Sunday, August 28, 2016

It's Time to Throw Out Grades

My primary objective as an educator is to do my absolute best teaching my students so that they are prepared to be successful in society once they graduate. I know that this statement is probably overly simplistic, but this creed keeps me going on days when I’m exhausted and struggle to find motivation. I am blessed to have the opportunity each year to improve how I do things. For my students, on the other hand, this is a one shot deal. I owe it to them to bring my best every class period, every day.

My drive to continuously improve my craft also leads me to read professional books in my free time. I seek out new ideas that challenge my current educational philosophy and, if I am lucky, I will find an idea that will shatter it. This moment happened when I read Mark Barnes’ book Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Gradebook and Inspire Learning.

Basically, the concept is that in lieu of putting number and letter grades on their assignments, students will receive feedback on how well they mastered the objective of the assignment. It’s not fundamentally different from how most people learn new skills. For example, when I watched my 5-year-old daughter during swimming lessons this summer, she was given immediate feedback on what she was doing well and what she needed to improve. Similarly, I gave feedback to my now 11-year-old daughter several years ago when she was learning how to ride a bicycle.

Given that feedback is how students authentically learn the best, Barnes’ book caused me to question why this feedback model isn’t used more frequently with students in a school setting. After all, if this method works for teaching someone how to swim and how to ride a bicycle, then wouldn’t it also work in my class for teaching someone to write better summaries and how to read more deeply? There are likely many reasons why this concept isn’t more commonly used. It’s a relatively new idea in the educational landscape and many teachers are not familiar with it. Also, giving grades for assignments and on report cards is the way things have seemingly always been done.

For the sake of my students, neither of these are valid reasons to prevent me from throwing out grades. I want my students’ focus to be on the objectives of the assignment, and not on getting a good grade. Numbers and letters say very little about what a student has actually learned. All of us have experienced times in school when we received good grades on assignments when no actual learning occurred. Research indicates that measuring learning with numbers, percentages, or letters is an inadequate way to assess learning.

Therefore, learning in my classroom will be assessed differently from a typical classroom. My students and I will evaluate learning together using an ongoing dialogue. I will provide written and/or verbal feedback about what they have accomplished and what may still need to be learned. They will then spend time reviewing what they learned from their completed activities and we will discuss how this fits into the letter grade world that they and their parents are accustomed to using. After this evaluation and our discussion, the students will provide input on what their final report card grade should be. If a student assigns a grade that is not compatible with my assessment of his/her performance and quality of work, I will provide my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given on their assignments as well as on their standards-based assessments. The student will then be asked to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper thinking.

This feedback approach to assessment leads to self-evaluation and ultimately to mastery of learning. It will also help students become self-critical, independent learners, which are essential attributes for them to succeed after high school.

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