Evaluation is supposed to be the production of evidence and performance of learning and knowledge. When done well, the evaluation process is open and fair, well communicated, and in the best of cases, leaves room for improvement before a final, summative evaluation takes place.
There are hundreds of evaluations of students that take place during the learning process. Teachers observe students doing their work, effort, confidence, correct process, types of thinking, clarity, attitude, and communication all of the time.
We return to Alfie Kohn as a resource, well known for his vision for students and schools. Here he refers to Jerome Bruner, “...we should try to create an environment where students can ‘experience success and failure not a s a reward and punishment, but as information’" (p.191).
Formative Assessment Without Grades?
Formative assessment offers the teacher ways to have evidence of how much a student does or doesn’t know and how to fill the gaps while helping the student move toward success. Ongoing formative assessment is not a snapshot of student’s learning but more like movie scenes that capture progress, achievement, and gaps as they unfold. However, formative assessments, like almost all work students produce, receive grades. When students receive grades that are less than hoped for it is rarely a motivator for doing better, except, maybe for those hyper-focused high achievers who are not the majority of our learners.
But what can take the place of grades for helping the students themselves get a sense of how they’re doing? The answer is that, in the best classrooms, feedback is readily available to students, just as information is provided by them while they are learning (193).
Checklist and Rubric Use May Not Be Different From Grades
Some who are working to combat the effects of grading have turned to checklists and rubrics in the hopes of turning attention away from a number or letter, more to a set of behaviors or descriptors of knowledge to set a standard. Kohn regrets,
...the troubling consequences of an excessive focus on performance, in which students are led to be preoccupied with how well they’re doing, may well be exacerbated when their performance is explicitly evaluated on a long list of criteria. To someone primarily concerned with techniques of assessment, rubrics may represent a wonderful advance because they provide more information about achievement. But to someone primarily concerned with the way students come to look at learning, rubrics may actually be seen as worse than traditional grades (p. 194).
Our minds turned toward the teacher evaluations. If mandated teacher evaluations are rooted in comprehensive rubrics and/or checklists, and we are not being overwhelmed with improved teaching practice why, then, might these checklists and rubrics being used with students when we know better?
Grades are a Local Decision
Grades are, in most places, a local decision based in policy. Grades are historically the shorthand communication for teachers to tell students and parents where their students stand against some expectation for mastery of some content. Grades are historically shorthand for the school leadership to note how successful students are in each teacher’s care. Grades are a local decision that can be adjusted or changed.
Change is a Difficult Challenge
Changing a value is a difficult process. And grades are rooted in a tradition that everyone experienced and understands. Some communities may be more ready for a change in the way assessment, grades, and feedback are valued and used. But it is important to recognize that deeply held traditions and values are just that, deeply held. Changing the way one feels about something is, well, can you think of a time that came easily for you?
Change of this nature is significant. Even Kohn stands firm on not doing it too quickly.
In most communities, it makes more sense to take one step at a time. This can be done first by eliminating the most pernicious versions, such as grading on a curve, or the most offensive practices related to grading, such as ranking high school students or posting honor rolls that make grades even more salient (and destructive) than would otherwise be the case (p. 195)
The first steps on a slippery slope begin with losing the purpose of the change to the change itself. A focus on changing the way grades are used, over time, can pull attention away from the intended goal of improving students’ chances for mastering what is learned. So, what is the take away from this? Improved student achievement is not only about changing the way teachers teach, the manner in which students are given opportunities to learn, the time spent on teaching and learning, attendance, the way special services are implemented, finances, or the neighborhood. Some of those things can be changed and others not.
What can be changed is the way some values and traditions are held close. A careful examination of these values and traditions can inform essential practices like grading. Is it worth holding on to the way it is? Or can changing it, even in little steps, be worth adding it to the mix, as improved student achievement remains front-and-center. Might even opening a discussion with teachers, students, and parents begin a meaningful reflection on what grades mean, how they are used, and if other ways might be more effective? Every value and tradition is worth revisiting from time to time. Held too closely, without reflecting on their effectiveness, they can be constraining, rather than opening the path forward to more success.
Kohn, Alfie (1999). The Schools Our Children Deserve. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company
Our previous post on grading students’ work can be found here.
Mark Barnes’ work on grading can be found here.
Follow a conversation called Teachers Teaching Without Grades on Twitter at #TTOG
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.