Grading for mastery in a progressive classroom

As I’ve written before, grading has always been a weak point for me. Partly because it’s tedious, but more likely because my own methods have never fully made sense to me.  And if they don’t make sense to me, they can’t make much sense to my students.

This summer I did some reading on the topic, including Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. I’m now pretty convinced that grading needs to be based on mastery of academic standards and classroom objectives (even if some of these are not reflected in actual state standards) and not much else.

However, as I get closer to designing a clear, standards-based assessment and grading structure for my classroom, some philosophical questions arise for me.

The major benefit of standards-based grading that includes multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate proficiency and growth is that students get a clear picture of what their strengths are and what they need to work on.  This can help them gain agency in their own development of these skills and understandings, which is a goal of any progressive educator.

In progressive classrooms, teachers design experiences for students.  The idea is that through experience, students construct knowledge and build skills.  One question that sometimes concerns me is, are students always aware of what they are learning?  At what point is it necessary for them to become aware?

Sometimes teachers design such compelling learning experiences that students are able to forget they are doing a “school” activity.  They derive genuine pleasure from the curiosity and intellectual engagement of the experience.  This is what we want and, in my experience both as a teacher and student, leads to the highest levels of understanding.  But it’s not ALL we want.  It’s a necessary step in the learning process called exploration.

What happens after exploration?  In a well-run classroom, reflection and analysis and term introduction–and often multiple rounds of the whole process–lead students to develop conceptual understanding of the topic.  They have also built relevant skills along the way.

At what point in the constructivist process does it make sense to assess students on what they’ve learned?  When is it fair and useful to grade the students on said learning?

Since individual students may differ in what they take from a given activity, at some point it seems only fair to let students in on what the learning objectives are and what they’ll be graded on.  That way students and teachers can be full partners on the road to proficiency and understanding, right?

The place where I get philosophically tied up is around who is calling the shots on what needs to be learned and when.  Do students get a say in this?  Is the trajectory basically the same for all students with slight variation, or are there fundamental differences in what each child should learn and when?

In my last post, I describe a student who has been home-schooled and has had almost total agency over his own learning for years. Guess what? At age 14–the same age that some 50% of our country’s youth begin to think of dropping out of high school–he chose to enroll in junior college, where he selected his courses.  He selected some classes based on interest (architecture) and other classes based on his own perception of what his weaknesses are (writing).  Seems like he came around to those objectives without anybody else setting the bar for him at any point.  And my guess is that he’ll go as far as he needs to with his education.

In the end, as a public school teacher with 65 students for one year only, I will have to compromise in the name of efficiency.  I will not cut out the exploration stage of the the learning process, because without it, I don’t believe real learning takes place.  But after students reflect upon and analyze the introductory experience, it is far more efficient for students to go into a second experience knowing what they should pay closer attention to and learn.  In many cases, individual students or the whole class together can identify what point or skill they will focus on in a subsequent activity.

Thinking hard, as I create standards-based rubrics and tracking grids that anticipate all of the learning my students will do this year… I would love to hear your thoughts.

[image found at dvice.com]