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Assessment

A short piece from EdWeek tells us that education officials in South Carolina have scrapped a plan to grade that state’s teachers:

State education board members want to assure teachers they won’t implement the Education Department’s proposal to give teachers letter grades.

Board Chairman Dennis Thompson said Wednesday evaluating educators on an A to F scale is not going to work. The governor’s appointee, bank president Michael Brenan, says the concept needs to go. He says businesses would never evaluate employees that way.

This is very good news for both teachers and their students, but my real question is this: How many of these people are willing to apply their logic to the students in their schools? Are the teachers who are upset about being graded willing to rethink the way they assess their students? Are the officials who admit that “businesses would never evaluate employees this way” willing to acknowledge that it might not be in the best interests of kids either?

Given that kids don’t vote, my guess is that grades aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

As I noted in my previous post, I gave my first conference presentation last week at the bi-annual Teacher Conference sponsored by the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS). It was a terrific experience. My slides are below, along with some of the key thoughts that are captured in the PPT.

  • By signaling what a community actually values (regardless of what it says it values), grades have the power to shape curriculum—and the community itself—in meaningful but often undetected ways.
  • I’ve come to the conclusion that grades—at least as they’re typically used—don’t help us accomplish our “21st century” goals. In fact, they often prevent us from accomplishing them. So, if we must assign grades, let’s at least try to do so in ways that ensure the grades are serving the purposes we want them to serve.
  • Re: Pink and Robinson: You’re probably picturing your own students, wondering what planet these guys live on. “Of course grades are necessary!” you’re thinking. “Without grades, kids would never do their work.” There’s an element of truth to this, but I would argue that grading can create a vicious cycle. By reducing intrinsic motivation, grades ensure that more grades will be necessary to “get students moving” in the future. (In this sense, it’s akin to addiction—and we can probably all think of students whom we could describe as “addicted” to grades.)
  • Re: Mastery: In a rapidly changing world, we must teach students to find pleasure and success in the process—not just the results. Grades should reflect this emphasis.
  • Re: Mastery: We must expose students to failure, but without making failure seem insurmountable. Grades make that difficult to do. (If the marking period ends next week, that F in the gradebook isn’t going anywhere, and there’s nothing a kid can do about it.)
  • Re: Purpose: Luckily, many teachers are beginning to implement classroom models—think project-, problem-, or place-based learning—with the potential to address real-world relevance and purpose. The question, then, is: Will we rethink grades so as not to undermine that purpose?
  • Grades are both carrot and stick. As such, they have the potential to undermine autonomy, mastery, and purpose, all in one fell swoop.
  • Re: The Tendency of Fixed-Mindset Students to Avoid Challenging Tasks: To me, this is potentially the most devastating critique of all, because it undermines the entire premise of education. Students—like all people—MUST stretch themselves to continue learning and growing, but with grades, the goal can easily become getting the grade as opposed to learning and growing.
  • As our classrooms become more purposeful, though—as we move in the direction of preparing students for a changing world through more engaging pedagogical approaches—grades should become less necessary as a means of ensuring compliance. So what should they mean? And how often should we give them?
  • Grades are a central feature of American educational culture and are, in most places, at least, very well-entrenched. But if you accept that the world is changing and that education must change to keep pace, you should at least be open to the possibility that grading practices might need to change as well.

When I was in ninth grade, I got a C on my report card. I did it on purpose, mainly out of rebellion. My father had taken a job in a different state, and I knew that I would soon be moving away from all of my friends, so in my teenage angst, I decided to protest by not completing or turning in a major project in health class. (Two random thoughts occur to me now: First, even in my rebellion, I knew better than to mess around in the “core” subjects. Second, how I managed to get a C without completing the major–and if memory serves, actually, the only–project for the term is beyond me.)

When the report card came, I snagged it from the mailbox and hid it. I was certain that my parents would ground me for getting a C, and my days in town were already numbered. My brilliant plan (Phase 2) was to spring the report card on them on Moving Day and hope that they grounded me in my new hometown. That would spare me the trouble of having to make friends. Of course, this didn’t work. My mother, it turned out, was not the imbecile I mistook her for, and about a week after the report card, she said simply, “Where is it?”

Why this trip down memory lane? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about report cards lately. And feeling sorry for some of my students–many of whom have worked harder than I did but, even though they’re still learning, are still likely to disappoint someone when the report card arrives.

A few weeks ago, just before midquarter progress reports went out, I asked all of my students to reflect on their participation in class. Because I emphasize it so heavily in using the Harkness method, participation represents a significant portion of the class grade. Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve dramatically changed the way that I assign participation grades.

Because I believe that my students need to develop the ability to assess their own performance, I ask them to complete a self-assessment in which they compare their overall contributions in class to a standard rubric. (I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a perfect system, but it has worked fairly well for my purposes.) Generally speaking, the students do a pretty good job of assessing themselves fairly, even when the appropriate grade is lower than they would like.

As I read through (and responded to) my students’ self-assessment journals, I found myself emphasizing the opportunity for long-term improvement, especially for those quieter, less confident students who have struggled to get involved in discussions so far. I assured them that I wasn’t expecting them to become chatterboxes overnight and that, if they made an effort, there was plenty of time to improve.

The more variations on this theme that I wrote, though, the more I started to feel guilty about it. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why–and then it dawned on me. Although I genuinely believe in helping my students develop a “growth mindset” and seek steady improvement over the long term, the reality was that in just a few short weeks, I would have to put a “grade of record” into the system. One that can’t really be changed, no matter how well a student does in the weeks or months to come. Time and tide and report card wait for no man, you know.

That time has arrived; the quarter ends on Thursday. I wasn’t lying to my students when I responded to their journal entries–they really do have plenty of time to improve–but given the emphasis that the “outside world” places on grades, they would be somewhat justified in thinking that I was. So I was stuck: should I “lie” and tell them that they had time even though their quarter grades were likely to be relatively low, or should I give in to the short-term focus that grades promote and abandon the goal of promoting a growth mindset? I chose the former, but I wasn’t (I’m still not) entirely comfortable with the choice. I wish I didn’t have to choose.

In just a few weeks, I’ll be giving a presentation on assessment at a teachers’ conference sponsored by NCAIS (the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools). The premise is that while plenty of educators have acknowledged the importance of teaching “21st century” skills, many still rely on “old-school” assessment techniques, typically centered around the practice of assigning grades.

My presentation will raise questions around the issue of whether grades–at least grades as they’re typically done–help or hinder our “21st century” approach to education. I’ll make a short presentation, offer a few modest proposals of my own, and hopefully stimulate a conversation among the attendees about ways to rethink grades. If we can’t get rid of them, then we can at least try to make sure that they serve us and our students instead of the other way around.

After this experience, one recommendation is clear to me: If we’re serious about promoting a growth mindset and implementing formative assessment in our classrooms, we have to do summative assessment less frequently. If we must have grades, let’s make them “official” less often–I’d say only at the end of the course. Until then, let’s focus on feedback that will help students improve. Put another way, let’s help the kids out and hide the report cards until summer. If we’ve done formative assessment well, there will be little to hide at that point.

Even after expending some 1300 words on it last week, I can’t seem to get this supposed “cheating epidemic” out of my head.

Last week, I wrote about two New York Times articles that addressed cheating beyond the ongoing scandal at Harvard. The first dealt with an alleged incident of mass cheating at New York City’s Stuyvesant High School, the second with a number of (unnamed) studies supposedly demonstrating that cheating is on the rise.

The tone of first Times article disturbed me. The emphasis was on whether or not students had been adequately punished, whether or not the punishment would be noted on their “permanent record,” and whether or not this might affect their college admissions prospects. Not once did the author raise the question of whether this school (or schools in general) might be failing their students by not teaching academic or personal integrity in a more holistic way.

Methinks they are. For instance, Stuyvesant interim principal Jie Zhang is quoted as saying (in a letter to the school community): “Such acts undermine the reputation of this school and hurt our students individually and collectively.” She also wrote of the possible need to create an honor code “as a public sign of our commitment to uphold academic integrity.”

These are all reasonable concerns in the wake of a cheating scandal—but they sort of miss the point. What about the fact that a substantial percentage of the school’s students apparently saw no problem with brazen cheating? Maybe said school should be less concerned with its external “reputation” (and how is that reputation defined? I wonder) and more concerned with whether or not they’re meeting their social obligation by preparing young people for responsible citizenship. Rather than worrying about a “public sign” of integrity, perhaps it should engage in some serious school-wide conversation about what integrity really means and why it is essential—not only in the classroom, but more importantly beyond it.

It’s unfair to assume that Ms. Zhang’s comments are indicative of her entire educational philosophy, and it’s certainly possible that she was quoted out of context. That said, I can’t help but feel as though her letter reflects a factory-model view of students as “products.” As if she’s reassuring shareholders that some recent criticism of the company’s business practices—however accurate—is not a truly representative portrayal. Nevermind the Third World sweatshop behind the curtain. Move along, folks—there’s nothing to see here!

Let’s remember, too, that these “products” weren’t yet “ready for the market.” They’re still in school and should be expected to continue learning, even if the school isn’t teaching the things they need. So instead of condemning them for jeopardizing the school’s reputation, it might be worth approaching this as a teachable moment: “OK, kids, you messed up. So let’s talk about why you did that, why it’s wrong, and what you’ve learned from this experience.”

Why do I get the sense that’s not really happening? Maybe because people—adults, I mean—are more concerned with “reputations” and “permanent records” and “college admissions.”

I wrote over the summer about David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement address in which he told students they weren’t “special.” I speculated in that post about whether or not McCullough was really speaking to the adults at the ceremony. I wondered whether or not those adults might be more to blame than students for the graduates feeling “special.” I wonder the same thing now.

At every conceivable level, our educational system has been built to reward product instead of process. On top of this, the need to sort our students has created an insatiable demand for data in the form of grades and test scores. If we don’t guard against this mentality (which I would argue pervades almost every school in America), we risk losing sight of the fundamental purpose of education, which is to help young people in their development toward engaged citizenship and a productive adulthood.

If we’re not careful, this “product-driven” mentality can lead us to lose sight of the human beings sitting in our classrooms. In the fog of the day-to-day, teachers may find themselves giving tests or assigning work because at the end of the grading period, someone (who, exactly?) expects to see “grades in the gradebook.” It’s like feeding a monster. The more you feed him, the hungrier he gets. (And I know it’s true because I was one of the teachers who thought this way. In fact, I still struggle with it.)

Education reformers should note, too, that the need to “feed the monster” also tends to discourage more innovative approaches to teaching. Consider this 1974 editorial from the Harvard Crimson (written in the wake of a previous cheating scandal):

It is disturbing that students were callow enough in their pursuit of grades to take advantage of the course’s innovative, low-pressure structure to get advance answers to its tests. It is disturbing that medical school admissions are so stringent and quantitative that pre-medical students–who made up almost all of Physics S-1–feel the need to cheat in order to raise their grades from A-s to As.

It will be especially disturbing if the administration takes the cheating incident as a sign that it should crack down on innovative instructional and teaching methods because they make it, as Dean Whitlock said last week, “easy and even tempting to cheat.” Paul G. Bamberg, associate professor of Physics and the instructor of Physics S-1, has been a pioneer in developing methods of self-paced teaching that are designed to emphasize individual learning rather than performance on final exams, an emphasis that pre-med courses at Harvard badly need.

Disturbing, indeed. As you can see, there’s a vicious cycle (or at least the potential for one) at work here:

  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>
  • Perceived need among students to take “shortcuts” in the name of perfection –>
  • Concern about preserving the school’s “reputation” –>
  • Less innovative (i.e., more “cheat-proof”) approaches to teaching –>
  • Emphasis on product rather than process –>

Unfortunately, I don’t know if process has ever been more important. Students carry encyclopedic knowledge around in their pockets these days. Facts matter less; analysis and synthesis matter more. But students must learn processes for sorting through the vast sea of information that they face on a daily basis. They must learn processes for thinking critically, for collaborating, for communicating, etc. In short, a “twenty-first century education” will be a process-driven education. But before we can get there, we have to throw off the shackles of “twentieth century” assessment practices and the mentality they reinforce.

If it’s true that we’re preparing our students to face challenges that don’t exist yet (and I suspect it is), the products that they produce in school won’t really matter much. After all, some of those products are likely to be obsolete in a few years anyway. What students will actually take with them when they leave us are the processes—above all, the processes for interacting with other humans, whether face to face or through verbal media, and with a wealth of information.

Healthy human interactions depend on integrity, and I might argue that in an increasingly connected world, interactions with information do as well. So if we’re going to teach process, why don’t we start there?

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.

Note: What follows is the second in a three-part series of posts based on recent reflections on the fall semester from my students. The first post contained reflections from my students in American government (mostly seniors), while these are from my students in American history (juniors). Later this week, I will post my own thoughts based on these reflections.

1. What is the most valuable lesson you have learned about history this semester?

The valuable lesson I have learned about history this semester is simple: everybody has different stories, different backgrounds, different thoughts, and therefore different perspectives.

History should not be accepted without a doubt by people; we have to question the validity of all claims in history in order to find the truth. There were many topics we discussed in class, specifically the Salem Witch Trials and the Civil War, that were much more complex than I had thought before entering this class. It was valuable to me to realize that a person cannot just read the textbook to get an understanding of what actually happened. It is important to compare many different sources to figure out what happens in history.

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First, if there’s anyone out there who actually reads this blog, I offer an apology for my lack of recent posts. I intended to post a number of things over the holidays, but if I’m being honest, I found that I enjoyed unplugging far too much. I went almost two weeks without touching my computer, and it was everything I hoped it could be. I spent a lot of that time reading, and wrapped up a great year in books (perhaps I’ll post about that soon).

I’ve fallen down on my promise to reflect regularly, but I hope to get back on that this month. I’m also planning to begin posting reviews of some of my education/history reads, possibly as soon as tomorrow.

For now, though, I wanted to share some terrific mid-year writing from my students. As part of their semester assessments, I asked my students to write a series of brief reflections on their work so far. Of course, I didn’t have any “correct” answers in mind; rather, I hoped that intentional reflection on the semester would help students clarify the “big picture” takeaways at a time when it’s easy to get so wrapped up in the details.

I’m pleased to report that the results were much better than anything I expected. The students impressed me with their thoughtfulness, and I was especially pleased to see that many of them had apparently learned the skills and habits of mind I had hoped to impart.

This will be the first in a series of three posts on this topic. Below are my questions and a few reflections from students (mostly seniors) in my semester-length course, which is essentially an introduction to American government. I’m sad to say goodbye to this group, but it looks so far like I have another great group this semester. Later this week, I’ll post a few reflections from my juniors (American history), and I’ll wrap up with a few thoughts of my own based on their reflections.

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