unit Grade cell also takes into account the weighting I assign to each GLO in the unit.
⭐️ The last two columns in a student’s row are for their Stars & Stairs for that unit. Stars and Stairs are an idea I got from Rick Stiggins. A Star is something notable that the student achieved in the unit. A Stair is what the student should focus on next in order to keep advancing their learning.
To mark a student’s Star, I will take a look at which indicator they really succeeded at demonstrating in the unit, copy the indicator’s text from the appropriate level from the Learning Roadmap, and paste it into the Star column.
To mark a student’s Stair, I will take a look at which indicator they had the most difficulty demonstrating in the unit, copy the indicator’s text from the next level up from the Learning Roadmap, and paste it into the Stair column. For example, if a student got a “Not Yet” for any given indicator, I’ll copy/paste the “Getting There” description for that indicator into their Stair column so that they know what they are working towards as they read it.
Having the Stars and Stairs written up in these columns not only lets me quickly let students know where they have achieved the most success and what they need to focus on next, having them in tables like this will allow me to quickly use the language to write up my students’ qualitative comments for their report cards (I write between 200-500 words per student… which isn’t my favourite thing to do).
What I’ve always loved with Numbers is the ability to jump to Form View on iOS. Form View takes each row of a table and creates an individual form so that I am only looking at one student at a time. It also allows me to quickly scrub through my class list to jump to a specific student as I’m assessing their learning.
That being said, Form View is where I’m struggling the most with these new grade books.
In Table View (the regular view) lets me easily hide columns in my table to keep everything neat. Here’s a jump between my tables with columns hidden compare to when all columns are visible.
In Form View, hidden columns are visible and there is no way of hiding them. This leaves me with cluttered forms that have more information than I need to see. A cluttered form slows me down, and I can’t afford to be slowed down as I try to assess my students in the circus that is physical education class.
I’ll keep working on a solution that makes sense (e.g. doesn’t involve a trillion tables and formulas) and get back to you once I’ve figured something out.
Good news: you can access the new Numbers Gradebook Template as part of the free Meaningful Grades System Tools download in the Shop!Download The Tools
Meaningful Grades In Action
With all of my grades currently in their first graded units of the year, I’ve already started putting this system into action and I can honestly say that I have never felt more confident in my teaching.
Here’s how it has looked so far:
Clear Sense of Purpose
The new Learning Roadmap format has forced me to really reflect on the unpacked content from my GLOs. Determining the three indicators and mapping them out across the four milestones has been an incredibly intentional practice that has left me feeling confident in regards to what I’m looking for all while not making me feel overwhelmed. Doing this important work upfront has reduced teacher anxiety in my teaching.
Teaching is all about the teacher though. In regards to my students, we’ve taken time at the start of each unit to unpack the Learning Roadmap and have discussions about anything that they feel may need additional clarification. I’ve known this to be best practice for a while now but never had the right tool to be able to do it efficiently and effectively in class.
The Learning Roadmap gets posted on the whiteboard at the start of each lesson. I’ll also place a small magnet with the Look emoji beside the indicator(s) that we are focusing on that day to let students know what our focus for the day is. With my younger grades, I quickly read through the four milestone descriptors for that indicator at the start of the lesson. My older grades get to read through it themselves when they place their assessment magnet on the board.
I’ll also use the language from the Learning Roadmap to set the student learning targets for the lesson (which you see under the “How” tag on the whiteboard above).
All of this makes it really easy for everyone to understand:
1️⃣ What learning can look like in class.
2️⃣ What success will look like in today’s lesson.
3️⃣ What can be done to move learning forward.
Clear, Specific Feedback
With the Numbers Gradebook, I’m able to easily track where students are at in their learning. The tool is simple to use and the Learning Roadmap makes it so easy to determine how to “score” each indicator. All of this puts me in a position where I can easily provide students with the specific feedback they need to keep learning and growing.
Teaching With Confidence
Having such a clear, thorough, and easy-to-explain system as the foundation of my teaching, assessment, and grading has made me feel incredibly confident as I teach. It takes all of the guesswork out of teaching and just lets me focus on what I love most about my job: helping kids experience success and grow their confidence. I’m dying for administrators, colleagues or parents to ask me “what are the students learning in PE?” because I am actually excited to show them how clear everything is.
Grades aren’t a scary thing anymore because the Student Grade Scale makes it so simple to track and report them. The idea of writing all of those comments isn’t as intimidating as it has been in the past because I know that I’ll have Stars & Stairs ready-to-go for each unit which will help me write purposeful comments that make sense and help students continue to learn in physical education.
I don’t know y’all… this is the dorkiest thing to be so excited about but I just wrote 3500 words about it because I’M SO FREAKING PUMPED to finally feel like I’ve cracked grading by setting myself (and my students) up for success!
Access the free Meaningful Grades System Tools in the Shop!Download The Tools
Since this is a post from The #PhysEd Lab series, I know that these ideas are still young and have room to improve. I’m really looking forward to updating this post as the months roll on to keep you posted on how things evolve.
If you’re still here, thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!
November 23, 2020
November 10, 2020
January 25, 2020