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Making the grade: Doctoral candidate creates classroom tool

April 28, 2010

For years, Heather Cruz was frustrated by her students’ lack of understanding when it came to how they were graded in the classroom.  As a teacher and later as a principal, Cruz envisioned a tool to help students better comprehend the process of grades, test scores and more.

Now eyeing her doctoral degree in leadership and innovation as a student in the second cohort of doctoral graduates from ASU’s College of Teacher Education and Leadership (CTEL), Cruz helped develop a Student Data Portfolio that begins to address her students’ confusion and is in use at Verrado Middle School in the Litchfield Elementary School District.

She has dug deeper into that portfolio while working toward her doctorate in education.

“As a principal, I spent many years talking to students about why they had the grades they had,” said Cruz, who is the assistant superintendent in the Litchfield District. “They truly did not understand the process behind grades and how their grades were determined.

“The Student Data Portfolio is an outgrowth of their frustrations and the frustrations of teachers at my school. After doing some research, we developed a tool to try to help the students understand the process. The innovation was the portfolio, and it has now been in use for five years," Cruz said.

“Through the portfolio, we are now putting into the hands of our students the chance to set and reflect on their goals.  The students do this with their teachers in the classroom. The teachers develop their curriculum in line with Arizona state standards, and they track and graph student grades on a mid-term and a quarter basis.” 

Cruz said the portfolio has morphed into something she and teachers in the district believe is helping to motivate students to perform at a higher level, as well as making them more accountable for their own learning.

Most recently, Cruz has turned her attention to the portfolio’s real effectiveness. Debby Zambo, a CTEL assistant professor of educational leadership and innovation, is Cruz’s dissertation chair. She says the doctoral candidate’s interest in understanding the portfolio’s level of success is the driving force behind her dissertation.

“Heather believed she had developed a good idea with the portfolio, but she wanted to understand its effectiveness and how it could be improved," Zambo said. "We’ve all heard theories of motivation like setting goals and helping students understand that learning is incremental, not an innate entity. Heather investigated these ideas in a real-world setting.  She looked at the goals students set in their student data portfolios, and she asked students what they thought about learning. She took theories she learned in our college and looked at how students used or did not use them.”

In the introductory paragraph of her dissertation, Cruz writes: “There is a plethora of information on student learning, the importance of feedback on learning, and the importance of setting goals, but little is known about how or if students specifically use grades and feedback to adjust their learning or set learning goals. Even though state leaders, teachers and parents use test scores along with classroom grades to understand students’ learning, inform instruction and fund programs, it has been my experience most students do not.”

Zambo said Cruz’s study is well designed and has helped the candidate discover that while many students thought the portfolios helped their motivation, personal accountability and their feelings about grades, assessments and goals, others felt neutral and some had negative views. Uncovering the range of students’ perceptions has provided further development of the portfolio.

“Heather wanted to learn more about theories of learning and motivation and understand how to collect and analyze data in multiple forms,” said Zambo, who has experience as an early elementary school special education teacher and expertise in the field of educational psychology. “She listened to students and discovered how they feel about testing and grades.”

As Cruz monitors the success of the Student Data Portfolio, she considers her doctoral pursuit and the unique qualities of the CTEL program.

“I chose the Ed.D. program here because I knew it would open my mind to new and different perspectives on current issues and trends in education,” Cruz said. “The group of people I have worked with through my cohort have been wonderful, and the faculty have been incredible. They have been supportive, but also will push you to the next level; they help you find that higher level. The doctoral program here takes research out of isolation and puts it into everyday practice. I have developed a skill set that I will apply in my job setting for years to come.”

Zambo said Cruz’s real-world lab – the classroom – provides valuable lessons and opportunities the assistant superintendent will realize in the future.

“Children vary and real classrooms are chaotic," Zambo said. "Teacher research is realistic because it is gathered amidst the goings on of classroom life. It provides a more realistic view and it develops the kind of practitioner researchers our schools need. Arizona’s schools need leaders who take action, work hard and challenge the status quo.

“I believe Heather is leaving our program with an ability to make a difference in her workplace through research in action and the collaboration skills she has built," Zambo said. "This opens possibilities.”