Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Globe and Mail

Here's an interesting Globe and Mail article about the situation:

Deadline? What deadline?

Handing in a project late no longer carries an automatic penalty for Ontario students.

From Saturday's Globe and Mail

Chatting away the lunch hour outside Toronto's Central Technical School one day this week, four students agree that when it comes to penalties for late assignments, the rule of thumb is that there is no rule of thumb.

"It's all over the place," says Raniqua Thomas, who is in Grade 10. Some teachers are "old-school" — docking grades or meting out "big fat zeros" for lateness — while others are happy to let things ride.

"If the teacher doesn't like the student," adds her friend, Daniel Blake, also in Grade 10, "they won't give you extra time. Most people don't worry about the due date, just about getting it done."

"They're pretty laid-back," observes a third student, declining to give her name. "It depends on the teacher, but you really don't get penalized."

Welcome to the fluid state of Ontario's high-school grading system, which has been mired in confusion since these kids were in elementary school, say many of their teachers.

The province's evaluation rules – unique in Canada – were introduced in 1999 as part of a curriculum overhaul and have been revised several times since.

They strongly discourage teachers from deducting marks for lateness, although grades can be lowered when all other forms of persuasion – detentions, calls to parents, etc. – have failed.

The policy also requires educators to disregard missed or incomplete assignments if they feel the student has already met the requirements of that particular curriculum unit.

As well, final grades are now calculated using a complex matrix, or "rubric," that deconstructs a student's performance into four achievement levels and four skill sets.

At the Toronto District School Board, still struggling to apply the new policies, officials also expect teachers to "eyeball" students' marks and estimate final grades based on their "most consistent/most recent" work, rather than on every assignment.

The upshot is that many students now know they don't necessarily have to do each test or turn in every paper when it's due – a sharp shift in expectations likely to come as a surprise to many parents.

Educators, however, know the score. The system's warts are never more in evidence than right now, when thousands of teachers are slogging through piles of late assignments and deciphering the complex formula for tallying up year-end grades.

"They are a royal pain and a bookkeeping nightmare," one Toronto science teacher says.

Indeed, the policies have caused much consternation among teachers unions, which accuse Queen's Park of tinkering with grading methods in order to buoy provincial graduation rates.

They also argue that formulaic rules undermine their professional judgment, deprive them of important tools for enforcing discipline and erode the value of high-school credits.

Some also worry that this system fails to instill learning skills, such as punctuality, essential in the working world.

"Every teacher I know is against the policy and strongly favours restoring penalties for late assignments or missing class," says Pickering teacher Jon Cowan, head of the Durham Region education-issues committee of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers Federation.

In a OSSTF survey of 989 Durham teachers, almost 40 per cent said they felt pressured by administrators to lower failure rates and compromise academic standards.

Kathleen Wynne, Ontario's Education Minister, defends the approach, but adds that policies designed to allow students to make up missed or shoddy work are being reassessed.

"Everything we try will be to support the professional judgments of teachers."

Not all officials have such faith. Sue Ferguson, the TDSB's central co-ordinating principal, says many teachers simply prefer to do things the way they were taught.

"The world is turning. A lot of teachers want to control students with punitive strategies. They think that by docking marks, they'll improve student behaviour. But for at-risk students, it's a major deterrent."

That Ontario would even try to impose centralized evaluation standards surprises other provinces, where such policies are developed at the school or district level.

"I don't think that's something [Alberta Education] would take on," says Anne Mulgrew, supervisor of student assessment at the Edmonton School Board.

Does the Ontario ministry not "have enough to do?" asks Vancouver School Board chair Ken Denike, a retired University of British Columbia geographer. "I find that to be meddling in the extreme."

"What it's done is take some of the intelligence out of teaching," says Annie Kidder of People for Education, a parent’s advocacy organization. "I'm not sure parents know what a change happened when the reforms came in."

The initial motivation, provincial officials say, was to develop a consistent evaluation system and wean teachers from long-standing techniques, such as Bell curves. They also stress that boards and schools are supposed to adapt the provincial policy to their own circumstances.

Student evaluation is a hot topic in academic education circles. In recent years, influential experts, such as U.S. consultant Grant Wiggins, have promoted motivational, rather than punitive, methods of marking, always with an eye to making school less alienating for academically challenged or disadvantaged teens. Ontario policy-makers relied heavily on such experts in developing the current standards.

An article of faith among such experts is that a grade should be based on what a student submits, not when it's handed in. The reasoning: Not every kid works at the same pace, and some are holding down part-time jobs or contending with domestic strife.

So Ontario has introduced a range of measures to encourage underachieving teens to "recover" credits rather than flunk out. Officials point to rising test scores and graduation rates as evidence the policies are working, but Dr. Wiggins runs a company that trains teachers in evaluation and admits there is "not much data" on dropping the penalties.

And the TDSB seems in no hurry to assess the new evaluation system, for instance, by seeing if there has been an increase in late assignments. "That would be pretty difficult to do," says Ms. Ferguson.

Anecdotally, though, teachers say students are taking advantage.

"Kids aren't different than adults," says Neil Orford, a history teacher and department chair at Centre Dufferin District High School in Shelburne, Ont. "If you give them loopholes, they'll use them."

"That's a classroom management issue," Ms. Wynne replies. "If kids are finding loopholes, it's up to the teacher to make it crystal clear what the kids' limits are."

Mr. Orford says his school came up with a "compromise." Students have a due date and a "drop-dead" deadline, after which papers are not accepted.

"Most kids respond to my 'window of opportunity'," he says, adding that good teachers always accommodated students with legitimate reasons for missed tests or late papers.

Technically, though, Mr. Orford is violating the letter of provincial policy and could be overruled if he gave a zero grade and a parent complained.

So far, it hasn't happened. But he does note an unintended consequence of the new evaluation system. Because fixed due dates are a thing of the past, students now find themselves deluged by assignments they put off until the last minute.

The juggling doesn't faze bright kids, Mr. Orford says, "but it's made it much harder for students who are struggling."

John Lorinc is a Toronto journalist.

I still want to see what they plan to do about plagiarism.

Like I said before, philosophically I agree with most of what is said. And if kids are struggling for whatever reasons and can't get an assignment in on time, most teachers are understanding enough to address each student when the need arises. Do we really need such a blanket policy which does open the door for misuse, hurting those struggling students that need those accommodations the most.

It'll be interesting to see what happens come fall.


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