I try to pick one central thing to think about every year, outside the day-to-day questions of what the reading is going to be or what we’re doing in class next Thursday. This year, I’ve been thinking a lot about assessment, feedback, and grades–three things that are almost but not quite the same and whose interaction continually tangles my thinking and my students’.
I have the good fortune of working at a school that is open to exploring standards-based grading, and that has been shaping my thinking about this topic. (I really hate this name, because it seems to me to suggest that those using traditional grading have no standards! I do, however, like the philosophy behind it. Standards-based grading, in a nutshell, focuses on end results rather than effort or behavior, organizes grades by learning goal rather than by task, breaks reports down by learning goals rather than reporting a single average, and privileges where students end up rather than weighting every task equally from beginning to end. The point, as I take it, is to make the clearest possible statement about what specific things students can and cannot do by the end of the grading period)
I love the basic ideas behind this, but I had some questions about how it would work in practice, so this year I have actually been keeping two grade books: a traditional one, with I shared with the kids, and a standards-based one which I have kept to myself and thus felt very free to tinker with as the year goes on. This is an imperfect experiment, of course, because the standards-based approach is much more than a gradebook–one cannot, obviously, practice two different philosophies at the same time. I have in fact been following many standards-based practices for a long time, however–I provide students with rubrics for nearly every task, structure my 9th-grade course around a series of core skills which I name for the students and return to throughout the year, and have tried to structure my grading practices so that risks are not penalized and later successes weigh more heavily than early failures.
I’m itching to flip the switch, share the standards-based version of my gradebook with the students and drop the traditional one, but I have a few issues to resolve first, and I want to work as many kinks as possible out in my own mind before I present the students with something that will be foreign and, initially, unsettling to many of them. So this year is a sandbox year for my great experiment.
Here are the questions I’ve been chewing on this fall:
- What is the optimum level of detail with which to track progress for the students? Is that the same level of detail that should be shared with the parents?
- With a 4-point scale, which my school uses, how do I still give students a sense of progress?
- Given that ninth-grade is when many students begin to learn the rules of the adult working world–taking responsibility for finding out what the homework is, monitoring one’s own attentiveness, seeking help when confused, etc.–and practical skills like summarizing a reading or studying for a test–how do I scaffold and incentivize that learning without letting it obscure students’ progress or lack thereof on the more intellectual goals of the course?
- In particular, since history classes often depend on students having done the reading (a difference from math and science classes, where homework seems more often to be practice), how do I still make sure that that happens without a grade attached to just “doing the work”?
- If I break learning goals down with enough granularity to feel really useful, how can I keep them from creating an untenable upward pressure on the number of assessments I need to feel that I’ve assessed them all fairly in each quarter?
- What is the clearest, most effective, and most supportive way to capture progress without discouraging students at the outset? (In other words, do I set fixed goalposts for the semester or year or do I move them over time to keep pace with expected “average” progress?)
- How can I best communicate with students about their progress?
- Since my school still uses a single letter grade on transcripts, how can I most fairly translate progress on a series of learning goals into a letter grade at the end?
- Does the final outcome with this approach match my gut feeling about where a student should be scoring? If not, which side of the equation needs adjusting?
This is all giving me a lot to think about! I’ll try to explain where I am right now in my thinking about each of these questions in a series of upcoming posts. I’d love to hear from other teachers about your answers to these questions, too. Drop me a line!