Thursday, March 13, 2014

How Dare You Question My Grades: The Road to Standards Driven Assessment

How dare you question my grades!

Perhaps you, too, feel this way or have had the pleasure of such company in a hallway conversation, in a parent conference, or in a professional learning experience. 

We teachers are defensive about our grading.  After all, we taught it, we tested it, and we’re sticking to it.  The students had their chance to learn it, to study it, and to prove they did it.

Fourteen years ago I learned to take responsibility for my students’ grades.  The nine weeks reporting period ended and my third graders had science averages in the 50s and 60s.  I couldn’t fail a whole class of third graders in science.  It wasn’t their fault; it was my fault.  Reflecting on the quarter, I recognized flaws in my teaching, in my test items, in the frequency of tests, in what I expected students to be able to do without explicit instruction, and so much more. 

That was a learning experience.  No grades went on the report card; instead, a letter to parents explained the situation.  Fortunately, an understanding principal and supportive colleagues backed my decision.

That experience was one of the best things to happen to me because it revealed that I am not perfect, my teaching is not perfect, my tests are not perfect, and my grading system is not perfect.  So, how can my students’ grades be a perfect reflection of their achievement in my class?  The short answer is that they are not. 

Wiggins’ recent posts on validity and reliability drive the point home even further.  Our tests are valid only if they truly measure what we set out to measure, and they are reliable only when the scores are consistent and errors are minimal.  Standardized tests take into account Standard Errors of Measurement (SEM), so there is a range in which the score is reliable.

Hmm…how about our classroom tests?  Do we take into account SEMs?  How do a student’s outlier grades (zero for not turning in homework, uncharacteristically low – or high – quiz scores) affect their course average?  What about the student who initially takes longer to learn the material (hence, low grades to start), but eventually learns as well (or better than) the student who made high grades all along?  Are percentage grades and averages the best indicator of a students’ learning? 

I submit that our current system of grading rewards the students who already have learned what we are teaching, or who are quick learners, and our system neglects those students who are most in need of learning and who need more repetition to master the content and skills being taught.

In a classroom that reports grades, we are likely to receive a fuzzy picture of what students can do and where their efforts need to focus for improvement.  I cannot count how many conferences I’ve attended where the teacher tells us every grade and assignment – science chapter 3, To Kill A Mockingbird test, vocabulary quiz ….  What skills and knowledge did the test assess? What strengths and weaknesses did the test reveal about this student?  Well, she turns in her work, but she needs to study more for tests.  Sounds like good information, but really, it’s useless because we don’t know what content knowledge and skills she lacks. 

A standards based grading system offers an alternative.  The assessment data teachers gather is coded with terms like proficient, progressing or needs development, as opposed to number or letter grades, but even this system is only as a good as the assessment it reports on.

I wish that well-crafted assessments and grading practices were the norm.  But they’re not. 

In truth, few teacher education programs focus courses on developing classroom assessments.  Mine didn’t.  Did yours?  I took a masters’ level course titled Tests & Measurement which focused on understanding standardized measures.  Other courses may have required me to create a test to accompany a unit, but there was no instruction in how to create a valid and reliable classroom test.  That learning has been left up to me to do on my own.  And I’ll bet your experience is similar.

Standards based grading results in more useful information than percentages and points.  (For another convincing viewpoint on standards based grading, read Jessica Lahey's article in The Atlantic.)  However, not only does standards-based grading require a philosophical shift to the grading mindset, but also it necessitates professional development for teachers to learn how to use a system that assesses differently and to learn to create assessments that more accurately represent the knowledge and skills students must master.

I’m not suggesting a one-shot workshop; significant initial training, followed by job-embedded regularly scheduled training and debriefing sessions must lead to teacher and administrator buy-in.  We need collaborative assessment writing and critiques of our test construction in the context of the standards being assessed. 

Maybe your school isn’t considering a change in grading policies.  You don’t have to work in a school that adopts a standards-based grading system to assess your students better.

This work can begin immediately.  In each teacher’s room.  Regardless of school wide buy-in. Every test, every assessment ought to provide specific indicators of students’ content and skill mastery. 

Suffice it say, all roads lead to the necessity of developing a deep understanding of standards.

More on this later.

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