The Grading and Assessment Conundrum

This weekend I attended ntcamp, an unconference for both veteran and new teachers aimed at providing conversation for new teachers to learn from veteran teachers.  I sat in on a session facilitated by Jason Bedell about grades that proved to be a thought provoking one.

He created a collaborative document that holds a lot of the thoughts, reflections and reactions from the session. You can access it here.

It really got me thinking about my own grading practices, which I have always struggled with. Part of the struggle has been trying to give grades to almost 300 students that I see once a week for 45 minutes (if I'm lucky).  Part of it is just an underlying feeling that I'm not 'doing it right.'

I tend to focus on project based learning with rubrics as an assessment. I create the rubric first, outlining the learning goals and creating descriptors to support what they would look like from basic understanding to mastery. My rubrics are constantly being revised, reworded and reworked. While the project is still in progress I make notes on changes to make as I see fault with the scale or descriptors or if I find that wording is unclear. Still, I feel that I'm just not 'doing it right.'

So I wonder: Is this because I haven't figured it out? Is there something inherently wrong with giving students grades? Or maybe this feeling is just a necessary evil?

My struggles:

  • Even with very specific descriptors that spell out the requirements for each criteria I often find myself wondering how objective my grading really is
  • I always have students who don't finish the project in time for the end of the marking period--why should they be penalized just because they work more slowly than their neighbor?
  • By teaching with a standard rubric I am using the same expectations for students who are not all the same. I do modify the rubric for students with IEPs, but usually it's just a matter of deleting a criteria to simplify the project.
  • How do I get my students to look beyond the grade when I give them feedback?
  • How do I assess my students the way I think is best within the constructs of the system I am forced to use?
  • Is it OK for me to be instilling in my students the idea that they are only as good as someone else (me) tells them they are?
  • How do e-portfolios, having students develop rubrics, student self-assessment and having students explain their understanding of a standard verbally or in written form (all ideas I've been hearing) play out at the elementary level?

What I am going to try:

  • Using LiveBinders to have my students start an e-portfolio that we can add to each year. Students would choose what items will go into the portfolio
  • Sitting with students while they explain how their portfolio item(s) meet the standard(s)
  • Collaborating with classroom teachers to incorporate content standards into my projects
  • Making standards transparent to my students and having discussions that will help me assess understanding
  • Keeping individual records on students to track progress--it should be easier this year since I won't be teaching 400 students a week!
  • Allowing students as much time as they need to complete assignments
  • Letting students revise a project until it meets the highest criteria
  • Have students tell me the grade they think they deserve with a justification (perhaps by having students record their grade explanations as an mp3 to hand in digitally)
  • Allowing for group work that will provide students the opportunity to use their strengths and learn from their peers.
  • Designing learning experiences that allow the students choice and that are based on real-life situations

Still unsolved:

  • How to quantify these assessments so they fit into a gradebook/report card
  • How to introduce and explain these kinds of assessments to my students
  • If I let my students take as much time as they want, what do I do if they haven't finished by the end of the marking period?
  • If I am going to ask my students to explain their understanding of a standard that means I will still have to have deadlines of some kind
  • I will have to plan for time for the self-assessments--this will take away from instructional time
  • How will I convey expectations to my students? Will I still need to have a rubric of some kind?
  • How will I create these 'authentic' learning experiences while allowing for student choice and meeting standards?

I'm still on the fence about grades. I know that something is not right, but I also know that we are working within a system that is based on quantifying student learning.  My students will need grades to be able to get into a good high school (in Philadelphia you can apply to competitive high schools) and definitely to get into a good college. In addition, students want to know if what they are creating is any good. We all know that feeling when we thought we really had something good only to find out it was only mediocre. Some of my most memorable teachers were able to give me useful and honest feedback while also asking questions to push me further. Eventually, though, this feedback ended in some kind of evaluation in the form of a grade.  In addition, we spend our adult lives being rated on some kind of scale, whether it be your quarterly review or a formal observation or a raise,

On the other hand, it wasn't the grade that I remember, it was the feedback process. So I guess I want that experience for my students. I want them to be more interested in the conversation around a concept and dialogue of learning than how I rate them on some seemingly arbitrary scale that I have concocted so that I can put a letter or number in a box.

So what are you struggling with? What are you going to try to do differently next year? What are your thoughts on grades?

For more about abolishing grades here are some resources/ideas

Joe Bower--Abolishing Grading and The Grading Moratorium
Matt Townsley -- The Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform (guest post)
Alfonso Gonzalez -- Why Grade to Assess?(guest post)
Jason Bedell's Summer Series on Assessment

 photo courtesy of pjern on Flickr


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