Sunday, December 18, 2016

Beyond Grades: How Am I Doing?

Part 2 in a series on grading and feedback

In a post two weeks ago, I argued that we need to move away from grades for reporting student achievement. I argued that grades are ineffective in reporting student learning, encourage a grade acquisition orientation rather than a learning orientation, and destroy the motivation of lower achievers. But if I am going to argue against grading, I need to be ready with suggested replacements for grades. I begin an attempt to do this below. I would appreciate it if you tell me what you think of my ideas.

First, I think we need to decide what our goals are for reporting out on student achievement. I would argue that there are three reasons we wish to assess and report out and all of them have to do with providing feedback to stakeholders. First, we want to report on student learning to the student so that the student can answer the question, "How am I doing?" Next we want to provide feedback to parents, so that parents can answer the question, "How is my child doing?" Finally, we want to provide feedback to the school/district to inform curricular and instructional decisions moving forward and to answer the question, "How are we doing?"

In today's post I will address the first question; the one related to reporting out to the student.

How Am I Doing?

Learning is a process of adding new information to information you already know. Any assessment program should inform a student about what she already knows and what she needs to learn. Reporting a grade to a child provides only a vague notion of what is known and not known. Better to give more specific feedback. Let's take reading as an example. Here is the information that a child needs to know about reading progress.
  • What am I doing well in reading right now that I should continue doing?
  • What aspects of reading do I need to work on?
  • What do I need to do to improve in these areas?
  • What are we going to work on together to improve in these areas over the next few weeks?
Ideally, students participate in this assessment through their own self-assessment. In my reading classroom, my students and I would periodically brainstorm a "criteria chart" of reading behaviors that we had learned about in class. After developing the chart, I would ask the students to identify on a T-chart those things on the list they were doing well and one or two things they still needed to work on. I would then sit individually with the students to discuss their strengths and weaknesses (sometimes lists would change based on my input) and then develop goals for the next few weeks.



OK, I think I know what you are thinking. This may be fine and good for a skill based subject like reading or writing, but what about a content-based subject like science? Again, I think a similar strategy would be most effective. The key will be identifying what you want the children to know and be able to do in any particular science unit. The assessment/feedback loop must be focused on the knowledge you want kids to acquire and feedback on how well they have acquired that knowledge.

Let's say we are in a fourth grade classroom studying a unit on Earth Science. The objectives for the unit are as follows:
  • Students will be able to identify various ways that land forms change rapidly and slowly.
  • Students will be able to identify the elements of the rock cycle.
  • Students will learn that rocks can be identified by their properties and will be able to to identify various types of rocks.
  • Students will be able to identify the differences between rocks and minerals.
  • Students will be able to work like a scientist by conducting experiments in crystal formation and rock formation.
Through authentic assessments (in-class activities where students get a chance to demonstrate their understanding), observations, written work, quizzes and tests, the teacher gathers knowledge about what the student knows and is able to do. During the unit and at the end of the unit, occasional conferences, often brief and informal, occasionally a bit longer and formal, are held to provide specific feedback to the students. By the end of the unit teachers report to the students on their success in achieving the objectives. In this scenario the questions would be as follows.
  • What do I know about land forms, elements of the rock cycle, rock identification, and the differences between rocks and minerals? What gaps in my knowledge have I shown in these topics? What can I do now and in the future to fill in these gaps in my knowledge?
  • To what extent have I shown the ability to think and work like a scientist by conducting experiments? What do I need to work on to make more effective use of scientific problem solving?
  • What are my strengths and challenges in reading science content?
  • What progress am I making in acquiring science-based vocabulary?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses in writing about science content?
This kind of direct and specific feedback is much more helpful than a vague, imprecise grade, which tells me almost nothing about what I have learned and what I need to work on. If one reason for grades is to provide feedback to children, surely some system like the one described above provides far superior and much more useful feedback.

Perhaps you are thinking that this is all well and good, but parents will never accept it. Parents want grades. Parents believe grades have some meaning, primarily because we have tried to convince them that they do over the past 150 years. We all know better. We need to tell parents we were wrong, We need to show them there are better ways to report on learning. In a subsequent post, I will address how we can best answer the parent question, "How is my child doing?"

To read about a procedure that two school districts used to do away with grades, click here.