Making the Grade: Transforming Assessment (Part 1 of 4)

The difference between an A student and an F student is that the A student remembers until five minutes after the test, the F student until five minutes before the test.
Charles Schultz

Five years ago, during the orientation of seven new teachers, I asked them to explain what a ‘B’ grade represented. Unsurprisingly, I received seven very different answers: most offered disparate point values, many were divided as to whether it was a “good” grade or not, and no one was entirely convinced that this was a logical or fair way of assessing student learning. This was a highly-talented group of teachers, already inducted, through training and experience, into the secret, sacred credo of grading. This is not an unfamiliar story in schools. At that point in time in our school, we actually had as many as five different grading scales in operation and we were determined to do something about this. Whether it was different interpretations of the 1-100 point scale or the rabbit-out-of-the-hat “on grade level” philosophy, we had a problem. We were pretty strong on assessment of learning, but in quite poor shape when it came to assessment for learning. This blog series, in four parts, tells the story of how we sought to address this problem.

The Most Counterproductive Aspect of Schooling
For our middle and high school students, the need was particularly clear. Our grade 11 and 12 students, preparing for the International Baccalaureate examinations, were contending with  the fourth grading scale many of them had encountered in our school. We knew we needed to adopt a single scale of 1-7 (to align with the IB), but we also knew that there were fundamental and challenging issues before us. Our mission committed us to the development of independent learners and we were determined to teach our students how to learn, yet we operated a feedback system that ran counter to these ambitions. The essence of our dissatisfaction with our grading and assessment system was  possibly best summed up by Grant Wiggins, when he said: “Perhaps the most counterproductive aspect of schooling as we know it is the conventional system of letter grades. The problem with grades is not the use of symbols, but the absence of any DEFENSIBLE plan for coming up with the symbol… most grades reflect what is easy to count and average into a final grade.”

We felt, in many instances, that we were guilty of many poor assessment practices at this time, but this is how most schools had evolved. There were aspects of our grading and assessment approaches that were less than satisfactory when considered objectively. We used a 100 point scale. (How is it humanly possible for any teacher to defend and differentiate between two different points on such a scale?) We were also guilty of averaging in order to calculate final grades. (How is it possible to average achievement over time?) We counted (literally) homework, effort, and, in effect, behaviour. We issued zeros. We awarded extra-credit. We deducted points. Most critically, we provided students with little, solid rationale for the feedback we were providing them with. We did this as well-intentioned, dedicated professionals, but today it seems medieval, looking back. If the overly serious business of grading and assessment were a battlefield – and there is, on occasion, something of this culture associated with it – we could reasonably have been charged with committing war crimes.

Getting Beyond the Black Box
We spent about eighteen months in dialogue with our teachers, outlining a learning philosophy that few disputed. However, no school behaviour is more deeply ingrained than that of grading. Many of our plans were radical: to begin with, the traditional grading scale had to go. We agreed with William Glasser on this point: “We can pay teachers a hundred thousand dollars a year, and we’ll do nothing to improve our schools as long as we keep the A, B, C, D, F grading system.” Moving to a 1-7 scale of standards-based assessment and reporting was an ambitious goal. We understood, with some trepidation, that we needed to simultaneously remove all vestiges of traditional grading or we were not going to achieve what we needed to for our students. A criterion-referenced approach with the objective of providing students with opportunities to develop mastery of clearly articulated standards was our target.

We were acutely aware of all the reasons why our existing assessment approach was flawed. Jessica Lahey has compiled a succinct list of these reasons: “if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity,rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.”

Engaging in our own learning as a leadership team was a key part of the process. We were guided, among others, by the work of Dylan & Black, who in their ground-breaking book, Assessment for Learning: Beyond the Black Box, concluded that all the research in this field indicated that improving learning through assessment depends on five, deceptively simple, key factors:

  1. the provision of effective feedback to pupils;
  2. the active involvement of pupils in their own learning;
  3. adjusting teaching to take account of the results of assessment;
  4. a recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self-esteem of pupils, both of which are crucial influences on learning;
  5. the need for pupils to be able to assess themselves and understand how to improve.

The ironic thing was, as we set out to understand more about the issues we found ourselves confronted with – essentially operating as learners ourselves – the last thing that would have supported this learning was the very system we were determined to dismantle. Part two of this blog entry will deal with that learning process and how it resulted in our decision to dismantle our entire assessment system for one that put students at the centre of the process.

Part 2 of this blog series can be read here.

Picture credit: Still shot from a promotional film created by Emily and Josh Brooks (www.brooksbox.co.uk) on behalf of ISB Communications. See the film here.