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Grading and Assessment: Where should we be going?

December 12, 2011

Students emotions when graded can vary! Courtesy of IStockPhoto

I have been reading a great deal about assessment and grading recently and hope to organize some thinking around these important ideas.  There is significant activity in the literature on each of these ideas.  Here are some articles and books I have read recently on these topics.

The latest edition of Educational Leadership, Effective Grading Practices, has a series of excellent articles on assessment and grading.  In their article in Educational Leadership, Reporting Student Learning, O’Conner and Wormeli write:

“Grades should be accurate, consistent, meaningful and supportive of learning.”  p.40

They describe the problems we typically face in each of these categories.

With regard to accuracy, the authors see that teachers need to address in the following areas:

  • Grading non-academic factors
    • Grading behaviors such as organization can be misleading relative to measuring if a student has mastered content.  The authors point out that an organized notebook is a path that certain students take to achieve mastery, but other students may not need organized notebooks to achieve mastery.  “Organization is a helpful tool that can make learning efficient, but it is not a learning target or standard.”
  • Grading group work
    • Like organization, cooperative learning is a method by which students can understand concepts, but it is not essential. If a student’s work on a lesson is a collaborative group project, the grade on the project may not reflect the student’s full understanding.  Cooperative learning is a good teaching strategy but grading should reflect what individual students in the group know and can do, as well as what the group knows and can do.
  • Averaging student work
    • Averaging grades decreases the accuracy of the grade for a student.  The authors write: “Looking at consistent levels of performance over time is the most effective way to gauge a student’s understanding of the standards.  We should look at evidence over time.”  Why do we aggregate all assessments into a single grade?  We should separate our product, process, and progress assessments into different grades.  If a student’s effort is excellent, represented by doing all he homework well, but he struggles on summative tests, aggregating all his assessments into one grade doesn’t allow for clear communication of what he knows and can do.
  • Using zeros in grading
    • Using zeros on a 100-point scale only falsifies the record of what a student knows and has the effect of creating despair for the student.  A 4-point scale is much better way to accommodate zeros as grades because of equal divisions from 0-4.  The authors suggest using smaller scales with clear descriptors.  A question they ask in the article is: are we teaching to make sure students are mastering the standards or are we teaching to create a culture of documenting deficiencies, such as a gotcha culture?”

The authors promote creating report cards that have separate academic and non-academic categories for evaluating students’ understanding of ideas and their classroom behaviors.  Both are important, but they should be graded separately by the classroom teacher.

With regard to consistency, the authors suggest three practices or policies that schools need to adopt:

  • achieve consensus on the primary purpose of grades and publish a purpose statement available to all.
  • strive for consistency in their grading practices across all teachers.
  • teachers need to collaboratively grade to develop a common language and understanding of what a particular grade means. What does “proficient” mean?

Our goal in schools should be to decrease the subjective element of grading.  Schools need to develop a coherent grading policy and not leave policy setting to individual teachers.

With regard to grades being meaningful,

  • create reports that are meaningful, that tell the student and parent something more than just a grade for a course.
  • standards-based reporting gives parents and students information on what the student knows and how proficient they are on the standards.

With regard to support for learning,

  • effective assessment should reveal how well the student has mastered the content
  • formative assessment should be used to give students and teachers high-quality information about the teaching and learning.
  • corrective instruction should be used in parallel with formative assessment to advance student learning.
  • formative and summative assessments should be set up in a gradebook differently and revisions should be accommodated strategically.
  • schools need to decide whether grades should be the only currency for learning.

At the Annual Learning Forward Convention in Anaheim, CA I went to participate in Tom Guskey’s pre-conference workshop on Becoming An Assessment Leader.  He spoke on the four essential understandings about assessment in standards-based education.  The four are:

  1. Ideas are not new.  We have to ask what do we want students to learn and what evidence will we accept to verify their learning?  He pointed out that these were the ideas Ralph W. Tyler writes about in his 1949 book, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction.  Instead of measuring seat time, why not measure what students learn? In the culture of measuring seat time we often say, “I taught them but they didn’t learn it.”
  2. Ideas are more important than vocabulary. Let’s not get hung up on the definitions of terms and lose site of the ideas we are trying to promote to advance student achievement.
  3. Good ideas can be implemented poorly.  The important question is how will we translate an idea into practice and how will we know if the implementation works?  What is our evidence?
  4. Success in educational reform hinges on what happens within the classroom.  What we assess is what we value?

Guskey’s guidelines for successful implementation of high-quality assessment practices hinge on two important approaches from change theory.  A school’s task if they want to improve student learning through improved assessment practice is to:

  1. Think Big, but start Small.  Don’t require too much, too soon from teachers and administrators
  2. Ensure assessments become an integral part of the instructional process, quizzes & tests should be learning tools, not simply evaluation devices that mark the end of learning.

He suggests that a school define their vision going 3-5 years out and design a path for how to get there?  Teachers might agree to consider implementing new assessment practices, but then not use them.  Teachers need coaches to model desired practices and they need to be supported through the change process.

Guskey suggests that three implications fall out of these two big ideas:

  • Implication #1 assessments must be sources of information for students and teachers.
  • Implication #2: assessments need to be followed by high-quality corrective instruction.
  • Implication #3: students must be given a second chance to show improvement.

If we are to successfully change assessment practices in schools teachers need to incorporate high-quality formative assessments into lessons.  Teachers also have to help students assume more responsibility for their own assessment by including them in the process instead of students being passive recipients of teacher-designed assessments.  Guskey asked this question of participants.

“You are in charge of a school, how will you improve scores on standardized tests without improving the teaching.”

He then proceeded to explain that the first step to improving teaching practice is to improve teacher’s understanding of how to write effective assessments, especially formative assessment.

In research he has conducted, when you ask students about their assessments, “what do you like about this stuff?”  The most frequent responses are:

  • I like the 2nd chances on assessments
  • I like when I see tangible evidence of success.
  • I like when a teacher believes in me.
  • I like when teachers reteach material after learning what we don’t know.
  • I like when assessments give me information about what I know and don’t know.

Guskey points out that when students experience good formative assessment, they have a much more positive learning experience because their journey down the path of learning is clearly marked.

With regard to corrective instruction, Guskey was very clear that if teachers are interested in having their students master the standards and learning targets they set before them, they must consider adopting this practice after a learning episode.   Using corrective instruction, doesn’t mean teaching the same thing the same way.  Teachers must teach material differently the second time around and take into account the student learning issues.  Some ideas for corrective instruction that he presented were:

  •   reteaching
  •   individual tutoring
  •   peer tutoring
  •   cooperative teams
  •   course texts
  •   alternative texts
  •   alternative materials
  •   academic games
  •   learning kits
  •   learning center
  •   computer activities

But he also pointed out that those who know it first time around need extended activities like,

  •   peer tutoring
  •   cooperative teams
  •   developing practice exercises
  •   special projects or reports
  •   games, problems, or contests
  •   advanced computer activities
  •   activities for gifted students

One of the last topics in his presentation was on the value of using rubrics in grading assessments.  Guskey believes that schools should help teachers become more adept at designing and effectively using rubrics.  His answers to why teachers should use rubrics were:

  1.   they are powerful tools for teaching and assessing.
  2.   they help students become more thoughtful judges of their own work.
  3.   they reduce time teachers spend evaluating student work.
  4.   they allow teachers to accommodate differences in heterogeneous classes.
  5.   they are easy to use and explain.
  6.   they greatly improve objectivity in grading.

Here are two web-based resources for designing rubrics.

Teacher Vision, Creating Rubrics
RubiStar

My hope is that I have given you a good framework to use in your work on assessment.  I highly recommend the books, journals and articles I referenced above.  I would also recommend other books by  Tom Guskey, Robert Marzano, James Popham and many other educators who are writing about assessment and grading.

Share your comments, questions and ideas to continue this work.

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