Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Assessment and grading

Each year at ASB we have a summer read, and this year our book is On Your Mark:  Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting by Thomas R. Guskey, a profession of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky College of Education.  This post is going to reflect my thinking about assessment, based on reading this book.

Guskey starts with a historical look at grades - at one time only a few students with talent and ability completed school and went on to college, whereas the majority learned only what was needed to gain meaningful employment in an industrial society.  This called to mind my experience of school in the UK in the 1970s, where many students left school at 16 to enter the world of work, a minority stayed on to do A' Levels and an even smaller percentage - less than 10% - went to university.  Today the figure in the UK is very different with around 50% of 18 year olds going on to further education.  Guskey points out that we are no longer educating students for an industrial society as modern technology is making many of these jobs obsolete.  Our new information society places more value on flexibility, creativity and initiative and in a constantly evolving world of work we need all students to learn well and develop their unique talents.

Guskey ends the introduction to his book with a warning:  teachers who question traditions and the status quo are not likely to be popular and may be seen as troublemakers.  However he points out that "true leadership in education isn't about being popular or well liked [but] about doing what's right to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of young people .... Sometimes that means stirring things up, asking hard questions, pushing for change."

The Purpose of Grading and Reporting
Teachers generally put these into 6 categories:

  1. Communicating information about students' achievements to parents and others
  2. Providing information to students for self-evaluation
  3. Selecting students for certain educational paths or programmes
  4. Providing incentives for students to learn
  5. Evaluating the effectiveness of instructional programmes
  6. Providing evidence of students' lack of effort or inappropriate responsibility
One issues, however, is that teachers don't all agree on which purpose is most important, and therefore try to address all these purposes with a single report card - despite the fact that some of these purposes are counter to others.  Guskey therefore argues that schools need to define the purpose of grades on a report card by asking the following questions:
  • What information will be communicated in the report card?
  • Who is the primary audience?
  • What is the goal of the communication - how should it be used?
The Problem with the Bell Curve
Many grading systems use a bell curve to show how students' performances compare with that of their classmates (normative grading).  Guskey writes about how this leads to learning becoming highly competitive and outdoing your classmates, so it acts against working together and helping others to attain shared leaning goals.  He writes, "Learning becomes a game of winners and losers, and because the number of high grades is kept arbitrarily small, most students are forced to be losers."  His argument is that students should be competing against academic standards, not each other.

Different Perspectives, Beliefs and Values
I was interesting in reading this section, as I have just completed the Advanced Cognitive Coaching training which asks us to consider deeply held beliefs and values when coaching.  As far as assessment and grading are concerned, some educators believe that grading should be used to discriminate among students by identifying differences in their performance (normative grading). These educators want assessments that maximize the difference between students and so tend to grade on a curve, which does not show what students are able to do.  Others believe that we teach to have all students learn, therefore grades should reflect how much students have learned, accomplished or achieved (criterion grading). based on standards.  These teachers aim to develop and nurture talent to help all students meet the standards, rather than to use assessments to discriminate, sort and select.

Purposes and Criteria
Since most teachers want grades to describe how well students have reached the learning goal, they need to consider what criteria are used to determine grades.  These fall into 3 main categories:
  1. Product criteria - favoured by standards-based or performance-based approaches - that lead to a summative evaluation of achievement and performance.
  2. Process criteria - that reflect how students achieved the final grades - including effort and work habits.
  3. Progress criteria - to assess how much students have improved over time.
Teachers often point out that if they only use product criteria, some students receive high grades with little effort, whereas the hard work of less talented students may be unacknowledged, and low-ability students who have to work the hardest to succeed have the least incentive to do so.  Students who cannot accept that high effort can still result in low grades often become indifferent or disruptive in school.  Guskey advocates for using multiple grades as a more valid and appropriate measure of student achievement and performance.

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