With report cards, making their way home, it seems appropriate to talk about some changes we are gradually making to how we report to parents and students about their progress. As I explain the process of assessment, I hope to simplify the explanation so everyone can have a basic, foundational understanding. Yet it is not a simple matter to understand; it took me a few years to make the changes to my assessment practices because I was rooted in how I was graded as a child and then how I graded as an early teacher. But the more I read up on assessment, the more I argued with a friend of mine, it finally broke through that I needed to change how I assessed student learning. Sadly, for years, I marked the old percentage method which doesn't accurately tell us what students really know and understand of the outcomes that we teach in the classroom.
Have you ever sat down and thought about how teachers derive the marks they do for students? We really do try our very best to make sure that we are being fair and equitable, but it's hard to keep subjectivity out of the process. Robert Marzano points out that "the score a student receives on a test is more dependent on who scores the test and how they score it than it is on what the student knows and understands." That's kind of scary when you think of it. But subjectivity in the grading process isn't always bad, because as teachers, we know our students, understand the range of students' work, and usually have a clear sense of the progress made over a period of time. At Bassano School, our teachers teach the outcomes for each AB Education course or subject, we call that outcomes-based education. So it would make sense then that when we measure students' understanding or proficiency of learning, that we are measuring how well students know the outcome and can demonstrate it other than just recite facts. We use multiple forms of assessment to determine students' knowledge of outcomes. We use lots of formative assessment, (informal or formal assessment like portfolios, projects, checklists, and more) to provide ongoing feedback to students, which becomes part of the learning, that's what we call Assessment for Learning. We aren't just assessing how well students get it, but we use the assessment as a method for adapting the instruction to ensure students are learning. When we mark or grade a student's work, we are looking for evidence of learning against a standard determined by Alberta Education required at each grade level as mastery. As teachers, though, it's important to look for evidence or proofs of learning. It's not about looking for what is not there or missing from the answer, but what is present as proof of learning. When we look for what's missing, it's easy to turn assessment into a punitive exercise.
Zeros - Unfortunately, over the past forty years, schools have been great at pointing out student shortcomings even to the point of being a form of punishment. What do I mean by this? How many times have students received a zero for something, when that couldn't be further from the truth of what the students knows about a subject? Giving a student a zero is like saying a student doesn't know anything; they have zero knowledge or understanding about the outcome that was being taught simply because they didn't turn in the assignment. They may have had the work half completed, but they are being told they get a zero because they didn't turn it in. Is the grade supposed to tell us what the student knows, or punish them for not turning it in?
Averaging - Another area that poses some challenges for schools is the 100 point/percent averaging system. Thomas Guskey says that the averaging of grades "falls far short of providing an accurate description of what students have learned...If the purpose of grading and reporting is to provide an accurate description of what students have learned then averaging must be considered inadequate and inappropriate." Doug Reeves goes further to say teachers "must abandon the average, or arithmetic mean, as the predominant measurement of student achievement." Why? Typically what has happened in the past is a student might get the following marks for five different assignments 93, 70, 87, 55, 90 in an outcome or unit. What does a student get on their report for the first term then? Well, if we average the marks, they have a total of 365 points, which we divide by 5 and they get an 79% on their report card. But does this really give us an accurate measure of what they know? No. They have clearly demonstrated mastery understanding in 3 of the 5 assignments when you measure it against the proficiency standards. In reality the student should have received an 87% average because that's the median. But Alberta doesn't do that for our students doing the diploma exams. They take your school mark and your diploma mark and add them together and divide by two, and that's your grade. Take a student that gets a 90 in Math 30 from their teacher, and gets 60 on the diploma. They get a 75% for a final grade. How unfair was that? When you look at the test anxiety our students have experienced on exam day, because a comprehension exam that was taking a 3 hour snapshot of what they learned over the entire semester. So because they were stressed, they were punished for doing poorly during that testing period. I realize that AB Education is changing the spread from 50-50 to 70-30. But it's still an averaging of the two grades.
Time Factors – In other Alberta school, students are penalized for late work, or not allowed to resubmit work or rewrite tests after a period of time. But in reality, life doesn't put limits on us to demonstrate learning. If I fail my driver's test, I can retest as many times as I want. Time shouldn't be a barrier to learning; however, it has been in many schools, but not at Bassano School. We do not deduct for late work, and we allow for rewrites, and redo’s. If a pattern develops of chronic lateness, then measures need to be put into place to make provision for getting the work done after school or during lunch hours. It's more important that the students learn the value of doing work well and in a timely manner with a hope to improve things.
We have been making some assessment changes over the past few months in the junior high, and some philosophical changes in the high school to reflect fair and equitable assessment practices. Kindergarten – Gr. 6 uses the 4 point scale, much like in the figure below.
We are starting to implement the 4 point scale into the Junior High for grades 7 - 9. Already we have seen significant changes in student performance. As Rick Wormeli says, it is important to provide students hope for them to feel more engaged and take ownership of learning. So one of the ways we do that is by encouraging students to strive for proficiency and mastery as a minimum of learning. We use the slogan, "If it's not a 2, it's a redo." We will not accept anything less than adequate learning which is a level 2. So students redo assignments, rewrite tests, and fix or correct their mistakes. We don't make them redo the whole assignment or rewrite the complete test. They only have to redo or fix the problem areas and make the necessary corrections to demonstrate proficiency. The buy-in from the students has been huge. We've had to get them to change their thinking about assessment from thinking about grade point averages or a total average of grades, to do I know this outcome, and how well do I know it. The grade doesn't motivate like a sense of accomplishment that comes from knowing you know what is being taught.
Some might say it's best to make these changes after the summer holidays, or when everyone is ready to be on board. The quick response to that is that's not really how life works. If we expect students to learn and grow during the school year, as teachers, we need to learn and grow with change as well. We needed to make this change for our students benefit, because we value them so much. The benefits we've seen a few short months are huge. Already students are working harder to learn the outcomes. Levels of engagement are up. Students are giving more effort to learn, where they once sat in their seats giving up. So that's why we didn't wait. We believe it was worth it for the students.
We are committed to:
- support and encourage students to meet the high standards set before them,
- being fair, and equitable in our assessment practices for students,
- using multiple forms of assessment to help students build on their knowledge base and expand on their opportunities,
- building meaningful relationships and rapport with parents, students, and community through regular and positive communication,
- creating a flexible learning environment that leads to students being responsible and accountable for their learning,
- eliminating barriers, such as time, through continuous learning opportunities for mastery learning.
If you want to watch some videos that speak to good assessment practices, watch Rick Wormeli: