Doctoral program: 36 month update [graduated!]

Nearly three years ago, I started a doctorate in education program at the University of West Georgia.  Today, I am happy to share all coursework and dissertation requirements are finished and as a result, I recently walked across the stage!

(Dissertation chair, Matt Varga, and me before commencement)

Although participating in the ceremony is optional, it provided a sense of closure and personal accomplishment for me.

What is next?

  1. Business as usual as a district administrator.
  2. Teaching a weekend curriculum course for aspiring school administrators this summer.
  3. Continue working with my chair to publish portions of my dissertation research in one or more peer-reviewed journals.

Previous doctoral program updates:

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

I wrote the column below for Iowa ASCD’s “The Source,” an e-newsletter for state ASCD affiliate members.

So, you want to become a curriculum lead?

Around this time of the year, I usually receive an email or two from a teacher who is interested in transitioning to a more defined curriculum role.  Whether it’s a classroom teacher who recently completed a masters program or a veteran educator thinking about a teacher leadership role created by TLC funds, desiring to have an impact beyond the classroom can be an exciting, yet uncertain time.  In my experience and observations, several different roles exist involving curriculum leadership.  I will unpack each one in the following paragraphs.

Instructional Coaches

The specific responsibilities of an instructional coach often vary by district or building, however these educators are charged with assisting adults improve their practice as educators.  Sometimes, instructional coaches work alongside individual teachers to provide instructional feedback.  Other times instructional coaches work with groups of teachers (i.e. data teams or collaborative learning teams).  Jim Knight has a nice write-up elaborating on the role of instructional coaches.  Finally, an instructional coach job description may include more formal curriculum leadership roles within a building or district, such as serving on curriculum materials review committees.

Some instructional coaches are content-neutral (i.e. the “elementary instructional coach”) whereas others are content-specific (i.e. the “K-8 math instructional coach.”)  With an increase in teacher leadership dollars the past three years, many Iowa public schools now have funds to employ instructional coaches and other similar roles.  Iowa’s teacher leadership funds come with a few stipulations – teachers assigned to a leadership role must have at least three years of teaching experience and at least one year of experience in the school district (Source: Iowa Department of Education)

AEA Curriculum Consultants

Many area education agencies (AEAs) in Iowa employ math, reading, science, and technology consultants. These positions are content-specific and frequently require a masters degree.  AEA curriculum consultants are often assigned several school districts and provide support to individual teachers or entire departments, as agreed upon by the AEA and district.  AEA curriculum consultants also lead workshops at the agency that teachers across the AEA can participate.  Teachers who desire to make an impact beyond a single school building and enjoy making connections between and across districts may enjoy an AEA curriculum consultant role.  Pre-requisites for this role include a strong content knowledge, pedagogical content knowledge and experience leading professional learning.  In addition, AEA curriculum consultants are often invited to participate on state level task forces and committees when new standards and state initiatives are rolled out in Des Moines.

Curriculum Directors/Coordinators

For the past six years, I have served as a district curriculum director for over 100 teachers and approximately 1,500 students.  In some smaller school districts, the curriculum director responsibilities may be assigned to a principal. Still other small districts, share a curriculum director.  Larger districts may employ several curriculum directors or coordinators who specialize in one or more areas (i.e. “Middle School Director of Teaching & Learning” or “Science Curriculum Coordinator”).  In my role, the curriculum director title comes with many additional responsibilities including directing the ELL, Title 1, gifted education, special education, and teacher leadership programs and overseeing the media services and technology departments.  I complete a number of state and federal reports; facilitate curriculum materials review and purchasing processes; attend meetings to keep abreast of new state and federal initiatives; manage the curriculum and teacher leadership budgets; and serve as the primary contact for Department of Education accreditation.  Often times, curriculum directors are on extended contracts requiring an PK-12 administrative endorsement, however some schools may honor a masters degree in curriculum or a related field.

Concluding Thoughts

Serving as a curriculum lead can be a rewarding experience.  Any step away from working with the same students each day/week deserves careful thought.  Hopefully, this column provides an overview of several possible curriculum leadership roles.  We’re fortunate in Iowa each public school opening must be posted on, so we have a one stop shop for curriculum leadership openings throughout the year.  Are you wondering if your experiences might be preparing you for a curriculum leadership role?  It would be my pleasure to review and provide feedback on your resume.  Happy job hunting!

Three Lessons for Schools Shifting Their Grading

I was recently invited to write a brief article for School Administrator, an AASA (The School Superintendents’ Association) publication.  “Three Lessons for Schools Shifting Their Grading” was embedded within a feature article about standards-based grading, (a well written one, I might add) by Ken O’Connor.

The full article is available via the AASA digital magazine link here.

Doctoral program: 30 month update

Nearly two and a half years ago, I embarked on a third graduate program.  A little over six months ago, I provided another update.  Today, I am happy to share the light is very bright at the end of the tunnel:  I recently defended my dissertation!  If you’re not familiar with the process, a final dissertation defense is when a doctoral candidate provides a verbal and visual overview of the study to the committee (comprised of university professors).  Following the presentation, the committee asks questions for the purpose of better understanding the study’s results, conclusions and implications.  Finally, the committee deliberates and communicates one of several possible outcomes: pass without revisions (rare), pass with minor revisions (often), fail (with opportunity to try again), fail.

What is next?

  1. I have several small revisions to make and will then submit my dissertation to an online database (ProQuest) for permanent storage and retrieval.
  2. Complete one more class next semester (noted below)
  3. Graduate in May 2017!


Standards-based grading: Frequently asked questions about reassessment

The email questions continue to roll in this school year.  A math teacher from California gave me permission to share some of our recent communication:

If there is unlimited number of reassessment, how do you manage students who want to re-assess till they attain “got it” and eventually the school year is ending?

Our teachers usually have a “final reassessment deadline.”  For example, if the semester ends on December 20 and grades are due on December 23, a teacher might communicate a final reassessment deadline of December 18.  In the ideal world, students would be allowed to re-assess forever (think: 31 year old re-assessing his high school government coursework!), however the realities of our current educational paradigm (180 days, bells, student schedules, etc.) force us to create arbitrary deadlines, even in a standards-based grading system. It would be very challenging for a teacher to allow reassessments to be turned in up until the last minute grades are due to the school, therefore some type of buffer should be established to allow for the teacher to score and enter the final batch of reassessments.  In general, as long as the final reassessment deadline is communicated early and often, students and parents understand the need for the teacher to grade the reassessments and get them entered into the grade book before the school-imposed grade deadline.
If the student can choose to reassess just one standard, doesn’t it tell the student what concept or skill is required to solve the problem given and makes learning segmented? For the reassessment problem, should it be similar to the previous assessment/practice or should a novel problem be given? 
You’ve identified one of the biggest critiques I have read/heard of standards-based grading — narrowing down learning into finite concepts rather than seeing math as a larger body of ideas in which life rarely tells us which formula to use.  With this in mind, any assessment in a standards-based grading or traditional grading classroom is only as good as its author.  In other words, any test could be written with a very low cognitive complexity or a very high level or rigor.  I have seen standards-based grading tests that break down the concepts into fine-grained concepts and I have seen others that expect students to climb Bloom’s taxonomy.  I believe a starting point is thinking about re-assessments at a similar level of cognitive complexity as the original assessment.  Sometimes the expected level of rigor is described in the standards themselves.  For example:

Identify the shapes of two-dimensional cross-sections of three-dimensional objects, and identify three-dimensional objects generated by rotations of two-dimensional objects.

“Identify” may give the assessment author a glimpse into the expected level of Bloom’s intended by the writer of the standards, in this case the Common Core State Standards. 
Does any of this make sense?

Standards-based grading: Integrating homework completion with reassessment

A teacher from a nearby school district recently emailed me with a few questions about standards-based grading in preparation for the upcoming school.  He gave me permission to share some of our dialogue in this public space.  This is the second of two question and answer posts about homework as practice, rather than merely point accumulator, in standards-based grading. (The first one is here)

Q: I have heard of some teachers that will not allow retakes on assessments unless the homework has been completed. What are your thoughts?

A: Great question! I have seen this work in two different ways, each with pros and cons.

The first perspective goes something like “Students may not complete a reassessment unless they completed the homework prior to the initial assessment.”

Pros: May motivate students to do the homework prior to the first assessment; may help students do better on the initial assessment (because they did their homework).  Cons: May motivate students to copy homework and play this part of the “game of school.”  Only allowing students an opportunity to reassess if they completed homework seems to go against the idea students learn at different rates/paces.  What if the reason the student didn’t complete the homework initially is because he/she had no idea about the concepts?  Why require the student to do a slew of problems incorrectly?

The second perspective is the one I tend to favor, “Students may complete a reassessment only if they completed the homework sometime (doesn’t matter if it it was before or after initial assessment) and complete additional re-learning steps.”

Pros: Better honors that students learn at different rates/paces; may also be a better chance students are likely to ask better questions when completing the homework “Okay, I obviously didn’t get this idea as you saw on the test, Mr. H….could you help me understand it on the homework?”  Re-assessment should be meaningful for students while not overburdening the instructor.  Cons: It’s not a silver bullet!  Students may still game the system by copying from a friend…but there’s less incentive to do so, because if they copy and do not learn, they will not likely do any better on the reassessment.

How do you integrate homework completion and the reassessment process within standards-based grading?  Feel free to leave your experiences in the comments below.

Standards-based grading: Motivating students to complete homework/practice without points

A teacher from a nearby school district recently emailed me with a few questions about standards-based grading in preparation for the upcoming school.  He gave me permission to share some of our dialogue in this public space.  This is the first of two question and answer posts about homework as practice, rather than merely point accumulator, in standards-based grading.

Q: When homework is no longer completed for points or a grade in a standards-based grading environment, I could see some students reluctant to submit homework assignments. Do you have any advice on convincing students that homework is still a required, essential part even if they aren’t getting a score for it? What about those kids who just don’t turn in their work?

A: Let’s be honest for a moment – there’s no silver bullet for motivating kids to do homework! When we think about the traditional paradigm, students do not often value practice/homework, even when it is worth points. Evidence of this theory includes students across the country in high schools with traditional grading who do not turn in their homework assignments and students who turn in copied homework assignments.

Here is my biggest bit of advice: In traditional grading, when a student does not turn in an assignment, we give them a zero, but do not talk with them about it. We assume they’re going to “learn” from the zero. Instead, I tried something different in my later years as a high school teacher.  It went something like this…

Class, the purpose of homework in this class is practice.  Although homework is not worth any points, it is still very important.  The purpose of homework is practice!  Just like you practice for a small group speech contest, vocal music solo or volleyball game, practicing is important in math class.  Turn to your neighbor and share with them two reasons you believe practicing in math class is important and one reason why you might be tempted to not complete homework in this class….Okay, who can share with me a summary of their partner discussion?  How many of you talked about the importance of practice in doing well on tests?….

Then, when a student (inevitably) decides to not turn in an assignment a few days later, have a good ole fashioned one-on-one, sit down conversation with him/her.

Why did you decide not to do this assignment?


How well do you think you’ll do on the next assessment?

I’ve found this to be a relationship building exercise and gives me a better idea how I can help the student. Sometimes students are going through tough times at home. Other times, they’re lost conceptually and don’t want to admit it.

This is not a cure-all type of solution, but one that I and other educators using standards-based grading practices have found to be helpful.  In what ways have you motivated students to complete homework when it is worth zero points?  Leave your ideas in the comments below.


Doctoral program: 24 month update

Nearly two years ago, I embarked on a third graduate program.  Recently, I defended my dissertation proposal.  This is a big time milestone!  If you’re not familiar with the process of a doctoral program, the dissertation proposal is a draft of the first three chapters reviewed by the committee in which they give a doctoral student the “green light” to continue.  Chapter one is an overview of the study.  Chapter two is a literature review covering related studies and describing how the dissertation fills a “gap” in the literature.  Chapter three is the methodology or to rephrase it, who, what, when and why the researcher plans to collect and analyze data in order to answer each carefully crafted research question.

What is next?

  1. Upon receiving approval from the university’s institutional research board (think: government-required committee ensuring research on human subjects is completed with the appropriate precautions and participant consent) within the next month, I will begin collecting data this summer.
  2. Write chapter 4 (results)!  This will involve a lot of tables with very little original thinking.
  3. Write chapter 5 (discussion and recommendations)!  My committee chair suggested this could be the hardest chapter to write outside of the literature review, because it involves making a lot of connections between the results and previous studies.
  4. Defend the dissertation.  This a final time for the committee to ask questions following significant review of all five chapters.
  5. Complete a few more classes (noted below) and walk across the stage in Spring 2017 to be hooded!


All of this aligns with the ambitious timeline I described in the 18 months update.

Help from a few friends

None of this could be possible without the support of two critical friends in the program, Bipul and Steve, who have provided feedback encouragement along the way.  I also owe a big thank you to Mrs. T. for allowing me to spend 3-4 hours per week holed up in the local library at night working on dissertation drafts.  Completing a doctoral program while working full-time has proven to be a much more challenging task than the first two graduate programs, but with help from a few friends, it has been doable.

Look for another update in a semester or two!

What does the research say about standards-based grading?

What does the research say about standards-based grading?

A research primer [printer-friendly pdf]

Authors: Matt Townsley and Tom Buckmiller, Ph.D.

Kindergarten by kfergos, on Flickr

One hundred years, No research to support.

Traditional grading practices have been used for over one hundred years, and to date, there have been no meaningful research reports to support it (Marzano, 2000). In an era of data-driven decision making, that’s critical to note. Most teachers have not received adequate training in reliable and valid assessment methods in their teacher preparation and often default to the way they saw their teachers grade when they were in school. As a result, grading practices may vary widely from teacher to teacher (Reeves, 2004) based on style, preference, and opinions and without a research-driven rationale (Cox, 2011; Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Zoeckler, 2007). Contributing to this irregularity is the fact that many schools lack a specific, unified grading policy for teachers (O’Connor, 2009). Parents of students today were also graded using traditional methods (we all were) and thus this wildly inconsistent way of communicating achievement and growth of students has been entrenched and accepted in the way we think about schooling.

The absence of research supporting traditional grading practices is concerning. As schools continue to adopt a standards-based approach to teaching, learning, and assessment, it is critical to understand the research literature on the topic. The purpose of this primer is to provide an overview of the research literature on the topic of standards-based grading.

Why change grading practices?

There are two fundamental reasons why traditional grading practices ought to be re-assessed. First, the Common Core has helped make learning targets more rigorous, consistent, and transparent. The focus has been to create fewer standards but challenge students to think deeper and work towards more meaningful applications. Previous iterations of school curricula have focused on far-reaching and low-level rote learning (memorizing facts). Thus traditional grading practices were perhaps a more appropriate way to measure how a student is doing in school back then. But today grading experts (Guskey, 2014; Marzano, 2000; O’Connor, 2009; Reeves, 2008) agree teachers should update their grading practices to better align with the realities of how and what students are learning in schools.

Second, Every Student Succeeds (formerly No Child Left Behind) has changed the way school leaders and teachers operate. These educational laws mandate that schools may no longer simply fail students who don’t learn, and move on (Vatterott, 2015). Instead, all students must be proficient. School leaders must now ensure their system’s purpose is to develop talent rather than merely sort it (Guskey, 2011). Thus, higher scrutiny and accountability over the measurement of student achievement has demanded grades be more reflective of learning. No Child Left Behind initiatives have exposed that traditional grading practices may no longer be an effective way of measuring student progress in the classroom because they do not equate or correlate with performance on standardized tests (Vatterott, 2015).

What is standards-based grading?

Studies show standards-based teaching practices correlate to higher academic achievement (Craig, 2011; Schoen, Cebulla, Finn, & Fi, 2003). Therefore, it is critical that teachers also link assessments and reporting to the standards (Guskey, 2001). Beatty (2013) suggests standards-based grading (SBG) is based upon three principles. First, grades must have meaning. Indicators, marks and/or letters should provide students and parents with information related to their strengths and weaknesses, separating out non-academic behaviors. Second, classroom-grading systems must incorporate multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their understanding based on feedback. The final principle of standards-based grading is separating academic indicators from extraneous factors such as homework completion and extra credit.

Principle 1: Grades should have meaning

Grades should provide meaningful feedback to students, document their progress, and help teachers make decisions about what instruction a student needs next (Wormeli, 2006). Traditional grades and report cards are muddied and misleading when they combine both academic factors and non-academic factors into a single grade. Non-academic behaviors are important and merit their own reporting mechanism because they matter in college and in a career. These behaviors include factors such as punctuality, work ethic, attendance, participation, and ability to meet deadline. But when these behaviors are combined with academic information (does my child know how to do algebra?) to form a single grade, learners and their parents can be deceived by a false and inaccurate calculation. Vatterott (2015) gives these examples:

A student can compensate for low understanding of the content and standards by maintaining perfect attendance, turning in assignments on time, and behaving appropriately in class. A different student may understand content and standards perfectly well but receive a low grade because he or she is late to class, fails to turn in assignments on time or acts inappropriately (p. 63-54).

A grading system shouldn’t allow a student to mask their level of content understanding with their attendance, their effort level or other peripheral issues (Scriffiny, 2008). These are separate issues and should be reported separately. Instead, a grading system should be based upon clear learning targets, a practice in which Marzano (2003) supported because students perform up to 20 percent higher compared to instruction without clear targets.

Principle 2: Multiple opportunities to demonstrate learning based on feedback

Wormeli (2011) proposed allowing “redos” and retakes, a practice often ignored in traditional grading. He argued retakes are necessary in order for the grade to truly capture student growth at the time of reporting rather than a single moment in the past. According to Marzano and Heflebower (2011), if the purpose of a grade is to report mastery, then educators must look for evidence of learning over time with multiple opportunities for updates.

Standards-based grading is a logical extension of this idea, and allows teachers to provide clearer and more effective feedback when compared to traditional letter grades. Haystead and Marzano (2009) conducted a comprehensive review of studies on classroom instructional strategies, concluding the use of scoring scales and tracking student progress over time towards a learning goal yielded a 34 percentage point gain. When students were provided additional time and feedback for the purpose of learning the intended standards, strong evidence indicated a positive correlation between added instructional time and achievement (see Brown & Saks, 1986 for seminal work).

Principle 3: Putting homework and extra credit in its proper place

Although assigning high grades as rewards can sometimes motivate students (Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Marzano, 2000), assigning low grades as punishment does not encourage students to do better (Dueck, 2014; Guskey, 2000; Guskey & Bailey, 2001; Marzano, 2000; O’Connor, 2009, 2011; Wormeli, 2006).  Furthermore, grades used as external incentives can sometimes lead to decreased motivation (Guskey, 2011), diminished performance, addictive behaviors, or cheating (Matthis, 2010).

In a meta-analysis of the research on homework, Cooper, Robinson and Patall (2006) described a connection between homework and student learning lasting through the unit test, but not any longer. The limited nexus between homework and more long-term indicators suggests the predictability of student learning is better measured with more formal measures such as tests, essays and other classroom assessments. Furthermore, educational assessment experts recommend all formative work (that is, intended for practice) should not be included in the final grade (Stiggins, Frisbie & Griswold, 1989)

Extra credit is problematic in that the students who would benefit the most from completing it are often not the ones taking advantage of it (Harrison, Meister & LeFevre, 2011; Moore, 2005). More succinctly, awarding extra credit in classrooms has the potential to artificially widen the gap between students performing well and those who are struggling.

We can do better

In the past century, everything from modern medicine to personal computing has evolved and improved; yet our educational system’s grading practices have remained the same, despite a lack of supporting evidence. A standards-based system of assessment seems to be a significant and defensible improvement over traditional grading practices. The logical alignment of a standards based approach with Common Core standards, the advocacy by a growing number of respected educational leaders and researchers, and the positive results experienced by many of its early adopters signals that SBG is positioned to gain traction in more schools (Peters & Buckmiller, 2014). While studying standards-based pilot programs in Kentucky, Guskey, Jung, and Swan (2011) found teachers and families nearly unanimous in their agreement that standards-based reports provided better and clearer information. Thus, the power of SBG lies in the opportunity for a more nuanced and focused conversation between parents and teachers about where students are strong, where they are weak, and how each can help the student (Spencer, 2012). With supporting literature and a growing body of research validating SBG, stakeholders can rest assured that our most important resource, our students, will benefit from this shift.


Beatty, I. D. (2013). Standards-based grading in introductory university physics. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2), 1-22. Retrieved from

Brown, B. W. & Saks, D. H. (1986). Measuring the effects of instructional time on student learning: Evidence from the beginning teacher evaluation study. American Journal of Education, 94(4), 480-500. Retrieved from

Cooper, H., Robinson, J. C., & Patall, E. A. (2006). Does homework improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review of Educational Research, 76(1), 1–62. doi: 10.3102/00346543076001001

Cox, K. B. (2011). Putting classroom grading on the table: A reform in progress. American Secondary Education, 40(1), 67-87.

Craig T. A. (2011). Effects of standards-based report cards on student learning. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from

Dueck, M. (2014). Grading smarter, not harder: Assessment strategies that motivate kids and help them learn. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Guskey, T. R. (2000). Grading policies that work against standards…And how to fix them. NASSP Bulletin, 84(620), 20–29. doi:10.1177/019263650008462003

Guskey, T. R., & Bailey, J. M. (2001). Developing grading and reporting systems for student learning. Lexington, KY: Corwin.

Guskey, T. R., Swan, G. M. & Jung, L. A. (2011). Grades that mean something: Kentucky develops standards-based report cards. Kappan, 93(2), 52-57.

Guskey, T. R. (2011). Five obstacles to grading reform. Educational Leadership, 69(3),16-21.

Guskey, T. R. (2014). On your mark: Challenging the conventions of grading and reporting. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Harrison, M. A., Meister, D. G., & LeFevre, A. J. (2011). Which students complete extra-credit work? College Student Journal, 45(3), 550-555.

Haystead, M. W., & Marzano, R. J. (2009). Meta-analytic synthesis of studies conducted at Marzano Research Laboratory on instructional strategies. Englewood, CO: Marzano Research Laboratory. Retrieved from

Matthis, T. L. (2010). Motivational punishment: Beaten by carrots and sticks. EHS Today. Retrieved from

Marzano, R. (2000). Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Marzano (2003) What Works in Schools: Translating Research into Action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

O’Connor, K. (2009). How to grade for learning, K-12 (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Marzano, R. J., & Heflebower, T. (2011). Grades that show what students know. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 34-39.

Moore, R. (2005). Who does extra-credit work in introductory science courses? Journal of College Science Teaching, 34(7), 12-15.

Peters, R. & Buckmiller, T. (2015). Our grades were broken: Overcoming barriers and challenges to implementing standards based grading. Journal of Educational Leadership in Action, 4.

Reeves, D. (2004). Making standards work: How to implement standards-based   assessments in the classroom, school, and district. Englewood, CO: Advanced Learning Press.

Reeves, D. B. (2008). Effective grading practices. Educational Leadership, 65(5), 85-87. Retrieved from

Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.

Schoen, H.L., Cebulla, K.J., Finn, K.F., and Fi, C. (2003). Teacher variables that relate to student achievement when using a standards-based curriculum. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 34(3), 228-259.

Stiggins, R. J., Frisbie, D. A. & Griswold, P. A. (1989). Inside high school grading practices: Building a research agenda. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 8(2), 5-14. doi: 10.1111/j.1745-3992.1989.tb00315.

Spencer, K. (2012). Standards-based grading. Education Digest, 78(3).

Vatterott, C. (2015). Rethinking grading. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn’t always equal: Assessing grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse.

Wormeli, R. (2011). Redos and retakes done right. Educational Leadership, 69(3), 22-26.

Zoeckler, L. G. (2007). Moral aspects of grading: A study of high school English teachers’ perceptions. American Secondary Education, 35(2), 83-102.

Image credit: Kindergarten” (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) by kfergos