I was thinking about this again after the NSTA presentation I did last week. Some of the participants mentioned that they are required by administration to update student scores in an on-line gradebook each week---which automatically calculates an average, etc. How are you supposed to implement best practices when the tools and expectations are "old school"? Excellent questions, with no simple answers. The kind of change they're needing is a systems approach---and I'm more focused on the classroom. There are likely some ways to manipulate the weighting system in those soulless automatons of grading software such that categorizing things as "formative" gives it an insignificant impact. Perhaps there are other workarounds, as well.
The other part of the question that was worth noting was simply the idea of the audience for these automated grades. An on-line grading system bypasses the student for delivering information. I can see certain advantages to that (depending upon the student) and know that other stakeholders (parents, administrators, athletic coaches...) have their own needs for student grades. However, there is no way to guarantee that these outsiders to the classroom understand what the grade represents. I was reminded of two recent articles (one in ASCD and one in the Washington Post) which compared parent tracking of grades to watching the stock market. From the WaPo:
Parents and students in a growing number of Washington area schools can track fluctuations in a grade-point average from the nearest computer in real time, a ritual that can become as addictive as watching political polls or a stock-market index.It's the last paragraph that bothers me. As long as there are zeros for missing assignments, points taken off for late work (or added for bringing boxes of Kleenex and cans of food), averages, and so forth---how does a kid know how s/he's doing? The grade book may be open in terms of scores, but how those scores are derived is still very much a mystery in most schools. I think that schools may be giving themselves a large dose of false comfort in assuming that just because gradebooks are on-line that the grading process is less of a crapshoot to most observers.
The proliferation of online grading systems has transformed relations among teachers, parents and students and changed the rhythm of the school year. Internet-based programs including SchoolMAX and Edulink are pushing midterm progress reports into obsolescence. Prospective failure is no longer a bombshell dropped in a parent-teacher conference. A bad grade on a test can't be concealed by discarding the evidence. A student can log on at school, or a parent at work, to see the immediate impact of a missed assignment on the cumulative grade or to calculate what score on the next quiz might raise an 89.5 to a 90. Report cards hold little surprise...
"You can walk around this building and every kid knows exactly how they're doing," said John Weinshel, a teacher who administers EdLine at the school. "The curtain has been stripped from the wizard. There's no more mystery. The grade book is open."
Are we afraid of using professional judgment when evaluating students? Why is that? Is it because we, as educators, lack enough training to discern which student work meets the targets...but don't want to admit that? Are there other reasons why we take such false comfort in the numbers representing learning?