Wednesday, August 12, 2015

What Should A Grade Measure?

Standards based grading is becoming more and more popular around the state and even the country particularly in this era of increased accountability. I have written about it on several occasions with such posts as Does Class Rank Still Matter?, I Can!, and A Smarter Way to Assess the Iowa Core. While these are just a few examples, this theme of measuring student learning has been prevalent throughout many of my columns. The concept, by in large is relatively easy to grasp: A student either meets the standard or they don't. On a report card, standards based reporting uses a simple, easy to understand and rudimentary system: meets expectations, progressing toward expectations, or doesn't met expectations at this time. One would think this would be incredibly useful information not only for the teacher and student, but for the parent. Don't we want to know if our students have mastered the content that we have taught in school? Undoubtedly this concept is becoming more popular but it is a long way from becoming mainstream in Iowa. The primary reason against could be that our standard exemplar of grading in American schools is a system where we utilize a traditional A-F scale and then rank and order our students. It's what everyone understands because it is what we all grew up with. If, for example we tell a student or parent that they meet expectations, what do you think the first question they ask will be?

I think it would be something like, OK, they meet expectations--but what does that equate to? Is it an 'A', or a 'B'? Maybe a 'C' or 'D'? After all, under all those scenarios the student is meeting expectations aren't they? That really depends on the question that you ask! You either know your basic math facts or you don't. But if the question is framed differently and broken down into standards, it might tell a different story. Perhaps the students does know all their addition and subtraction facts, but they are still progressing on multiplying by '9s'. Which is more useful for you as a parent? To know that your students got a 'B' in math, or to know that they have mastered all their basic facts except that one facet of the multiplication table? What does the 'B' really tell you?  

Additionally in education, we tend to add a whole bunch of other criteria to grades that really have nothing to do with whether or not the student has mastered the skill. For example, if a student has worked really hard, put forth a lot of effort, and isn't trouble in class (in other words a good kid), we might give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps we raise that grade a half a notch because of all that hard work.  

So this begs the question, would you rather have the mechanic that fixes the brakes on your car be a hard worker, or someone that really knows what they are doing? Don't get me wrong, we like hard workers! This is an important attribute and something that I am interested in having knowledge of when hiring employees. But I am not sure that is more important than knowing if someone can actually do the job! The fact is, we want to understand qualifications first and foremost! You may be the hardest worker in the world, but if you don't know how to fix my brakes it doesn't matter--I don't want you working on my car!

We also have this habit of docking student grades if they are late. Now, to be fair I am all for consequences if a student misses a deadline, but I am not certain impacting a student grade is the best practice here. If a student gets all the correct responses on a task but is late in completing it, does this mean that they don't know the concept, or does it mean they lack the ability to act responsibly?

The truth is that when we use superfluous criteria to evaluate student learning we are not getting an accurate depiction of what that student can or cannot do. Furthermore, letter grades in absence of context and meaningful feedback do little to provide the data that is needed in order to move the needle on student achievement.

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