06 July 2008

Thought Experiment

So, let's say that Congress agreed to rescind NCLB on one condition: Every teacher in every public school classroom has to use standards-based grading and reporting practices. What would schools say? That they prefer annual testing...or that they're willing to make a k-12 change in how we evaluate students at the classroom level?

Keep in mind that colleges had a similar choice over a century ago. Unhappy with the uneven quality of incoming classes, colleges knew that they had two ways to determine whether or not students were actually prepared by their high schools. In the first scenario, they could insist that transcripts be more meaningful. An "A" at one school in math did not mean the same as an "A" in math from another school. If universities insisted on changes in grading and reporting to reflect what students actually knew and could do, they would be more knowledgeable about applicants. We all know that institutions of higher learning didn't go this route. Instead, they picked option B: develop a standardized test which all applicants would take. The scores from the tests would allow easy comparison among candidates. The SAT was born...as well as the standardized testing movement.

Do we really have no one to blame but ourselves for all of these exit tests and other standardized fair? If I could tell a college (or employer) exactly what skills a student did and didn't master, would they need to know what the SAT score was?

A commentary in Education Week asked if our traditional grading practices be counterproductive? The answer, I believe, is "Yes." It's the basis for my dissertation. Now, I'm not willing to throw out grades and grading---but I believe that our approach has to change. To read the full article requires registration, but here are some highlights:
What is shocking is how rare the following question is asked: Does this grade reflect whether or not the student has actually learned anything?

The problem with our grade-dominated system is that emphasizing grades and grading can distract us from a concentration on what really matters: whether or not students are comprehending and learning the material. A ridiculous, even tragic, amount of time is devoted by too many teachers to disputing grades with parents and students. That time could be better used discussing what the child is learning, or having other productive conversations.

Another problem with a heavy reliance on grading is the underlying assumption that grades are a necessary motivator for students. There are several problems with this contention. Psychological research has shown that students, and people in general, are more likely to lose interest in what they’re doing if they are promised carrots or threatened with sticks. Using grades as a threat or reward for completing or not completing schoolwork is extrinsic, or external, motivation. This type of motivation often results in a decreased focus on the learning objective.

I cringe when I hear students ask, “Is this for a grade?” We should try to eliminate that question in our schools. Don’t we, after all, want students to be motivated by the prospect of learning itself? In classroom environments where grades are pushed, the sad fact is that students will often choose the easiest path to high grades, rather than challenge themselves in meaningful and creative ways. In classrooms where students are intrinsically, or internally, motivated, excellence is more likely to occur.

Most students will want to learn if they are presented with engaging and exciting learning environments and experiences. At the least, I’ve found that more students are motivated to learn when presented with authentic, stimulating learning climates than by the threat-reward bargain of grades. Research shows us that the human brain is wired to enjoy discovery and novel ideas, experiences, and situations. If we focused more on creating ideal learning climates, grades could slowly be pushed aside, and we could concentrate more on the kind of constructive feedback that spurs more student growth. Unfortunately, the pressure of grade competition and comparison is ingrained in our system.

I work in a public school where grading is seen as an important motivational facet and feedback tool. But this is no reason for me to despair, despite the problems I have with the practice. We are changing, little by little. Members of the school’s math department, for example, are actively making strides by recording fewer grades, focusing instead on formative assessments and interacting with students to constantly gauge what they know. As a language arts teacher, one of the most productive paths I’ve found is to de-emphasize grades. Traditional grading is insufficient as I attempt to assess student learning, growth, and development.

Like every other student, I enjoyed receiving good grades in school. But I honestly didn’t care much about the grades in courses I was most interested in. There, what we were doing was for the sake of learning itself. That kind of intrinsic motivation can ultimately lead to the creation of students who display the greatest tribute to public education, a desire to keep on learning, long after they have left the classroom.
I hope that in coming years that we are prepared to turn the tide on testing by showing that our grades are meaningful. I'd like to think that public schools are brave enough to take this thought experiment to its logical conclusion


Roger Sweeny said...

The Ed Week writer is certainly correct that students work harder and do better when they have intrinsic motivation.

But then (s)he says, "Most students will want to learn if they are presented with engaging and exciting learning environments and experiences."


That may be true in 1st grade or 3rd grade or even 5th grade but it certainly isn't true in high school. Their brains are certainly wired to "enjoy discovery and novel ideas, experiences, and situations." But they have available to them 16 hours a day worth of novelty that interests most of them more than school subjects.

Even if we could all turn into muppets and do a high school version of Sesame Street, most would not be intrinsically motivated to learn what we are offering.

They are largely in school because they have to be, not because they want to be. Actually, that's probably not true. They do want to be there for the social aspects. And they have been told since pre-school that they need to go to school if they want to get a "good job" and make significant amounts of money.

Perhaps "standards-based grading" can get them to say "I have to learn to get that diploma" so they will actually learn. But I have my doubts.

Partly because of the elephant in the room. Any time we assess a student's learning, we are partly assessing what the student has actually learned. But we are also assessing what the student has managed to memorize or absorb without thinking, and which will be out of his or her head in a few weeks or months.

My hypothesis, which I keep being unable to reject, is that most of what we assess falls into the second category. And I keep coming back to the same questions, "Why is what a student has memorized at time t especially good? What makes that more important than other things that students do?"

The Science Goddess said...

I definitely agree with you about your hypothesis---and the questions.

I think it's what Wiggins and McTighe have been trying to get at with their UbD stuff: that teachers should pick the absolute most important things that students should know and do and not bother assessing the rest. I can't say that I practice this well, but I am finding that I have fewer and fewer summative assessments on "lesser" information---and am focusing more on what students can produce.

It's a long hard road.