When I went to school the process of getting grades was a simple matter, for students. We handed in our work -- assignment, quiz, project or whatever it was -- and got it back a day or two later with a grade on it.
There might be gold star, or a few words scrawled in red at the top of the paper (“Big improvement here!”, or maybe “Not your best work -- what happened?!”), some things circled and a check mark here and there; but only thing any of us were really looking at was the grade: a letter, or a number out of ten, or thirty-five, or a percentage.
On the surface it was simple enough; if you wanted a better grade for the course you had to get more points on your assignments. It was obvious. But that process didn’t give students --or parents -- any information at all about what students needed to do differently to understand the writing process better, or Newton’s Laws. It also didn’t differentiate between really significant learning gaps and carelessness: a word hastily misspelled resulted in the same point deduction as mistaking the Magna Carta for the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen.
From the teacher’s side it was fairly straightforward, too. Because evaluating students was a process of awarding or deducting points, teachers could only really evaluate things that were easily observed and quantified: factual knowledge, correct choices on multiple-choice questions, short answers marked out of five. The result, an average of all a student’s points awarded, was clear and indisputable, a product simple accounting.
It’s different in many schools these days.
Beginning in the 1980s educators and researchers in the UK, Australia and North America began to make important distinctions between grading, which is a process of representing the totality of a student’s learning using a letter or number, and assessment -- the process of observing student learning with the explicit purpose of helping students learn better. Researchers demonstrated again and again that students who were given abundant qualitative information about their learning during the learning process learned more than those who simply received number or letter grades for their completed work. The key is the qualitative, not the quantitative, feedback.
Again, it seems obvious enough: a student who knows clearly what exactly she can do, and what she can’t do yet, knows specifically what she needs to do to improve -- regardless of how well she has done already. Parents who understand in detail where their child succeeds easily and where he struggles are better able to celebrate his achievement and support his specific learning needs. Teachers with specific information about student learning are better able to direct their instruction to meet individual student needs.
In keeping with best research-based practice internationally, AISB’s Assessment Philosophy (see below) is quite clear on the subject, noting that “the purpose of assessment is to provide evidence of learning and timely and specific and descriptive feedback to teachers, students and parents to improve student learning and to provide a basis for future learning.”
Most of what teachers do at AISB in terms of evaluating student progress therefore involves assessment -- of learning, and for the purposes of improving learning -- rather than grading.
Formative Assessment, Summative Assessment and Grading
Educators make a further distinction between types of assessment. Assessment that takes place as students are learning for the purpose of directing and informing their learning, is formative assessment. Assessment that takes place at the end of learning -- the end of a major unit, say, or at the end of a semester -- is summative assessment.
Both formative and summative assessments come in many forms: written assignments of every sort, class discussion and debates, projects, quizzes and tests, teacher observation, and more. Self-assessment is an especially powerful form of evaluation,, and forms an important learning focus at AISB; the student who can observe and evaluate her own progress, and identify next steps, is a highly empowered learner.
Grading is the process of assigning a number or letter to represent all of a student’s summative assessments in a given period.
In short: assessment serves many purposes; grading has only one.
In many good schools formative assessments are not graded. Here’s why: learning complex tasks can take time, and all students have different learning curves. Think of it this way: in the old system of averaging grades, a student who begins the semester knowing nothing of a subject but who achieves at an “A” level by the end of the course may receive a lower overall score than a student who enters the course at a “B-” level and stays there throughout. This misleading result makes sense only if we are awarding grades based on students’ learning curves rather than their achievement.
The AISB Mission states that “we believe in encouraging resourcefulness, creativity and self-expression.” Assigning grades during students’ learning process can penalize students for taking the time to think deeply or in novel ways, and can encourage others to think of creativity and experiments (which might or might not lead to a correct answer) as a potential cause of “mistakes.” Under those circumstances, many students might reasonably choose not to take the risk.
There’s an often-quoted saying, “You don’t fatten a calf by weighing it.” We take that to heart: assessment takes time, and we have to make the results count.
At AISB we make use of many kinds of formative and summative assessment daily, working to achieve a balance in how we assess and make the results count. Most often assessment considers the work of individual students and the progress of individual student learning; ideally, the assessment process itself is designed to teach the student something about herself as a learner. And sometimes we work on a larger scale.
Between September 7 and 10 every AISB student was given the opportunity to write an informational essay on the topic of their choice. These short papers provided us with nearly two hundred “snapshots” of student learning. Teachers gathered in small teams and assessed each paper to evaluate what individual students had demonstrated about their skills and understandings of writing, and compare students’ performances with their individual performance in previous year. Here, teachers were conducting assessment of learning, focusing on individual student progress.
Then we gathered together on Monday, as a whole faculty, to consider a cross-section of sample papers from each grade level. The resulting discussion formed the basis of an evaluation of AISB’s program of instruction: by looking longitudinally at all our students’ work we understand them better,and can see how we might fine-tune our curriculum to help our students grow as writers. This is one example of assessment for learning.
In addition to internal measures of student progress, teachers use the results of external testing such as SAT and PSAT scores, and Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, to help us understand student learning and evaluate the effectiveness of the program.
Starting this week, our students from grade 1-10 will sit to write MAP tests in Language Arts and Mathematics. These tests assess the learning of each student against the standards (assessment of learning). Teachers will also look at the individual data from these tests to see how to better meet the needs of individual students as well as looking at the data in aggregate to see where our curriculum may need adjustment (assessment for learning). Finally, the will look at the cumulative results of all our students relative to students elsewhere, as another measure of the effectiveness of our program.
Assessment has changed a lot since I was an impatient 10th grader. I could never have written as Melinda, a 10th grade student, wrote this week,
“I understand well how to select evidence for my essay (even though I didn’t include any this time). I am pretty confident about how to figure out the central idea and what the author wants us to understand but not always, so I think I need to work on that. I do understand the organization and development of the text, but I haven’t mastered that yet. Identifying the imagery, the tone and diction is not very easy for me either. So I need to work on those things. By the time I’ve mastered those, my next essays will be perfect.”
This kind of self-assessment (not to mention optimism!) demonstrates that this student knows exactly what she can do, and where she needs to improve, and she has a pretty good idea of what her next steps should be. She’s not afraid of what she doesn’t know yet.
It’s what we want for all our students.
Progress reports should have made it home by today. Many of the assessments your son or daughter has experienced so far this year will have been formative, rather than summative, in nature. We invite you to take this opportunity to discuss the content of the reports with your child. Invite your child to share with you their analysis of what they can do, and what they can’t do yet, and what they think their next steps should be. Celebrating success is key.
See you at school,