New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Grading Competencies

Okay in my last post I said I would talk a little bit more on how me and my teaching partner are writing and grading assessments for our competencies so here goes.

I have struggled a lot with how to define and assess competencies. There were so many questions. What is a competency? What is the best way to assess competency? What represents the different levels of competency? What role does DOK play in evidence of competency?

My first year, the assessments given were almost exclusively tests and if a scholar did not meet competency (a grade of 2.5 on a scale of 4), then they would have to retake a second version of the test after completing revision procedures. From a teacher standpoint it was easy to manage (test are easy to grade compared to other assessments) but never quite sit right with me as I find tests to be restrictive in the amount of creative thinking and problem solving they allow.

When I got a new teaching partner last year we went full swing in the opposite direction, trading in tests for more creative and engaging projects. A little bit more to grade from the teacher side but the richness of learning was worth it. However, we ran into the problem where it was difficult to assess and maintain competency on some of the more basic skills of the content.

If you don’t know, I teach chemistry and learning chemistry is akin to learning a new language. There is a whole new alphabet (the elements), writing (chemical symbols), combining letters to make words (chemical compounds), and combining words to tell stories (chemical reactions). It’s great to have creative projects but can you really consider a scholar competent if they aren’t fluent in the basics of the language?

To address both the basics skills and creative problem solving, we have moved towards two-part assessments of each competency: a basic skills test and an investigation.

First we outlined the core competencies of our course as a competency statement. These were based on NGSS as well as our professional judgement based on our course content and the 4-year context of our science curriculum.

Then, we wrote 20 question basic skills tests around the low DOK (1 & 2) learning goals of the competency. Finally, we designed investigations to get at the heart of the competencies. These investigations necessarily include the Science and Engineering Practices. This might be creating and explaining a model via screencast or writing a lab report around an experiment that they planned and carried out or creating an infographic to share information about nuclear technology.

These assessments are then graded and the scholar receives a grade on a 4 point scale based on our Bump It Up board, which I adapted from Madly Learning. The levels on the board are roughly based on DOK levels. If a scholar passes the Basic Skills Test then they are at a level 2. To earn a higher competency level they must complete the investigation to the specified criteria. A level 3 shows integration of science and engineering practices with the content. A level 4 goes beyond with more challenging subject matter and a deeper dive to find the real world connections to the content.


New Teacher Tips · NGSS · Project Based Learning

Our Take on Competency Based Grading

When I was interviewing for my current position, I was provided with a copy of the school-wide grading policy and asked what I thought about it and what challenges I might foresee in adopting this grading policy in my class. Our school has adopted competency-based grading, similar but not the same as standards-based grading. Here are some highlights of our grading policy:

  • Grades are based only on summative assessments. Formative quizzes, drafts, quick-writes, homework, etc. do not affect grades. Work habits do not affect grades. No deductions for late work and no extra credit. Grades are strictly based on what you know not how you get there.
  • If you don’t pass the first time, you just don’t know it yet. You can attempt to pass a summative assessment as many times as you need. Until you pass you receive no grade, entered as a No Mark (NM). Passing is considered a 2.5 on a scale of 4.
  • You have a total of 3 grading terms to pass all assessments (current term and 2 following terms), basically an additional 6 months after the term has ended. If ALL summatives have not been passed by then, you receive an F.
  • Grades are not calculated. We give grades based on trends in performance rather than percentages.

Competency Based Grading in Practice

Here’s how that philosophy has played out at our school. Teachers design summative assessments, which we call competencies, for their course. Competencies take many forms: tests, essays, presentations, projects, etc. Most classes end up having 10-12 throughout the year. Students complete the competencies, usually at the end of a unit. They are graded on a 4 point scale, usually based on a rubric of some sort. All students that get below a 2.5 receive a NM and have to re-do the competency, whether than is revising an essay or retaking a test or whatever.

Challenges and Concerns

When I was sitting in that interview, I voiced my concern over the nature of competencies. I was fresh out of a Universal Design for Learning course and was very concerned that this grading policy, while positive in progressive in many ways, could fall down a slippery slope if not executed right. What if a teacher only assessed using tests? Students like me who were good test takers would excel but another student with test anxiety would perpetually struggle. I flashed back to high school where we had “Standards,” tests in each class we could retake that, if passed, guaranteed at least a C in the course but if failed, guaranteed an F. Or what about lowering standards to make sure everyone passed. The benefits of our grading policy were great, but in my 4 years living in this system, there have definitely been some pitfalls and learning experiences.

What is a competency?

Over the past 4 years using competency based grading, I keep coming back to the same question: What is a competency? If you asked the students, they would probably tell you a competency is a test or essay or project. And therein lies my biggest concern about how we think about competencies. When I think of a competency, I think of it as a clearly defined bundle of knowledge and skills related to the content. However, the line between the competency and the assessment has become blurred. A display of competency shouldn’t be tied to whether a student passes a particular test. Is there another way to show competency? Honestly by talking to a student you can generally tell if they are competent or not. What if I have a conference with a student and they clearly understand the main ideas and skills but struggle to convey that on a paper-and-pencil test? Should they get a 2.5? Or is the bar held at whether a student can do it on a test? If that’s the case what is really being assessed: the knowledge or the ability to take a test? To quote Alfie Kohn,

“Tests mostly test how good you are at tests.”

Some Parting Words for Pursuing Competency Based Grading

For those interested in competency based grading, I’d like to offer some advice.

  • It’s best to have the support of the school. One of the key pieces of this system is the extension of time. Sometimes it takes a particular student takes longer for the content to click. They just don’t get it yet. Being able to extent beyond the current grading period is crucial.
  • Clearly define your competencies, and make sure the assessments line up with those competencies. Maybe it’s a bundle of learning objectives, or maybe it is one overarching statement (I prefer the latter).
  • Consider multiple ways of assessment. Be careful that the competency doesn’t become about the assessment. Keep the focus on the competency.
  • Have good retake/revision procedures. Give good feedback but also have ways for students to monitor themselves and each other.
  • Have a good rubric. Generic for use across multiple assessments or specific for each competency. I’ll write more on this later.

So there’s an overview of my experiences with competency based grading. I will share more specifics on how any why competencies have evolved in my class in a future post.

New Teacher Tips · Project Based Learning

Peer Review Protocol for Teamwork

One problem every teacher is bound to run into is work distribution with group projects. It seems inevitable that one person does all of the work and one person does nothing and it’s just doesn’t seem fair for all parties to get the same grade. How do you handle this situation? It’s so hard to tease out who did what (although revision history in Google Docs helps with this) and it doesn’t really solve the problem of unequal work distribution.

Enter the Teamwork Review Protocol

What is it?

The teamwork review protocol is a peer assessment tool that I’ve creating by adapting a critical friends protocol and combining it with a teamwork rubric I found online ages ago and really liked. Essentially, each group member is evaluated by their teammates by following a 4-step protocol which allows all parties to hear and be heard. The steps are as follows (printable version here):

Step One: Reviewee Self-Score (3 minutes)
Who Can Talk: The person being reviewed
Who is Silent: The rest of the team
Using the teamwork rubric, reviewee describes what scores they think they deserve in each of the 5 categories and why, giving specific examples. DO NOT WRITE ON RUBRIC.

Step Two: Probing or Clarifying Questions (1 minute)
Who Can Talk: Everyone
Who is Silent: No One
Team members ask questions about the reviewee’s contributions if needed.

Step Three: Team Discussion (3 minutes)
Who Can Talk: The rest of the team
Who is Silent: The person being reviewed
Team discusses if they agree with self-score and why, giving specific examples. Scribe uses highlighter to give score to the member. Reviewee is silent, taking notes

Step Four: Reviewee Response (1 minute)
Write the date at the bottom of the rubric and 1 sentence describing a teamwork goal for next week based on team’s feedback. Your goal should be a specific behavior you want to change.

How I Use It

I generally use the teamwork review protocol during our 4-week interdisciplinary projects. Every Friday the four-person teams go through the protocol for each teammate and mark their scores for the week. I color code each week so the students can see their growth (or sometimes breakdown) of their participation as a team member and only enter their final teamwork score into the gradebook. It can be done more frequently depending on the length of the project but I recommend it be done more than once. It’s incredible to see the honest feedback, self reflection, and growth that happens during this protocol. In addition, by following the protocol most of the shallow feedback that students give each other is eliminated as each statement made must be supported by specific examples. AND, our students become better participants in group projects.

***A word of caution: sometimes the process can be emotionally charged. I have had students yell, cry, argue, and friendships tested during this protocol. Embrace it as part of the process and ensure that before running the protocol you have built a safe and trusting classroom culture and have gone over constructive feedback. I recommend looking into restorative practices if it’s not something you’re already doing.***

New Teacher Tips · Social Justice

Advice from Our LGBTQA Scholars

This week we had an awesome PD put on by our LGBT Club during our monthly staff meeting this week and they had some great advice for teachers that I wanted to share.


Probably one of my favorite things our scholars shared with us was the Gender Unicorn. It breaks down the different parts of gender identity and helps individuals describe their sexuality and identity in a multifaceted way. Check it out here!


Our scholars also gave great information regarding pronouns. Most teachers give some sort of get-to-know-you survey at the beginning of the year. They recommended adding a “preferred pronoun” question to this survey. The club advisor also recommended you ask three questions if a scholar does ask for a different pronoun:

  1. Who knows?
  2. Can I tell other people? Parents?
  3. Would you like me to address you that way in front of the class?

These questions are important because you don’t want to out a scholar who isn’t ready, or accidentally out them to their parents from whom they were keeping their identity secret. In fact, it’s illegal in some states. Accidentally outing a scholar to their family could have drastic repercussions: abuse, conversion therapy, rejection, etc.

Addressing the Class

This question came from the teachers. Many teachers will address the whole class as “Ladies and Gentlemen” or “You Guys” and a few were wondering if that might isolate non-binary scholars. Our scholars indicated that it depends on the individual, and that “Guys” is now colloquially accepted as gender neutral. Although I like the club advisor’s recommendation of “Guys, gals, and non-binary pals.”

*All information contained in this post was provided by the Del Lago Academy LGBT Club

Social Justice

DACA and the Dream Act

As a teacher in San Diego, CA (aka Right On The Border), the recent rescinding of DACA has been a hot button topic at our school. There has been a lot of tension and confusion around what this means for our undocumented scholars and/or their families. Our counseling department did a wonderful job of clearing up the confusion and giving us as teachers a toolbox for understanding and communicating with concerned scholars. Here are some highlights from what they shared.

DACA is not the same as the Dream Act

Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is a federal program which gives its recipients protection from deportation for 2 years and eligibility for a social security number and work permit if they meet the criteria. This is set to be rescinded in 6 months if there is no action from Congress.

The Dream Act is a state program and what the Dream Act entails varies by state. In California, this includes eligibility for California colleges with in state tuition and possible financial aid. This is still active and in place, however, it could be affected by the removal of DACA by preventing Dreamers from participating in work study programs.

What Happens Next

No new DACA applications will be accepted, however, currently pending applications will still be processed and approved.

Current DACA recipients whose DACA expires before March 5 MUST reapply by October 5 in order to maintain their DACA protections for 2 more years. Current work permits are valid until their expiration date.

DACA recipients should not travel abroad as those protections (advance parole) are no longer in place. This means no study abroad for current college students and no visiting family abroad.

The Department of Homeland Security has stated that they will not proactively provide information to ICE. No one really knows what that means…

What to Tell Your Students

You might have students who are feeling very uneasy about this right now. Don’t tell them it will be okay because it might not be. They might be concerned that the government has a list of their immigration status and where they live. That is a valid concern. They might be concerned about scheduled ICE raids. That is also valid.

Do encourage them to apply for college. The Dream Act is still in place and the University of California is adamant about continuing and expanding support for Dreamers. This includes help with employment even without DACA protections.

Do encourage families to have a child care/family preparedness plan should parents or guardians be deported.

Do encourage them to know their rights. Don’t open the door without a warrant. They have the right to remain silent. They have the right to refuse to sign anything without a lawyer present. They have the right to a lawyer and a phone call.

Do be there for them and allow them to express how they’re feeling. Because this really sucks.

Know the Law

In the state of California schools are not permitted to share any information on immigrations status or any other school records without a warrant. ICE is also not permitted to conduct raids on school campuses. School should be a safe place for students.

Finally, Language is Important

The proper terminology is “undocumented.” No human is illegal. If you hear other students using the incorrect term, correct them. Words are powerful. Wield them carefully.


Digital Collaboration with Co-workers

I’m fairly certain that by now most people can agree that Google Apps are some of the best collaboration tools out there so I won’t waste words making that argument. I would, however, like to share how my content area partner and I have streamlined our use of google Docs into the perfect co-planning tool.

First, let me give you a bit of background on the structure of our school which has made Google Docs our lifesaver. We have PLCs but not in the traditional sense. Instead of having common prep time with our content area team we share a prep with an interdisciplinary team of three teachers. In my case (10th grade), I share my prep with a humanities teacher and an art/design teacher. The three of us have the same 100 students and this structure allows us to better meet the needs of individuals as well as create interdisciplinary projects and learning experiences. I wouldn’t trade this arrangement for the world but it does make content area planning a challenge due to lack of prep time.

Here’s where Google Docs comes into play. My content area partner, RB, and I live and die by Google Apps. First of all, we create everything in Google Drive for easy sharing and editing. Each unit of study has a master planning document which gives an overview of the units and standards, outlines each day with learning objectives,activities, and assessments, and links all resources needed for each lesson (worksheets, videos, whatever). The unit plan is our go to not only for planning, but also for communication. Here’s how we work:

  1. Before each new unit, RB and I carve out about an hour after school to hammer out a rough outline of the unit story, learning goals, assessment, and pacing. We then use the comments feature to assign tasks to each teacher to flesh out the details and create the necessary documents, find resources, etc.
  2. RB and I go our separate ways with our task list. As we finish things we resolve the comments with our assigned tasks, type up the lessons, and link the resources or documents as needed to the master unit plan document.
  3. When we teach the unit, we refer back to the unit plan to access the necessary worksheets, readings, activities, Kahoots, and whatever else we need for each day. If something worked really well or went really horribly or we have a new thought or idea we will add a comment to the document. 

The benefits of this system:

  1. It keeps all our documents organized. In all honesty my google drive is an overwhelming mess. The unit plan documents help us get to the right documents as well as bookmark great resources and share links to things outside of the Google suite.
  2. Both of our workloads are cut in half because we are sharing planning and creation duties. Fortunately RB and I have nearly identical teaching styles so we are easily able to share EVERYTHING.
  3. It reduces the time needed for face to face meetings. Once we have met and agreed on a vision for the unit, we don’t have to try to juggle our schedules to have regular planning meetings which is a saving grace. Don’t get me wrong, nothing really replaces face to face time, but without a common prep,  kids and doctors appointments make that nearly impossible for us. Google Docs makes it so we an work together asynchronously and keep pace with each other. We still check I with each other for about 10 minutes each day (our classrooms are connected after all).

Here’s as screenshot of our current draft unit plan so you can gets rough idea of what we do. 

New Teacher Tips

Tips and Takeaways from NSTA

I have had the benefit of attending the NSTA national conference 3 out of my 4 years in education and I have to say it’s one of the best professional development experiences. I love seeing and hearing what other people are doing in their classrooms or other sectors of education to help all students science.

That said, 4 days of NSTA can be overwhelming and after 3 years there are some recommendations to make the most of NSTA (or any conference).

1. Go with a group

If at all possible, don’t go alone. My first year going to NSTA I went by myself. I learned a lot but you get at least 4x more out of the experience if you go with a group. Our district has been very supportive in sending a team of 10ish people to NSTA every year including teachers from all schools, TOSAs (science and english!), our curriculum director, and even the assistant superintendent. You may not be that lucky but I’m sure you can find some teacher friends that are interested in going! Here’s why going with a group is better:

  • IMG_3872You can cover more ground. There’s probably 4 sessions in every time slot you want to go to. If you’re with a group you can divide and conquer.
  • Learning is a social process. At the end of the day it helps to process what you learned and bounce ideas off of other people.
  • The group texts are amazing. ————————————–>
  • It’s more fun! You’re probably in a new city you may have never been to. Explore it with a friend or two or ten!

2. Pick a Focus

National conferences can be overwhelming with all their offerings. There are literally thousands of sessions and workshops to choose from and they all sound awesome! It helps to narrow you focus to one or two things you want to learn about and use that focus to help you set your schedule. Last year my focus was assessment, so I went to a bunch of sessions and workshops on how to write NGSS assessments. This year my focus was equity and discourse. By picking a focus you can narrow the thousands of options down to a manageable amount.

3. Pack Light and Wear Comfy Shoes

At this past NSTA we were averaging 15,000 steps a day. That’s about 5 miles. Dress shoes and a huge bag are a recipe for pain. NSTA and many other conferences usually provide a handy bag. A lot of people like to carry their laptops and the program and chargers and… too much stuff. I live pretty minimally in general so I just toss a few things into my bag and I’m good to go:

  • Phone, wallet. The basics.
  • Water bottle. I have a reusable 16 oz Nalgene that I refill throughout the day.
  • iPad. I used to drag my laptop around to conferences (I have a 13″ Macbook air so it’s not too big) but honestly I don’t need it and lugging it around all day gave me shoulder pain. The iPad is sufficient for my browsing and note taking needs.
  • Notebook. I prefer jotting down notes by hand and am obsessed with my beautiful Erin Condren productivity layout notebook. I like FullSizeRenderthis notebook because it has lined pages for note taking, sticker flags that I use to label each session, and a sidebar where I jot down resources and websites the speakers share as well as questions. I added pockets for handouts, a ziploc pouch for business cards, a pen holder, and snap in post-its. I really don’t need anything else for notes.
  • Portable charger and cable. NSTA typically does not have free wifi so I use the heck out of my phone and I burn through the battery 2 or 3 times a day, especially if there are Pokemon nearby. My Mophie Powerstation Duo is a lifesaver. It does up to 8 full charges for my phone and because it’s portable I never have to be attached to the wall. (Side note: I use this a ton at Disneyland and end up being the charger of everyone’s phone).

4. Hit the Expo!

There is a lot of awesome free stuff.

5. Finally, Pace Yourself

I have a tendency to get overly enthusiastic and want to do ALL THE THINGS, so I tend to schedule myself from 8am-5pm with no breaks. Then I end up burning out and missing half my sessions. This year I made a rule that I wouldn’t attend any sessions before 9am. It worked out for me.

Private Reasoning Time

In our math classes the teachers use “Private Reasoning Time” to allow students to sit quietly and make sense of their learning before moving forward, and at the end of my 4 days I took a few hours of private reasoning time to organize my notes and reflect on my learning. I mentioned that my focus this year was on equity and discourse. After 4 days of taking everything in at NSTA I was left with questions about my own teaching practice, which is what you WANT to have after 4 days of professional learning. My main takeaways:

  • Are our competencies (assessments) standards aligned performance tasks? Should they be?
  • I don’t know what I don’t know about the science and engineering practices. I know what the end goal is but what is the learning progression? How do we get to that end goal?
  • How can I be more intentional about student talk?
  • How can I integrate and scaffold reading more in my lessons?
  • How relevant is my curriculum to ALL students?
  • What experiences/biases am I bringing to my classroom?

I’m looking forward to exploring these questions further with all the new tools I got from NSTA!