Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Thoughts on Grading as a measure of Learning

Here are some thoughts about the future of grading as a measure of learning. As I see it, there are two hindrances that are preventing grading from accurately reflecting learning at the present time. 1) Our school system is tied to A-B-C-D-F grading. 2) We have to give course grades every quarter. (I’m actually going to expound on these in reverse order.) Ideally, we would give one grade per course--at the end of the semester for semester courses, at the end of the year for year courses. This would create numerous problems, however. It would be difficult to adjust for students who move in mid-year (or mid-term, or whenever they feel like it; I’m certain I will get at least two more new students before the year is out). It destroys the sense of progress that students now have with their ability to know their standing at every minute (even though at the beginning of the term that standing is woefully inaccurate). It eliminates mid-term grading, which seems to be the breaking point when most parents finally start worrying that their child is behind (and was, admittedly, a wake-up call for me in the eighth grade). It would also upset the system of quarter credit we have in place, so changing this would require a top-to-bottom overhaul of the entire secondary system. A-B-C-D-F grading has two advantages: it mimics the college grading system, and it enables both high schools and colleges to “sort” and “rank” students. It does, however, fail in numerous regards. I had a student my first year at South Davis--still one of the most brilliant students I have ever taught--who should have been the Valedictorian when he graduated, and all his classmates knew it as well, but he struggled with completing homework, so he scraped by with Cs. A++++ understanding, A++++ learning, F work completion. At the other end, I graduated as one of sixteen Valedictorians at my high school. It hardly seems that big of an honor at that point. Instead of having sixteen speeches at graduation, the senior class elected two speakers (one of whom, we all knew, was the real Valedictorian and went on to get a PhD in physics from Stanford). And as we all know, the greatest complaints we have from kids and their parents is wanting to know what needs to be DONE in order to get an A (or in order to avoid an F). However, changing the A-B-C-D-F system would hamper our students’ ability to get into college or anything similar. Any way that they would need to use their school grades in the future would become fairly meaningless. Our ideas about learning are so deeply tied to that grading system that change would be nearly impossible, and completely impractical unless it was done in every school in the country. The solution would have to address not only these two problems, but the extra problems that each could create in absence. Here is my initial thought: One of the rumors I have heard about the new SBAC tests that will be piloted in 2014 and in place in 2015 is that they will be adaptive, and therefore they will be able to measure the students’ grade level understanding of the content. In an ideal world, teachers would be able to create similar assessments to monitor student progress toward those goals. If I ever become smart enough to figure out how to do that then the lion’s share of a student’s grade in my class will be based on their progress toward the goal of grade level proficiency. In a mainstream English class like mine, I would set it up something like this: with 8th grade proficiency set as the initial base, an A in 9th grade English would be awarded to a student who reaches 9th grade end-of-year proficiency. A B would be given to a student who gets about 80% there, so is maybe two months behind in proficiency. A C to a student who is three months behind in proficiency, a D to a student who is four months behind, and an F to a student who has learned less than half the year’s content. These levels could be scaled for term and mid-term grades as well. (In fact, in a perfect world, I would want them to have some kind of assessment once every month.) I could also make an adjustment for students who did not achieve proficiency in the 8th grade, so an A would be a full year past where they were at the end of 8th grade, a B seven months past, etc. (Or we could stop the nonsense of social promotion, but that would require a bigger act-of-congress sort of step than changing from A-B-C-D-F would.) I think general education teachers like myself have a lot to learn from the special education teachers. Are their grades tied specifically to the student’s IEP goals? I don’t know, but goal-based grading would probably go a long way to getting grading tied more directly to learning. If we could guide students to set goals for their progress in specific areas (easy in language arts, since our core is now broken into five areas), their grade could be based in a similar way on their progress toward goals. However, meeting with students to set goals takes time. I have 230 students now, so if each goal meeting takes ten minutes (plus an hour of advanced prep time, which is a pretty conservative estimate) I would need nearly forty hours of time near the beginning of each school year, and about six weeks of time devoted to preparing for those goal meetings in advance (and doing nothing else). But surely there is a way to do something of the kind for students. Well, I think I’ve degenerated into rambling now, so it’s probably time to sign off. Thoughts?