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June 1999

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How to Grade For Learning

By Ken O’Connor

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Reviewed by Rick Chambers

Ken O’Connor, a curriculum co-ordinator with the Toronto District School Board, says the classroom must provide five elements: "trust and belonging, meaningful content, enriched environment, intelligent choices and adequate time."

It’s not surprising then, that in How To Grade For Learning, O’Connor takes a compassionate view of grading. He is concerned about students’ success and advocates for second chances, learning from and not being penalized by mistakes, making time a flexible element in assessment practices, avoiding bell curves and other norm-referenced techniques, and emphasizing grading as a method to indicate achievement, not attitude.

He has little tolerance for pop quizzes or other methods of ambushing students, failing to match teaching to testing, using zeros indiscriminately, worshipping averages, grading first efforts and employing other inconsistent grading criteria.

O’Connor makes the point that communication is the prime reason for grading students’ work. Students, parents, school administrators, post-secondary institutions and employers all want clear information on student achievement, and assume that grades reflect some kind of accuracy. However, O’Connor says that grading practices have to go beyond sorting and selecting students; teachers have to "use grading in the service of learning."

Robert Marzano, an American writer and educator, has said that accurate feedback to students is the most important instructional technique that teachers have, and yet "grading is the most idiosyncratic thing we do."

Given that grading is complicated, subjective, emotional, and inescapable, O’Connor points out that it has a limited research base, no single best practice, and if done badly can be very damaging to students and teachers.

O’Connor comes down firmly on the side of criterion-
referenced grading. "Teachers use criterion-referenced standards when they provide their students with rubrics – scoring scales that clearly indicate the criteria for quality work." If students are going to learn to self-assess and improve their performances, they need to understand how the grades they received were determined.

Teachers find when using criterion-referenced grading that student achievement will improve and predictably, grades will be high. As O’Connor says, teachers "must be prepared to give students the grade they deserve based on comparison with absolute (criterion-referenced), not relative (norm-referenced) standards." And he writes, "When students know how they will be assessed, and especially when they have been involved in assessment decisions (rubrics), the likelihood of student success is increased greatly."

O’Connor emphasizes the role of communication in grading. If grading is to reflect student achievement, then certain basic practices should follow. "Achievement demonstrates knowledge, skills, and behavior that are stated as learning objectives for a course or unit of instruction… Grades are limited to individual achievement and are not used as punishment for poor attendance, inappropriate behavior, or lack of punctuality."

O’Connor supports the concepts of second chances and flexible time frames. "In the real world, very little of consequence depends on a single opportunity for performance …"

Timed assessments militate against many kinds of learners and their results do not accurately reflect student achievement. "Reflective learners and slow writers often receive lower grades than they deserve as a result of being required to perform inappropriately time-limited assessments."

O’Connor’s thesis is captured in one sentence near the end of the book: "Grades are – and can never be anything more than – symbols that summarize achievement."

Inevitably, parents, students, employers, school administrators and others will try to read more into the numbers than they represent. All the more reason, according to O’Connor, to keep the numbers clean and honest. If grades summarize achievement, then students should be given many opportunities and methods to demonstrate what they know and have learned.

How to Grade for Learning Arlington Heights, Illinois, 1999; ISBN 1-57517-123-6; $27.95 U.S.; Skylight Professional Development; 1-800-348-4474; 

Rick Chambers, who taught English for 27 years, is a program officer in the College’s Professional Affairs Department.


Keys to Literacy for
Pupils at Risk

By Lee Dobson and
Marietta Hurst

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Reviewed by Cheryl Zinszer

Lee Dobson and Marietta Hurst have written a very user-friendly book. They present observations, give sound suggestions and strategies. Connections between practices and the theory that supports them are clearly explained.

Lee and Marietta begin by stating the principles that are necessary to implement their program for pupils at risk. Their first three chapters present keys to understanding reading and writing and how they develop. The authors emphasize that reading and writing intertwine and interact at all times.

The book also provides readers with keys to developing interactions with pupils. The authors claim that if you practise using these strategies, they will become second nature. The impressive issue is that these strategies work in mainstreamed classes, ESL classes and learning centres.

The final chapters of the book set out the specific reading and writing programs, providing teachers with ideas to identify pupils’ strategies, evaluate their effectiveness and individualize programs. The authors emphasize that we must recognize the positive strategies that pupils at risk bring to their learning. As educators, we need to applaud and confirm these good strategies. Our acknowledgment will let the students know they are on the right track and will enhance their self-esteem.

Keys to Literacy for Pupils at Risk is well worth reading.

Keys to Literacy for Pupils at Risk Toronto, Pippin Publishing, 1997; ISBN 0887510809; $16.95; can be ordered from General Distribution Services (416) 213-1919 or 1-800-387-0141.

Cheryl Zinszer is principal of Anne Hathaway Public School in Stratford and past president of the Ontario Council for Exceptional Children and the Canadian Council for Exceptional Children.


Some Magazines of Note for Teachers and Others Interested in Education

Reviewed by Christopher Ball

Remember the promise of a paperless society, where less information would bombard us and computers would handle all of it? Well, there’s more information and more paper on my desk each day, it seems, and less time to read it. In order to keep up with developments in your field you really have to select a few key sources that cover the terrain in a balanced fashion.

Here’s a quick fix on some key Canadian periodicals
of interest to College members. We’ll take a look at some interesting international publications in a future issue of Professionally Speaking. I’ve found these titles to be an excellent start for keeping up to date on education issues.

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Education Canada
Quarterly, Canadian Education Association, Toronto, $28 plus GST, call (416) 924-7721 to subscribe

In the fall of 1998, this journal was reformatted and announced the "premier issue." The pedantic will note that few premier issues arrive as Volume 38, and in fact this title has been with us for some time. It was in need of a face lift and it’s great to see a key Canadian education title emerge in a full-size, pleasing layout.

The premier issue focussed on the theme of educational reform and examined the areas of authentic assessment, parental involvement in school councils and the issue of school choice.

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Education Today
Three times a year, Ontario Public School Boards Association, Toronto, $12, (416) 340-2540

This journal covers the local Ontario developments sometimes missing in the larger periodicals, providing a useful overview of the issues affecting school boards and teachers in the province. Coverage is not limited to the province, however, with a recent volume covering financial problems in the North West Territories and an excellent interview with Carol Shields, author of the award-winning novel The Stone Diaries.

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Green Teacher: Education for Planet Earth
Quarterly, Green Teacher, Toronto, $23.36 plus GST,
(416) 960-1244

This publication is something of a local success story, written for and supported by teachers. Green Teacher now has regional editors throughout Canada and the United States, giving this "little magazine that could" excellent coverage of environmental issues in North America and beyond.

Full of practical ways to incorporate global education across the curriculum, this title is a one-stop source for environmental education. Indexed in the Canadian Education Index, ERIC, and the Canadian periodical index.

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Orbit: A Commentary on the World of Education
Quarterly, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, Toronto, $38.52, (416) 267-2185

One of the core titles for any look at the educational landscape in Canada. The table of contents for Orbit contains names that we are all familiar with, such as Hargreaves, Fullan, Leithwood and Earl. The articles are always timely and written by people who truly know their topic.

Coverage spans the early years right through to high school and graduation. Recent issues have addressed such areas as phonics/whole language in the literacy program – an excellent discussion of the issue for experts and novices alike – accountability in schools and the changing role of Ontario’s teacher federations.

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Our Schools/Our Selves
Six issues annually – three journals, three books, Our Schools/Our Selves Education Foundation, Toronto, $38, (416) 497-4110 ext. 605

Here’s a magazine that pulls no punches and preserves the active and informed voice of the left. Our Schools/Our Selves calls itself the magazine for educational activists and it doesn’t disappoint. For passionate commentary on legislative lobbying, political policy process and the corporate agenda in the classroom look no further.

Christopher Ball manages the College library.


Legal Handbook For Educators, Fourth Edition

By Anthony F. Brown

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Reviewed by John Cruickshank

As the introduction accurately states, "this book is about education law in Ontario."

Author Tony Brown has organized and explained the key provisions of the relevant statutes and regulations in a way that makes them more accessible and understandable. The major acts and relevant regulations are highlighted in a very easy-to-read format with the sections that have the greatest everyday use discussed in appropriate detail.

Specifically, eight chapters of the book cover the Education Act, Going to School (attendance), Statutory Roles and Responsibilities, Governing the Education Profession (Ontario College of Teachers), Special Education, Teacher-School Board Collective Bargaining, Negligence and School Administration.

The specific issues in each section are presented in a most useful question and answer format, which adds greatly to the usefulness of this book as a resource document. The questions are answered with sufficient detail and more importantly, the answers include more specific reference to sections of the relevant acts and regulations, which will guide the reader to more detailed information when required.

The appendices include the essential acts and regulations for quick reference: five policy program memoranda, the Ontario Student Record guideline, 13 regulations under the Education Act, four regulations under the Ontario College of Teachers Act, and excerpts of the Education Act and the Ontario College of Teachers Act, the Teaching Profession Act, regulations under the Teaching Profession Act, the Trespass to Property Act, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Judicial Review Procedures Act and the Statutory Powers Procedures Act.

This book is clearly an essential reference on education law. In addition to being a resource which all school administrators should have, the material is presented in a format which can and should provide important legal information for anyone involved in education in Ontario. The fact that this book is so very current has made it an important reference for me and I can readily attest to its usefulness.

Legal Handbook for Educators, Fourth Edition Toronto, 1998; ISBN 0-459-23801-9; $48; Carswell Thomson Professional Publishing; (416) 609-3800 or 1-800-387-5164.

John Cruickshank is a superintendent with the Peel District School Board and Vice-Chair of the Ontario College of Teachers.


A Multi- Disciplinary Approach to Sexual Abuse


A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Physical Abuse

Videos and Workbooks

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Reviewed by Ruth Milikin

How can professionals with differing agendas, priorities and methods address and respond to the difficult issues of suspected child physical and sexual abuse?

Two videos produced by Canada Law Book, A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Sexual Abuse and A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Physical Abuse, suggests that professionals who work with children work together in the best interest of children. The experts in these videos – some of the top people in this field – stress that even professionals who have the best interests of the child at heart may hamper the investigation and identification of suspected child sexual or physical abuse because of a lack of understanding of the issues, differing professional methods or clashing priorities.

Each video is accompanied by a helpful workbook. They offer practical suggestions to help in the identification of suspected child abuse and legal background, including the obligation to report suspected abuse.

Both videos present the material in a straightforward manner. However, both of these brief videos contain very graphic and disturbing forensic photography depicting actual evidence of physical and sexual abuse of children. The material may not be suitable for staff meetings.

The videos are available in the Ontario College of Teachers library as resource material for members.

A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Sexual Abuse & A Multi-Disciplinary Approach to Physical Abuse; $195 each; Canada Law Book Videos (905) 841-6472 or 1-800-263-3269

Ruth Milikin, who has more than 20 years experience in dealing with child abuse issues, is an investigator in the College’s Investigations and Hearings Department.