An interesting chat I had with @joe_bower and @monk51295 was about the use of grades in assessing student learning, and how they work to kill student passion. Joe makes an excellent argument on his blog for abolishing grading – a form of assessment he believes is obsolete and archaic. I couldn’t agree more.
Grading student work using reductive labels such as an A-E scale, or a mark out of 10 or 20, just doesn’t do the job that anyone wants it to. Parents (well, most of them) seem to think they want this kind of measure, and yet when it comes to parent-teacher conference evening the first question I am usually asked is along the lines of “so, what does a ‘C’ mean?”
In NSW Australia it is now mandatory for schools to report to parents using an ‘easy to understand’, ‘jargon free’ A-E scale. The purpose? To allow teachers to report student academic achievements at any point in time using clear standards. So, what does a ‘C’ mean? Well, it means that the student’s achievement is sound; that they “have a sound knowledge and understanding of the main areas of content and has achieved an adequate level of competence in the processes and skills.” (Parent: “so, what does ‘achieved an adequate level of competence’ mean??”…and here we are, back at square one…)
NSW schools have the option of using the grade labels (A-E), or they can use the corresponding descriptors:
- A = ‘Outstanding’
- B = ‘High’
- C = ‘Sound’
- D = ‘Basic’
- E = ‘Limited’
I was absolutely dismayed when I started teaching at my school to find they had wholly and solely adopted the A-E grade system, even though the use of the letter grades wasn’t mandatory. While I recognise that faux-descriptions like ‘High’ or ‘Basic’ aren’t much better, at least they are somewhat descriptive. The ideological baggage alone attached to A-E grades is enough to poison parents’ understanding of student reports – using these terms in my experience transports parents right back into their own school experience, and instills an instictive kind of dread. Parents who were ‘C’ students in school now apologise for their ‘average-ness’ in semester interviews. And parents who were ‘A’ students seem puzzled that their spawn have not exhibited their genetically inherited excellence.
The problem with this is, as an English teacher, I truly believe that the way in which we engage with texts in todays classrooms is so much more complex than in the past, that comparing a ‘B’ grade from the 1970s to a ‘B’ grade in a NSW English classroom today is like comparing apples to oranges. Yet it is this historical understanding of grades that we draw on when we offer them to parents as a ‘clear standard’.
In my teaching I have taken a pragmatic approach to grading student work, and I tend to use a combination of grading individual outcomes on a tick-a-box scale, following this with comments. My faculty insists that I allocate a grade to any common assessment tasks, but for most assessments I can withhold this from students and just record it in my markbook. Here is an example of the feedback sheet I use in our Year 7 Debating assessment task – syllabus outcomes are rephrased to connect with what students have learned to do, and an overall grade can easily be calculated by looking at which column got the bulk of the ticks:
debating task assessment marking criteria (download PDF – feel free to use!)
One thing I know I don’t do enough of is getting students to explicitly reflect on their progress, and this is something I worked on a lot last year. In a post on his leadership blog @dan__rockwell explains that a sense of making progress is the greatest motivator of all. Unlike grades (which act as ‘carrot and stick’ motivators), giving students a sense that they are making progress can really inspire them to learn and move forward. A practice I would like to start in my classes is to give students the assessment feedback sheet at the start of the unit and get them to fill it in with what they would get before participating in the lessons. They could then compare this to my eventual feedback (and/or their own self-assessment using the same sheet) to guage their progress.
It seems obvious to me that this is more valuable than knowing you got a ‘C’.
Joe suggests in his blog that when an organization has some policy or rule that simply desn’t allow you to always to the right thing, then professional acts of subversion are called upon. Refusing to grade student work is one way of subverting the archaic A-E grade system in NSW. Refusing to conduct NAPLAN exams this year in light of their use in the MySchool website would be another example (but I wonder how many of us will put our money where our mouths are on that one?)