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Volume IX Issue III

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Assessment and Grading: Point/Counterpoint, Part II

Bruce Oliver

Bruce facilitating a Leading the Learning® workshop


Following the “Point/Counterpoint” format introduced in the Volume IX  Issue II of Just for the ASKing!, below you will find additional issues under investigation and discussion around assessment and grading. Don’t stop thinking and don’t stop talking. A new idea and a creative solution may be just around the corner! Read on.

Point #1
Teachers are often encouraged to build stronger relationships with their students with the assumption that the relationship will lead to increased motivation and greater achievement on the parts of our learners. With budget crunches and an increase in class sizes, it is next to impossible to develop these relationships.

The old adage, “Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” is a strong belief held by many practitioners. These successful educators fully understand that the positive way they come across to their students pays off in huge dividends. They also understand that relationship building does not have to be a complicated undertaking. A smile, a kind word, a compliment on improved work, a word of praise, addressing a student by name, and a sense of humor will all open the door to improved communication with students. These small steps will ultimately lead to trust on the parts of students; once their comfort levels increase, they may participate more fully, ask for help when they need it, and buy into what their teacher has to offer. Regardless of how difficult and multi-faceted our jobs may be, nothing can take the place of human kindness and the development of relationships with the children we teach.

Point #2
My job as a teacher is to teach my content as well as any related skills students must master. If students simply paid attention, followed directions, adhered to classroom rules, and completed their work, student learning would be expedited and much easier to achieve. As a result, there is no reason to rethink grading and assessment practices.

Whereas some teachers espouse the above set of beliefs, the majority of educators fully understand that such an outlook is unrealistic and in truth, a fantasy. As teachers, our role is not simply to know and deliver our content, we must also be skillful at addressing the three Ms: motivating, managing, and multi-tasking. While some like to believe in a more perfect past, humorist Will Rogers helped us stay grounded in reality when he famously said, “Schools ain’t what they used to be and never was.” In any case, today’s educators need to establish learning environments that are inviting, student-centered, and include real-world applications of the subject content. We must also explore alternative methods of assessing and grading student work and ways to provide feedback that increase student engagement and learning.

Point #3
In principle, differentiation of instruction and assessment has merit. In practice, however, it is unrealistic.

Teaching is a complicated, often emotional, typically stressful, and occasionally rewarding endeavor for many educators. Because of the day-to-day pressures to teach an incredible number of standards and adhere to an often unrealistic pacing guide, teachers struggle to find time to address the learning needs of each individual they are charged to teach. And yet, there are thousands, perhaps millions, of professionals who see it as a moral imperative to help each child reach his potential. They firmly believe in the words so pointedly expressed by author and consultant Rick Wormeli “Schools should never be a place where students who learn differently from their classmates – in pace, style, method or tools – are made to suffer for that difference.” Students who learn differently have been in our classrooms since the dawn of public education. Their learning needs were often ignored for decades. We should be thankful that researchers and authors have jolted us out of the “one size fits all” mindset and prompted us to see children as individuals.

Point #4
A teacher’s autonomy to teach and evaluate student learning should be respected. We are professionals and experts and we know what works best. Boxing some teachers in to teach and grade in specific ways will undermine a teacher’s ability to be effective and increases the stress that is already upon our shoulders.

There is no doubt that teachers must feel confident and comfortable as they enter their classrooms each day. It is common sense that a stressed out, overburdened individual will not achieve success as he works with students. Moreover, when some individuals are asked to think differently or open their minds to different options, it only increases the pressures they feel and further complicates their professional lives. Other individuals view the world in general as an ever-changing, evolving entity and as part of that world, they understand that they must be willing to keep open minds when changes are brought up or discussed. Just because we view ourselves as professionals does not mean we can continue to act in a bubble or vacuum shutting out new ideas or developments that will support student learning. However, in order for teachers to successfully teach, school and district leaders cannot add layers of new responsibilities, teaching practices or mandated instructional and assessment techniques on the shoulders of teachers without considering how difficult it will be for our front-line practitioners to include the new ideas in an already crowded delivery model. We cannot stand still; however, we can work together to make the change process more palatable for teachers and provide ample time for new ideas to take effect.

Point #5
Along with revised grading and reporting practices, teachers are expected to use updated technology to record grades. Simultaneously, they are asked to provide feedback and allow students to revise their work for full credit. Thus, teachers are often asked to update their grading programs after giving students time to improve their work. These practices are often difficult and can require a great deal of extra time.

Whenever technological innovations are introduced, it requires training and a period of adjustment for many educators to feel comfortable with their use. For some it is a struggle; for others, it is a smooth transition. A common theme in many schools is that there are individuals who are proficient at working with technology who discover creative and time-saving ways to use the modernized approaches to grading programs. Many teachers have discovered solutions to technological adaptations; thus, it is another reason why professional collaboration is so important. As one teacher concluded, “We can be our own worst enemies or our greatest sources of solutions to problems.” A great deal of current literature is devoted to the importance of providing timely, appropriate feedback to students which can result in academic growth and improved learning. Technology should not be a hindrance to such a progressive way of thinking.

Point #6
Books, journals, and blogs are filled with a multitude of assessment descriptors. They have been called formative, comprehensive, deconstructed, continuous, pre- and post, differentiated, ongoing, coherent, adaptive, balanced, low-key, informative, in-the-moment, interim, diagnostic, during-the-year, performance-based, and summative. It is all very confusing, and many teachers do not know where to begin; to make life simpler they stick with the status quo.

Take a breath! Many of the creative terms for assessment practices are describing the same ideas. The three main categories/purposes of classroom assessment are:

  • Pre-Assessment which occurs before instruction
  • Formative Assessment which occurs during instruction
  • Summative Assessment which occurs after instruction

The good news is that the same strategies can be used for all three purposes. That is, the form of assessment (pre-, formative, or summative) is determined by how the assessment results are used. For instance, pre-assessment involves using instructional strategies before instruction begins to determine what the students already know and at what level that know it. On the other hand, formative assessment is part of the instructional process. It provides information needed to adjust teaching and learning while they are happening. Formative assessment informs both teachers and students about student understanding during the learning process so that appropriate adjustments can be made.

Generally, summative assessments measure student learning at the conclusion of a learning chunk. According to the Association of Middle Level Education’s website:

… because they are spread out and occur after instruction every few weeks, months, or once a year, summative assessments are tools to help evaluate the effectiveness of programs, school improvement goals, alignment of curriculum, or student placement in specific programs. These assessments happen too far down the learning path to provide information at the classroom level and to make instructional adjustments and interventions during the learning process.

The second piece of good news is that classroom summative assessments, such as end-of-unit or quarterly assessments, were considered in the past to provide only summative data; in a standards-based environment, however, they also provide formative data so that teachers know what to revisit and reassess before end-of year and external assessments are administered.

The points discussed here are a mere sample of the possibilities that can exist; teachers should always be adding new ideas to their practice. Finally, an important point to remember is that terminology should never hinder progress.

As educators engage in healthy dialogues, we should ask ourselves:

  • Am I continuing to do the same things I’ve always done because it fits my comfort level?
  • Am I closing my mind off to practices that might motivate students and thus lead to greater overall student achievement?
  • Am I being defensive about making changes in my assessment and grading practices because it will require work and an investment of time to learn new ways?
  • As a true professional, do I understand that change is on-going, necessary, inevitable and often life changing in very positive ways?

Whatever you choose to do, remember to keep an open mind, bring a sense of professionalism to the discussion, and be respectful of the opinions of others. You just might leave the session with fresh approaches and different perspectives that can improve student learning.

Additional Just ASK Resources on Assessment, Grading, and Using Assessment Data to Inform Instruction

Access these archived issues of Just for the ASKing! that address assessment and grading practices:

See also:

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:

Oliver, Bruce. “Assessment and Grading: Point/Counterpoint, Part II” Just for the ASKing! March 2012. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2012 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.

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