Tiers of Joy

Summerconf_logo_100x98No, we’re not talking about the reactions of today’s World Cup winners—we’re talking about how high school physics teacher Kim Rodriguez, who presented today at ASCD’s Summer Conference, differentiates homework and assessments for her students.

“One of the biggest challenges in secondary education,” said Rodriguez, “is that kids have seven classes a day, and if they get homework, even if it’s twenty minutes per subject, that’s three hours of homework every night.”

Rodriguez tiers homework into three levels: Straightforward, Uphill, and Mountainous. Also, homework sets are given out weekly, not daily. At the end of each week, Rodriguez gives a tiered assessment on the homework.

Rather than uniformity, tiered homework gives individual homework the challenge students need. For example, gifted students might find one-size-fits-all homework redundant. If I can solve this once, why do I have to do it multiple times? They may need less practice on a concept, while a struggling student could benefit from more practice.

Whether students do the homework or not, every Friday, Rodriguez checks for understanding with a tiered assessment that’s matched to its corresponding tiered homework (Straightforward, Uphill, Mountainous).

One conference attendee asked if there are any consequences for students not doing their homework.

Rodriguez replied that while content is king in standards-based grading—where grading is predicated on student understanding—her school also considers soft skills, like the ability to turn things in on time and work in groups. These are life skills, says Rodriguez, and undoubtedly important. However, zeros on homework should not sink a student for an entire semester.

You won’t be able to earn an A if you don’t hand in homework, and obviously, lack of practice can affect your performance on assessments, said Rodriguez. But if you demonstrate understanding of the content and concepts, that’s what grades should reflect.

“In college, I don’t remember doing a lot of homework. We had tests and quizzes, the professor would say, read these chapters or you may want to do these problems—but as a student, I had to learn what I needed to practice, in order to learn content, and then demonstrate that learning on assessments.”

The first few weeks were rocky, says Rodriguez. But kids caught on fast, and Rodriguez is there to guide kids toward the tiers that will help them most and to offer tutorials and support to get them up to their best level.

A couple important notes about tiers—first, kids pick their readiness level. Second, the “Straightforward” level contains what’s covered in the standards, the minimum students need to know to perform well on standardized tests. So all students, whether at a Straightforward or Mountainous level, have the baseline skills to advance through the standards. And third, Rodriguez makes all three tiers visible on homework assignments and assessments. So, students always have the option to challenge themselves if they want to reach to the next tier.

“I’m big on empowering kids to figure out how they learn best,” Rodriguez added. “That’s a life skill they’ll need in college and work.”

Kimberly Rodriguez, Carol O’Connor, and Cheryl Black presented “DI Makeovers: Before and After Examples of DI Secondary Classrooms” at the 2010 ASCD Summer Conference in Orlando, Fla. This session was part of our live stream coverage.