I remember the routine. Step one is to flip the paper over quickly before your classmates notice. If that doesn’t work the next-best strategy is pretending you don’t care. But the last thing most kids do with that “failing” test is review it line by line, looking for patterns where they went wrong and thinking about how they can improve and build on the 55 percent of the questions they got right.
It’s more likely to end up in the trash bin.
As the debate around the Common Core State Standards continues to intensify, I’ve noted that much of the criticism (like this one at Education Week) centers not on the standards themselves, but the consequences of the assessments, teacher evaluations, and curricula that may accompany them. What’s missing from the larger conversation (and criticism) around Common Core is that the standards must be accompanied by structural changes in our system to work effectively. Enter standards-based grading. The concept is simple: Let’s give grades that inform. As Susan Brookhart of ASCD writes, "Standards-based grading is based on the principle that grades are not about what students earn; they are about what students learn." Let’s go back to that 55 percent example for a minute, and let’s say it was an essay written for English language arts. In this case, it’s very possible that the student was assessed on several things: Maybe the teacher gave points for an on-topic response, for making a strong argument, for capitalization and punctuation, and for organization. The paper might be so full of red ink that the student crumples it up in a ball before he has a chance to look, but that 55 percent could very well mean the student laid out a strong argument that was on topic, but an organizational mess with few stops for punctuation along the way. In other words, the student mastered two of the four skills. Why not tell him that instead?
Here are three steps that educators can take right now to improve their teaching and student learning by assessing and grading for proficiency.
- The shift to the Common Core presents a perfect opportunity to remake our assessments. Whether performance-based (task/project-based) or more traditional tests, assessments should be made in a way conducive to extracting student performance on each standard. Within items aligned to each standard, questions ought to scaffold from basic to more advanced proficiency, so teachers and students can see exactly how far students’ grasps extend.
- Standards-based grading should also push us to ditch averages both within and between assessments. Again, if students master two standards and not the other two, putting an average at the top of the paper is only an emotional setback and does nothing to assist learning. Likewise, if a student has received proficient grades the last four times he was assessed on a standard, who cares that he didn’t have a grasp of it in September? He learned! As Rick Wormeli, an education consultant and board certified teacher, said, "Lawyers who finally pass the bar exam on their second or third attempt are not limited to practicing law only on Tuesdays."
- Guide students to an important mental shift: Recognizing their singular academic goal in school is to learn what they don’t yet know and improve on what they do. To do that, students must understand the new, quality feedback they will receive and how to track their own progress so they can take initiative to make gains in the classroom.
Students, teachers, administrators and the system at large are addicted to points. Whether it’s the 1-100 scale or the grade point averages we report to colleges and universities. But to achieve our common goal, that system must go. A sound, standards-based approach is waiting to replace it.
Scott Goldstein is a social studies and ESL teacher at a D.C. public charter school. He can be reached via email or Twitter.