Assessment in the pocket?

Perhaps the most difficult piece of teaching for me has been grading.   Every teacher I know has his or her own method.  These are often influenced by school-wide grading policies, tempered by each teacher’s priorities and garnished with tricks that ensure a reasonable pass (and fail) rate.  For example, in the middle school where I taught for my first three years, teachers were encouraged to use this simple grading schema: 20% homework, 20% class notes, 20% class participation, 20% projects, and 20% tests and quizzes.  (So here’s a trick: when a student did NO homework, you had the option to give a 0% or a 55% for that category, depending in part on whether you thought the student should still have a chance at passing.)

I adopted my school’s policy.  It seemed reasonable to me, and–straight out of Bank Street College–I had no feasible alternative ideas about grading.  I had been trained to look closely at student work and tailor instruction to student needs; I had also learned to write rubrics based on goals for individual assignments.  But when it came to assigning grades at the end of a quarter, I was at a loss.  Teachers at Bank Street’s own School For Children wrote lengthy narrative evaluations twice a year, but gave no letter or number grades.  And then there was Alfie Kohn’s book, Punished By Reward, which posits that grades and other external motivators, used mostly to reward good work and punish bad work, serve to alienate students from the real satisfaction and benefits of learning, thereby diminishing their intrinsic motivation to engage in the learning process.

Today, testing has been thrust into the position of Single Most Important Measure of Student Learning in the life of a school, and I’m wondering, what kind of assessment would I put in its place?  Would I prefer to rely instead on my own classroom grading system?  If not, what is its purpose?  And what am I really grading?

Recipe formulas for calculating grades tend to turn out numbers that represent a mishmash of student effort (as perceived by teacher), task completion (which may not require effort for all students), knowledge acquired, and skill development (both evidenced in student work).

Lately I’m struggling with the creeping notion that the net result of this mishmash is a totally inadequate measure of student learning.  In effort to grade almost every aspect of a student’s involvement in my class, in the end I’ve graded nothing in particular!  I am fairly confident that if a student gets an A in my class, he or she has demonstrated mastery and growth in all areas of our studies that quarter.  And if a student fails, he or she most likely didn’t do any substantive work, and therefore didn’t grow substantially in any of the areas we studied.  Anything in between A and F, however, is anyone’s guess.

At the same time, ask me to talk to you about any of my students’ skills, knowledge, and growth this year in any area of English Language Arts class (including being a member of a learning community), and I can tell you a lot. I can also use evidence to support what I say.  I need to find a way to organize my grading practices around the key elements of student learning that occur in my class, in different ways and at different rates for each student.

In my quest toward this goal, I was inspired by a suggestion made by Barnett Berry in “Five Big Stories About the Future of Teaching,” a podcast featured on the TLN homepage.  He talks about students using handheld portable computer devices to store important evidence of their learning.  These would be carried from class to class by each student and accessible to all members of a teaching team.  The evidence could be organized into categories based on the content and standards of each class.  Students could photograph pieces of work that demonstrate development toward mastering a particular standard.  Berry maintains that this would help students take charge of their own learning.  It would also provide a much fuller, less paper-heavy picture of a student’s academic process for teachers, parents, and other interested parties.

By itself, this does not answer the larger questions about grading practices; but sometimes a powerful organizational tool can help to clear a lot of the brush away, revealing a more manageable problem and a visible path toward solving it.

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