There has been a fantastic free-for-all going on over at Beyond School. I won’t get into the specifics – check it out for yourself;the real excitement is in the 75+ comments – but it has focused on, among other things, assessing students in an English Language Arts classroom. In this age, how much weight should be given to “traditional” writing assignments and what is the place for
At the same time, the Faculty Room has been giving assessment a closer look. Dan Meyer expounds on his system, which is well-suited for mathematics (I should know: I’ve adapted his strategy to implement an on-going revision of algebraic concepts in my Grade 8 class). Simon Cheatle gives his perspective from an international school in the Phillipines.
The American Paradigm
The vast majority of commentators present a very American slant on assessment. After spending the last 6 years overseas in truly international schools (my first two years were in a school that could have been situated in the middle of Iowa or California or North Carolina) I wonder why this American paradigm persists? Only in the arguments put forward by Grant Wiggins do I see any reference to criterion-based assessment. Being a mathematics teacher, I wonder how English teachers or History teachers go about grading an essay. How do you tell a B+ from an A-? Do you apply some sort of percentage? What do you do with the student who has a clear grasp of the language but a poor working knowledge of spelling? What do you do with the student who knows all of the grammar and structure protocols, but can’t present a reasoned argument? (For those who didn’t check it out, this is the initial focus of Clay Burell’s post.)
The answer, in my mind, is criterion-based grading. Why not separate the necessary skills of your course and grade each one appropriately? As an IB Middle Years Programme (MYP) school, we do exactly that. For example, in mathematics we assess four separate criteria: Knowledge and Understanding, Investigation of Patterns, Communication, and Reflection in Mathematics. If a student obviously knows the material but cannot present her information clearly, I can grade her higher in Knowledge and Understanding and lower in Communication. I don’t need to find a middle ground and she can know exactly what her strengths and weaknesses are.
A Step Further
At the end of the term, I look into my gradebook and find the highest sustained level of achievement for each criteria. I do not find the mean. If a student starts the year poorly but shows improvement, I reward that. If a student does poorly on one assessment task, it does not come back to hurt him.
I will be the first person to admit that this system is not perfect. There is no room for formative assessments to influence the final grade, except as practice for the summative assessments. In my subject, life would be simpler to assign grades based on percentages. The assessment criteria, in my experience, lend themselves to major assessment tasks which are difficult to write, time consuming for students, and bloody hard to mark. Oh, and it’s a difficult system to get your head around, especially coming from The American Paradigm. Ask any other MYP teacher and they will probably have their own list of grievances.
The debate surrounding assessment is one that is necessary. There is no “right” answer as each teacher, school, and district is in a different situation. However, that doesn’t mean we should not strive to find that perfect way of assessing student performance. On the contrary, only by looking critically at our own practices and our motivations behind those practices can we, as professionals, ever hope to evolve.