Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Assessment without grades

Continuing my obsession with assessment, today I've found myself entangled in a bunch of posts about whether grades are useful, and if not, what they should be replaced with.

Jason Bedell makes the excellent point that a traditional letter grade or percentage of points aggregated from various assignments conflates several factors

  • Mastery of the material (Can I meet X learning standard?)
  • Timing of the learning (Could I meet it for the first homework assignment? The quiz? The final test? The week after the final test?)
  • Student organization and motivation (Did I show up for class / turn in my assignments / review for the test?)

(Or if you're the pointy-haired boss, two of the three may be sufficient.)

Because it's traditional, the A/B/C system is fairly well understood by everyone, and I would even argue that future colleges and employers are comfortable with the conflation of learning / timing / organization, because speed, mastery, and organization are also all important for success in those contexts.

However, there's a fairly good point to be made that in terms of fostering real learning on the parts of all our students, and making conversations and partnerships with parents easier, untangling those three elements is useful. Jason does it by using standards-based grading, where each student is assigned points for meeting each learning standard (e.g. "Define and classify special types of quadrilaterals”) between 1 ("attempts the problem") and 4 ("demonstrates thorough understanding). He doesn't think students should be penalized for learning more slowly, so there aren't standards around how fast you master the material. If organization is important, then it would get it's own standard or set of standards, rather than being conflated with mastery of the material.

I'm not exactly sure how this would look in a classroom I was in charge of, but I'm happy to have the food-for-thought. (More thinking on the topic of abolishing grading here, which I'm hoping to eventually work my way through.)

On a related note, Dan Pink says what matters for job performance and satisfaction (once you're paying people enough that they don't have to worry about money) is:

  • Autonomy
  • Mastery
  • Purpose

If you release students from your timetable (autonomy), focus on mastery of standards in your grading scheme, and help students find the relevance of the material to their lives (purpose), does that satisfy all the elements?

Also, what does that look like for teachers? In public schools, NCLB has certainly encouraged a move away from autonomy towards standardized curricula, and a focusing of purpose on test scores. Not super-hopeful for future job satisfaction in that context.

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