Truth in Assessment

My wife and I met in 2008 as we both began our careers in education. For both of us, it was our first year in our very own classrooms. Working in the same field as your spouse proves to have its advantages and disadvantages. The greatest disadvantage is that work often follows us home.  One of the greatest advantages is that I have an amazing teacher at home that I can bounce ideas off of any time I want. I can reflect with her on educational philosophy, celebrate together when our students succeed, and identify problems in our educational environments that, together, we can develop practical solutions. We are each other’s instructional coaches, for better or for worse until death does us part. 

On Friday evening after a long week in the classroom, we did what any other married couple does to begin their weekend. We began to discuss the culture of grading in education. Right...? No...? Okay...well maybe that’s just us. Specifically, we had a detailed conversation on the concept of truth in assessment. Is what we are assigning our students to complete reflective of the skills or content we wish for our students to obtain? As teachers, can we look at the product of our students’ labor, assess their knowledge, and provide accurate and meaningful feedback to our students? At the end of the night’s discussion, she decided to post the following image on her Facebook account. I knew full well what the response would be from the Facebook community, and so did she. However, more valuable is the conversation that needs to occur in our schools, with our students, with our school boards, and with our parents. 

I write this not to come to the defense of my wife (trust me...she can hold her own in an argument), but instead to shed light on the conversations that need to happen outside of just the isolated world we sometimes live in as educators. For many teachers and parents, they support the traditional thinking that students must be penalized for not meeting expectations on time. There is also the belief that to assess a student’s learning, we must total up the number of points a student has earned and come up with an average to assign to them. Writing from experience, some become defensive of their own grading practices rather than engaging in an open discussion about both teacher and student growth. Despite knowing the detrimental effect such practices have on student engagement and student motivation the practice continues. Somehow throughout the history of modern education, the purpose of grading has been lost, misconstrued, or arbitrarily interwoven with behavioral expectations in the classroom. Our students’ parents grew up under this very system and undoubtedly heard from their own teachers growing up what I told my own students when I began my teaching profession. 

As a novice teacher, I capitulated to the same philosophy that my own teachers invoked upon me, one that has plagued the purpose of assessment for decades. I illogically equated assessments with student responsibility. I equated student work with the requirements and expectations of their future job. I equated myself to their future employer and my students to future employees. Moreover, I equated their grade to a paycheck and satisfied my educational philosophy by pretending that I was somehow teaching my students real-world skills, responsibility, and in a way a sense of duty. 

This is reflective of the responses that my wife, Vanessa, received from her post from the general public as well as some of our fellow educators. Responses such as the following began to roll across her comments:

“Kids need to learn responsibilities. If they are late on an assignment it's like not meeting a deadline for a job. If you continually miss deadlines, then soon you will find yourself without a job. If you don’t pay your Ameren bill on-time, then you’ll have to go without power, or they’ll add a late fee. If they don’t turn in their work, they need to understand there are consequences.”  

Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all valuable skills that students can achieve through public education, but not by the way I was trying to do it. The response listed above is a logical fallacy and is not supported by the research. Eleven years later in education what do I have to say for my initial grading practices as a novice teacher? To my former students, I offer my profound apologies.  

So first, we need to take a critical look at the purpose of grading. Truth in assessment should be the cornerstone of this conversation. The question I ask is why do we assess student work? In short, we use formative assessment, assessment for learning, to guide our instructional practices. It is the way in which we read the pulse of the classroom. It is how we check for understanding, modify our instruction, and use differentiation strategies to ensure that our students are mastering the skills, content, and standards that have been developed for the course. This assessment style not only is a way for us to get feedback on student learning, but it is a way for us to measure the success of our own implemented instructional strategy. This type of assessment is not one we associate with grades. These assessments are designed to guide learning, not to assess the final outcome of learning so should never be found in a grade book anyway. 

Assessments associated with grades in the grade book are assessments of learning. These are the continual assessments of a skill, content, or standard that is proof of mastery. In other words, when the students are assessed, we take a look at the standards that were to be achieved when the lesson was designed and measure whether students have met or exceeded the teacher’s expectations. The point of the assessment is to take a look at the learning targets and identify whether they have reached that performance level. If they haven’t, then additional time, instruction, and resources need to be allocated to ensure that the student has mastered the topic at hand. Grading is a form of communication about student achievement, and should only be considered as such. If other factors are interwoven with grading, then the validity of the measurement of achievement becomes murky. To me, it's like setting out to measure a board but having a tape measure that changes randomly from metric to inches. Will you get an accurate measurement?

Let's take standards-based grading as an example. Our building has not thoroughly adopted this practice, but I feel it is the direction schools should shift in terms of assessment. There is a misunderstanding or a lack of communication about how and why schools are shifting to what parents see as “easier grading.” Schools have even been accused of not being “tough enough” on our kids. This is absolutely not the case. The truth is that educators who have shifted their grading practices have used assessment the way in which they are designed, to understand the achievement of students and to design instruction and curriculum to meet those students’ needs. We in education are responsible for this inaccurate perception because we often fail to communicate our intentions, why we are embracing a new initiative and the outcomes that have served students well. We assume parents will just understand “the how and the why” without us explicitly coming out to explain changes in educational philosophy. 

Their frame of reference is permanently fixed on their own experiences as students, which is a mindset that cannot be altered by a piece of paper that gets sent home. This same phenomenon was expressed by parents who didn’t understand this “new math stuff” that teachers have been sending home, referring to the initiative of the common core to change the fundamental way that students understand numbers. The truth was that there were poor implementations of instructional design methodology that compounded the problem and was highlighted in places like social media. The truth is what we are trying to do is to get students to come to understanding through the learning process, not just by identifying a correct or incorrect answer. The same goal exists within standards-based grading. We care less about the assigning of a grade as we do about the process and what that grade tells us in terms of what to do next with student achievement. Communication of such expectations is critical. 

It is at this point in the debate, I often hear from dissenters that we must prepare our students for the college track. While this is true that most instructors in College maintain the traditional grading model, again this doesn’t mean that it's right. Nor, does it mean that educational reform should begin in grade K and ends at grade 12. I have worked in two higher education institutions in the role of supporting instructional design. There is room for instructional growth in this regard across the entire spectrum of education. While I am cognizant of the fact that it will be difficult to challenge the “old guard,” and I am not so naive to think such a shift can be seamless and easy. This is especially true in higher education where there is rarely observation, feedback, or instructional coaching being implemented in these schools. However, who’s to say that a shift in educational philosophy in K-12 won’t promote change in the way higher education assess their own students? 

Here is my attempt to highlight the purpose of such an educational shift, and the core of what needs to be communicated to all stakeholders. The purpose of standards-based gradings (SBG) is to create assessments that authentically assess student performance or achievement in relation to the standard the teacher wants their students to achieve. Such grading is guided by instructional practices that use learning targets to create growth goals for students, and use assessments to guide those instructional practices. A grade is a form of communication that exists between teacher and student to allow that student to develop their own goals and be in charge of their own learning. The SBG is a way of providing meaningful feedback to students about their progress towards a standard or a goal. The grade should be representative of the skills acquired in the past, but it should also put the student on a path of growth moving forward. SBG focuses the teachers feedback to directly relate to what they are assessing. It provides the means for conversations to take place between the student and the teacher to create individualized learning goals. The focus becomes less on the accumulation of points, but the level of mastery students have achieved. SBG forces educators to take a look at the curriculum, instructional design and learning activities to ensure that they serve a purpose for meeting learning goals. Homework, for example, that is not directly related to the desired learning outcomes is irrelevant to the student and not necessary. The focus is transitioned to learning from just the value of grades. The result is feedback students can take action to improve their skills. 

So the typical question that comes after introducing SBG is, “what is wrong with the way we have always done things?” While this question typically eats away at my soul and pushes me to answer in response, “Just because it's the way it's always been done, doesn’t make it right,” let's look at the traditional model more closely. There are a few points I’d like to highlight as to why the model needs to be looked at critically. Is it good for our students?

The first assertion I would like to make is that a total point system is created artificially and most of the time the point values assigned are done so arbitrarily. 

Take into account this coach’s conversation with a teacher. 

Coach: You do total points in your how are things classified? 
Teacher: An activity is worth 20 points. 
Coach: Why is it worth 20 points? 
Teacher: Well there are 20 problems on the page. So, one point for each problem they solve correctly. 
Coach: Is this activity worth as much as a quiz or assessment? 
Teacher: No, quizzes are worth more than activities and tests are worth more than quizzes. 
Coach: So do your quizzes consist of 40 questions? 
Teacher: No, I have 20 questions on a quiz and I just make each question worth double. Tests are the same way, I just make them worth more as well. 
Coach: So, do you have any assessments that aren’t based on the number of problems are on the page? 
Teacher: Yes, for some activities I have created rubrics? I usually rate each category of performance from 1-4. 
Coach: So how many different components are you assessing within your rubric? 
Teacher: 4. 
Coach: So the max amount a student can receive is 16? 
Teacher: No, I weight the value of the rubric. 
Coach: How? 
Teacher: I take it x2 in the grade book. 
Coach: Why? 
Teacher: It just seems like the right amount to assign for such an activity. It’s more than a quiz and less than a test. 
Coach: How do you know whether the student has mastered the learning target or not?
Teacher: By the total number of points accumulated. 

By looking at this conversation, which is not an isolated scenario, the way teachers assign point values to assessments is arbitrary and in many cases unsupported by any logical reasoning. In this example, the teacher just knew that they wanted quizzes to be worth more than in-class activities and tests to be worth more than quizzes. Values were assigned to reflect that, but there was no pre-thought into what those scores represent once students completed the assessments. How do we know when we have an accurate picture of mastery. Likewise, for teachers who break off their work into percentages, in which quizzes are worth 10 % of your grade, 30% is related to classwork and so on, again those percentages are chosen seemingly at random, and the way that it is calculated in comparison to total points earned gives a completely different outcome. Again, how are we to know what mastery is? The argument is typically that classwork should be worth less than the formal assessment of learning on a test. My question is if their classwork was showing mastery level understanding, why is the final assessment not showing such results? Are the class activities showing mastery of the learning targets, or do they not relate to the skills being assessed in the final assessment? If so, how did the student master the classwork and move all the way to the assessment? If the assessments show that they haven’t mastered the content, what type of instructional strategies are being put in place to achieve such a standard? Something is wrong with this practice. 

By continuing the practice of averaging students scores to come up with a cumulative grade, we really provide no clear communication as to what the student deficiencies are. Instead, we have just an average of all deficiencies with no growth plan on how to rectify the content or skill gaps for the student. Moreover, using averages inherently assumes that the best students get things right the first time they try an activity and that the longer it takes you to master a learning target, the less that student should earn in point value. This has never sat right with me as an educator, even as a novice educator who had blindly implemented traditional practices to fall in line with the expectations of my building leadership team. The purpose of instruction is to have the student master the skill. Why should I care how many times it takes the student to do so? The student who struggles through the process and finally succeeds in meeting the learning target has most likely learned more than the student who achieved success in the first attempt. If it took one learner a single try and another learner five tries, have both students still met the target goal? Should it matter how many times it takes a learner to master the skill, performance or content? We preach to our students to persevere, to fail forward, to learn from their mistakes but then penalize them for doing so. Why do assessments have to be punitive in nature? Can’t they simply be opportunities for reflection and growth?

Why has grading turned into a way to punish our students for not meeting our expectations rather than opening a growth dialogue to address a growth mindset? This question takes me back to my wife’s post and the responses thereafter that I share at the outset of what has now become a lengthy blog post for me. If we are assessing learning targets, then we need to hold true to the validity of such an assessment. Mixing in behavior expectations like late work into an assessment of learning has unintended consequences. The assessment becomes invalid as it no longer is a true representation of what the student has learned. I often hear the argument, how are we supposed to prepare students for the “real-world,” as if they are living in some other fake world, or an alternate reality that is isolated from the world in which you and I live. This is another fallacy. The truth is we need to stop equating academic learning opportunities to jobs. Their grade is a piece of communication that reflects their learning, not a paycheck. The consequence must be reflective of the behavior, and assessment is not a classroom management tool. If you want to assess behavior expectations in your class as part of classroom citizenship then go ahead and assess it, but separately from their academic learning. They are not one and the same. Again, docking points from a paper for an undesired behavior (late work, no name) is punitive in nature and is an attempt to threaten students to modify their behavior. That is not the purpose of the assessment.

Finally, the research suggests that when teachers interweave behavioral expectations with academic assessment, it has a detrimental effect on student motivation and engagement. Why? Imagine yourself taking a class and working your hardest to demonstrate your knowledge and mastery of a subject. You have spent the time to make sure it was great, but were late turning it in. How would you feel about the teacher who devalued the work you put in and deducted 10% from your grade to “teach you responsibility?” Odds are you would begin to shut down for that teacher and the relationship that might have existed would completely erode. From personal experience in the classroom, this has a drastic effect on some of our most vulnerable students. I think about the student who has struggled to get to school, the student who has struggled with their learning, or the student whose home life is a daily struggle. By devaluing the students work, such a practice might be the catalyst for an academic downturn. It might push them to the point to say to themselves, “I just don’t care anymore.” Some would argue that allowing late work for full credit adds an unfair workload to the teacher. I just can’t get on board with that philosophy. Our job as teachers is to ensure our students master the learning targets we have laid out for our kids. A better practice is to assess the skill, address the behavior, build relationships, and develop a plan of action with the student to promote the behavioral expectations that exist within your class. Perhaps you may find another underlying issue for their late work. A conversation might go a long way. 


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