Arguing About Assessment… in My Head

One of the things I love about teaching is the opportunity it affords me to engage in spirited conversations and debates with other thoughtful people (including students!). The downside, of course, is that I sometimes walk away from those conversations doubting myself and the strength of my ideas. That’s how I’m feeling as I write this post.

But that’s what education is all about, right?

Today, in a conversation with a colleague about formative versus summative assessment, the following question was posed: if one student does an assignment well on her first try and another student requires multiple attempts (but eventually turns in a product of equivalent quality), does the first student deserve a better grade?

She thought so; I thought not. When asked to explain my reasoning, though, I struggled. I have plenty of ideas about why this ultimately shouldn’t matter, but I had trouble putting them into words, and I found myself tripping over my own opinions.

One particularly interesting thing that came up: as I argued that we needed more formative assessment, I had waxed poetic about valuing processes in addition to products–something that’s been on my mind quite a bit lately. When we came to this question, though, my colleague felt as though she was the one valuing process (by grading it), whereas I was only valuing the finished product. In her view, a lower grade for the student who needed more time reflects the fact that she had struggled through the process. Now, I’m not entirely comfortable with the idea that we should grade everything we value, but her comment still stopped me in my tracks–I had never thought of it that way.

Of course, my view tends to be that process is taught–not necessarily graded–while some products are designed explicitly for grading purposes. As I understand the terms, that’s a key distinction between formative and summative assessment. But my colleague’s comment blurred that distinction for me. Hours later, I’m still wrestling with it.

In the end, my colleague and I found common ground by agreeing that what our question really asked was, “What is the purpose of the grade?” Beyond that, we had to agree to disagree. (Really, we ran out of time and couldn’t continue our debate.) Since I have continued playing out the the conversation in different ways in my head, though, it has occurred to me that another (obviously related) underlying question was, “What is the purpose of the assessment itself?”

If the assessment is given with the goal of sorting or ranking students–let’s find out which students are better at this particular task right at this moment–then of course, my colleague is right. The student who did well the first time should be rewarded for that. On the other hand, if the assessment was designed to help students progress in their understanding of the task itself–let’s find out what each student’s individual strengths and weaknesses are when it comes to this task and provide feedback to help them improve–then I still believe I’m right.

One flaw of education as it’s most often done, in my opinion, is that we sort and rank too frequently. As much as it pains me to admit it, there may be times when sorting and ranking are necessary. Selective colleges, after all, simply cannot accept all of the students who apply, and grades are one means of distinguishing between them. (As I’ve written before on this blog, “There’s a part of me (a steadily growing part) that wishes I could say to colleges, ‘If you want to know if this kid deserves to attend your institution, you assess their work! My job is to teach them!'” That part of me continues to grow, but I’m also just realistic enough to acknowledge that, in most schools at least, grades aren’t going away any time soon.)

So, fine–we may need to sort and rank sometimes. But every day or every week or even every month? I think not. Perhaps at the end of the semester, and certainly at the end of the year, I’m willing to admit (begrudgingly) that a grade may be an appropriate indicator of student progress, mastery, or skill. But honestly, who really benefits from daily sorting? You might say the kids who “rise to the top” do, but I’m not convinced of it. I think the repeated sorting just puts pressure on those kids to continue rising to the top day after day, and when they finally confront a challenge they can’t master so quickly and easily, their self-image is suddenly at risk.

In my view, a summative grade should be a holistic representation of where a student is at that point in time–not an average of how she has compared to her classmates throughout the course of the grading period. If she started slow but finished with a full head of steam, she might well deserve an A. If she proved herself capable early on but barely coasted across the finish line, she might well deserve a C.

And what about the so-called “smart kids”–the ones who do well all year without ever struggling? Don’t they deserve to be recognized for rising to the top without needing a “re-do?” Well, I’m willing to bet that those kids will do just fine in the college admissions process no matter how we grade. But I’m also willing to bet that the kids who have already faced adversity and overcome it are just as prepared–if not more so–for the unfamiliar challenges they’ll encounter at the next level. So why should the “smart kids” should have a leg up on the competition just because they wrote a good essay the first time around?

I suspect that if my colleague and I actually resumed our conversation–and I hope we will at some point–we would likely still disagree about some things. But in the meantime, I’ve enjoyed arguing with her in my head, and in that venue, at least, I’m happy to report that we’ve now resolved our differences.

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