Book notes: Part 1 of 2

Last month, I wrote about the teacher-led professional development that I am involved with at my school.

A couple of weeks ago, we had our first meeting, where we talked about the first book in our series, Ahead of the Curve edited by Douglas Reeves.  In this post, I’m going to share with you two of our group’s initial thoughts about the essays on formative assessment and grading included in the book.  In the next post, I’ll share some of our ideas (and our fears) about how to make real changes in our classrooms around assessment and grading.

During our discussion, the teachers focused on three main questions. We first shared something that we thought was interesting or “cool” from the book. Next, we talked about how we might use assessments and grading in our classes in a way that promotes more learning. Finally, we spoke about how we might share these ideas with colleagues in a way that gets them excited about experimenting with their own grading policy.

Formative assessments and grades

Most of our group has been using testing quizzes primarily as a form of summative assessment. Said another way, every time we give a quiz, a test, or any kind of assignment, the performance that the student does is used as a part of their grade. We found it interesting that the authors of the book recommended that formative assessment not be a part of the final grade. We ran against the same pitfall that the author spoke about in the book, namely, how can we get our students involved in giving their best effort if “this isn’t going to count for a grade?” Like the authors, our group was simply stumped by this question.

A second vigorous but unproductive discussion swirled around what to do about zeros. So, what is a teacher to do about an unattempted assignment? On the one hand, we agree with the authors that the range of 0 to 60 for an F grade is far weightier than the typical 10-point range for all other grades. We also agree that the F that equals a zero for an unattempted assignment is far more disastrous for grades than the F for an assignment that earns only a 50%.

On the other hand, we agree that from the perspective of the student the above situation might in fact be reversed. The damage done to a student ego when that student puts forth a solid effort and earns only a 50% is far greater than the damage a zero might do. With the zero, students can defend their egos by claiming they would have gotten a good grade if they had bothered to try.

Unfortunately, our group was only able to conclude that this question has no easy answer.

Student-created rubrics

Something that all of the teachers in our group were very excited about was the idea of co-creating the assessments with the students. Whether it’s asking the students to submit questions that will then be used for the quiz or the test, or having the students give input on what the grading rubric should be, we agree with the authors of the book. Stated simply, we agree that our students will be more invested in doing a good job and will have a better understanding of what a good job looks like if they have a hand in creating the assessment. I shared my own experience of allowing my students to co-create the grading rubric, which I’ve also written about on my blog before.

One of my colleagues also tried allowing her students to co-create a rubric in her class. She reported that this was a difficult process. She found that students got frustrated at how slow the process took and that one student even demanded they slip back into more traditional roles, saying, “you’re the teacher, shouldn’t you already have this done?”

Everyone at the table agreed that we need to slow down and train our students to create their own assessments. We agree with the authors that, eventually, students will see the value of deeply understanding what their product is supposed to look like, and will give better peer feedback knowing what constitues high quality.

So, how are we going to make these ideas real in the classroom? Stay tuned for Part 2.

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