Assessments & Grades - Why?

Dunce Cap BoyThe State of Oklahoma, like many others, is determined to assign numbers and letters to the schools and teachers within its purview. Like the standardized testing of students on which many of these numbers and letters are based, the conviction seems to be that if you just keep pretending to measure things in ridiculously oversimplified ways designed to guarantee widespread failure, you’re “reforming” the system and calling forth a brighter future for all. This is analogous to – actually, never mind the analogy. It’s just stupid.

For those of you who are not teacher-types, there are two basic types of assessment. Formative Assessment is primarily intended to ascertain student understanding or accomplishment. Do they understand the material? Can they demonstrate the skills you’ve deemed important? Are they making an effort to plow through whatever you’ve assigned in your efforts to help them ‘get it’?

We’re all familiar with tests and quizzes, but Formative Assessment can be made through discussions, artsy-fartsy projects, tickets-out-the-door, etc. In some cases the grade is the grade, and in others students are expected to redo, relearn, retry, etc. Either way, the goal is to figure out what’s going well and what’s not, and to adjust, or to identify what students do or don’t get, and decide what you - and they - can maybe do about that. The "grades" handed out by the State of Oklahoma make little claim of such goals, and our legislature clearly has no intention of adjusting or contributing in any way. So... THAT's not the purpose of these statewide 'report cards'.

Why do students fail? Some kids are doing the best they can, and just don’t get it. They are mostly present and involved, but just aren’t there yet. Our job is to figure out how to help them. Far more fail simply from not doing what they could or should be doing – in other words, by choice or something that looks a great deal like choice. We don’t write them off, or use this as an excuse not to try different approaches, but solutions begin with identifying sources of problems – not with the scores assigned after the fact.

The State of Oklahoma and the OKSDE have shown a determined lack of interest in the underlying sources of low achievement. It would actually be a huge step forward if they merely covered their ears and ran about yelling 'NANANANA ICANTHEARYOU NANANANA ICANTHEARYOU!' Even in the classroom, the oversimplification of A B C D F hinders recognition that no two kids excel, survive, or fail in the same way, or for the same reasons. Whatever the root of shortcomings, our question is the same – what can we as teachers, as teams, as districts, do differently so more kids DO succeed? Even when many factors are undeniably out of our control – home life, background, socio-economics, DNA, etc. – any ethical educator asks themselves what they COULD try… what they COULD do.

Which, as I may have mentioned, the state has shown absolutely no interest in considering.

Education HurdleSummative Assessment is the other category. It’s the ‘BIG TEST’ at the end of a unit or a semester. These attempt to document what students “walk away with” in knowledge and skills. The data can identify strengths and weaknesses of individual teachers so we can help each other improve, or help compare classes from year to year. For students it’s generally the finish line, for better or worse – here’s how you did, now off with thee.

What type of assessment you choose depends on your purpose. That sounds rather obvious, but it’s easy to fall into doing stuff mostly because that’s just… how it’s done. But grades should have a purpose. Otherwise, why bother?

Each semester, 18 weeks of a student’s experience in a given class – their effort, their understanding, their organization, their attitude, their ability - is summarized by a single number between 0 – 100, which in turn translates to one of 5 letters. This is, of course, inane. But it’s been how we’ve been doing things for so long it’s rather entrenched. That number and letter could mean so many different things they’re essentially useless as formative assessment. They’re only real functions are as carrots, sticks, or labels.

Most teachers still give these numbers and letters - they're pretty much required - but we tweak them based on a variety of formal and informal assessments of our own. We tell students their grades, but we spend far more time talking them through more specific, potentially useful feedback about what they seem to be doing well and what they might try instead if they're not. In other words, while we still retain the trappings of an outmoded grading model, we do our best within structure to more fully discern and more effectively assist.

Prof. Umbridge The A-F Report Card given by the State of Oklahoma to its public schools each year does none of the things assessment is supposed to do. It provides no support, and intentionally limits the data it is willing to consider. There are no adjustments on the part of the state based on how well a given school is doing, and no conversation regarding options for improvement. It's not even measuring most of the things we claim are most valuable to us. It is merely calculated and published, and each year more and more schools are sent to sit in the corner with their 'dunce' caps on.

If the goal isn’t to help struggling schools, and there’s no state interest served merely by comparing apple schools to the orange, what exactly is the purpose? Is the OKSDE going to call our parents and ask for a meeting? Are our state legislators going to suggest we be tested for meds or glasses? Best case scenario, what are we hoping happens as a result?

I suppose they could be onto some cutting edge pedagogy I’ve overlooked. Perhaps if I just keep posting my kids grades in the main hallway outside the front office, I’ll be the highest standards most teachingest educator ever! I won’t even lesson plan or teach anymore, and when kids ask for help, I’ll explain I have so many obligations and just can’t spare the time or resources unless it’s to give them more tests to post.

A teacher who just kept failing more and more kids while providing less and less assistance or supplies would be condemned as completely useless and unethical. A state that just keeps failing more and more schools while providing less and less is the same - but moreso.

Related Post: #OKSDE & The A-F School Report Card

Related Post: He Tests... He Scores!

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