What are we doing?

If we are going to grade, better said as assess, a student’s progress along a continuum of learning, then we have to repurpose our notion of grading.

Learning is never really graded in life and it certainly isn’t taken out of its context though learning in school is compartmentalized into content areas.  I cannot recall a time in my life when I said, “Hey, it is time to learn just about math.” without having a reason for learning it.  Yet, in the segmented day of a student, we say this is the right way to learn.  While separating the content into different classes seems the right thing to do, students really don’t know how it relates to real life and they certainly are not mastering what is taught.  Instead, students are progressing through grades as if they have mastered the learning targets completely taking the context out of learning.

Can we really say this truly describes what a student has learned?

If we are going to say that a child has learned then we have to discuss the value of a grade.  I contend there is no value to a letter grade because it is a letter, and while there is a shift to go to standards based grading there is no value in assigning a standard a grade when the standard is a descriptive of what students should demonstrate while learning. This is the key.  Standards are not grades and they are not curriculum.  Standards describe what should be learned.

Jay McTighe, co-author of Understanding by Design, is writing a series of blog posts on Edutopia.  One post, “Common Core Big Idea Series 2: cameraThe Standards Are Not Curriculum,” quotes the Common Core: Math – “These Standards do not dictate curriculum or teaching methods.” (p 5).  In other words, we cannot turn the Common Core into what and how to teach.  If we do, then we blur the lines between what is being taught and how to measure it.  It is the blurring of this line that causes us to give a letter grade based on something that can only be described.

Student’s learning should be described in a talent based model from novice to expert.  The descriptions should be comprehensive factoring in the backwards design principles espoused by McTighe and Wiggins.  Comprehensive descriptions allow teachers, principals, curriculum directors and superintendents the capacity to create a vision of how student’s learning is to be observed as they learn.  These qualitative discussions are the foundation for demanding learning expectations for students to achieve and the means by which to assess accurately.

If we keep grading by assigning points to every product a student creates and never describe the learning as a continuum and assess based off these descriptions, then students will never truly be able to evaluate their own learning wondering how well they have learned.  We do them a disservice allowing them to misunderstand a grade thinking they met or did not meet the learning goals.

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2 thoughts on “What are we doing?

  1. Grades can really get in the way of learning. I just wrapped up a series of posts describing a gradeless system we have used since the mid 90s. http://milestomes.com/?p=1651 Try returning a math test with only feedback and no grade – they stop ranking each other according to grade and start talking about their math. Quite revealing what happens in the absence of grades!

    • Thanks for the link to your series of posts. I need more information like this to prove the folks I work with that grades are a barrier to real learning.

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