Assessment, Grading and Learning

Quite often in a secondary setting I have found it is easy to get into the habit of using summative assessment more than formative assessment and focusing more on the end result rather than the learning along the way.  I have always tried to design formative and summative assessment tasks that are beneficial to learning but at times I have focused as much on getting marks/grades to ensure I could generate a report when required as I have the actual learning. Because of this my assessment has often lacked in the formative area. In the last 8 months or so I have thought about assessment and grading more and more and how it impacts on learning.

The following are quotes from educators around testing & grading and learning and what they see as the contradictory nature of these terms.

“We try to individualize instruction because all students are not the same but we standardize assessment with the expectation that students learn at the same rate.” Beth Knittle

“We’ve confused measurement with assessment and forgotten that the root word for assessment is assidere with translates into ‘to sit beside’. We’ve come to see assessment as a spreadsheet when it’s really a conversation.” Joe Bower

“If you are looking to increase a child’s anxiety, desire to escape and fear of failure, or decrease their intrinsic motivation and self-efficacy then it makes perfect sense to grade students.” Joe Bower

As a teacher I want students who enjoy learning for learnings sake and not for the end result of an A, B, C, D or E grade (or word equivalant!). I want students who don’t care if they fail but just get back up and try again. I want students who learn in an environment that is diverse and broad not narrow. As a set of beliefs I am not sure I would get to many arguements here and yet the policies we enact may just encourage the opposite.

We want students who enjoy learning but the end result for most students (increasingly more so at younger year levels) is an A, B, C, D or E grade, this is not teaching students to love learning so much as teach them compliance. Do this and you will get that and once you have that the learning often stops.

We would like kids to embrace failure but through the school system we encourage students to fear failure. We all know what a ‘D’ or ‘E’ means. Students don’t want to show their parents because the reaction (first reaction at least) is often not where do we go from here and how do we improve (because quite frankly there is generally not enough information in a report card for that to happen) but a displeased look which conveys everything to the child – you are not good enough. Hence the student’s attitude becomes “I don’t want to fail!”

We want a diverse learning environment but NAPLAN and all the other standardised/academic tests we use encourage a narrow view of education not a broad one. Why are we all doing persuasive writing in term one? Because NAPLAN said so.

Obviously assessment and reporting are an essential part of schooling but I am now not as sure as I was 12 months ago about how that should look to students, teachers and parents.

  • Can we focus on developing quality formative assessment (a lot of teachers do this well) as a way to improve learning? A lot of research says formative assessment has more impact on learning. Formative assessment allows for informative, useful, constant task focused feedback and practice. Summative tasks are still useful but without a higher percentage of formative tasks lack the ability to improve student learning.

One of the key components of engaging students in the assessment of their own learning is providing them with descriptive feedback as they learn. In fact, research shows descriptive feedback to be the most significant instructional strategy to move students forward in their learning. Descriptive feedback provides students with an understanding of what they are doing well, links to classroom learning, and gives specific input on how to reach the next step in the learning progression. In other words, descriptive feedback is not a grade, a sticker, or “good job!” A significant body of research indicates that such limited feedback does not lead to improved student learning. Association for Middle Level Education

  • Can we convey more effectively to parents where there kids are at and what there learning is?
  • Grades are so ingrained. When a parent and child sees and A, B, C, D or E grade the writing that follows, however informative, almost fades away into the background.
  • One school I’ve heard sends their comments home first. Two weeks later the grade goes home. hmmm……interesting!

Maybe what is written here is confronting, I know it is for me. For 17 years I have focused on a small number of formative tasks, made the summative task the main aim and tried to generate grades as a way of passing on how well a student has performed. Should I change? Can I change within a system that is based on grading as an end point? What is your position on this topic? I encourage you to leave your point of view in the comments section.


4 thoughts on “Assessment, Grading and Learning

  1. Well here, here Nick. First of all I agree my focus on assessment doesn’t represent a consistent nor professional approach. We are so busy in dealing with day-to-day stuff and enriching what is presented, that too often by the time the end result or the assessment comes around we are exhausted and throw things together that gives us the all important ‘score’. (Well I do anyway)>
    What I am hopeful of is that the journey we are going on as a group of staff results in us interrorgating these areas more and more….. and more!

    I believe we must – it is essential – if we are to become proficient and masters as per the National Professional Standards. Above all, I believe if ever we are to get to these conversations, we might just make less work for ourselves and provide a more accurate judgement of where students are ‘at’. And they migth have more fun!

    Heaven forbid! Keep it coming

  2. We spent time reading and discussing the issues raised in this article. Lots of debatable points, particularly as we came from different backgrounds – primary and middle school headsets.
    We agreed philosophically with most points but making an effective change is the hard part. Changing the thinking of parents and students and even DECS will be a major hurdle to get past. So too will adjusting the way we think about collecting the all important data that we need to justify our “grades” (or word equivalents).
    One point we discussed was students learning for the sake of learning and not caring about grades as a focus – we thought encouraging our students to learn for a PURPOSE was an important focus. Not only when in school but also later in life. Accepting failure and picking themselves up IS important but so too is striving for your BEST and doing your upmost to improve, succeed at a task and ensure that you don’t fail. After all, in our current school system, how often do we see students who have failed at a task that have done their upmost to be successful?? or have they let themselves down by missing deadlines, being disorganised, not seeking help, not being persistent etc.
    How we format and change our reporting to students and parents about a child’s learning is the key area that we need to address. Is it meaningful? Does it do what we want it to achieve? Is it what parents want to know? Is it generic for the whole population? Is our reporting giving an accurate picture of a child and their learning? Can we add relevant and specific detail but write less? Do our 240 character boxes say fully what we need to say or does it just fit? Is there another, more meaningful and effective way???

    Lots of food for thought

    Towny and Kim

  3. I like your point about learning for a purpose over learning for the sake of learning but we have to be careful of what the ‘purpose’ is. Is it a relevant purpose that ideally the students had some input into or is the purpose more to do with making the teachers day easier or about getting a grade?

    I agree with the points you made in our chat after school that many students don’t learn from failing and nothing changes because they lacked the effort in the first place. But what about those kids who always succeed (always put in the effort/organisation/persistance) and don’t want to fail because it will ruin their ‘perfect run’. We praise these sort of kids up so much that in the end they don’t want to fail because they fear they will disappoint. I think we often tell kids failure is ok but our non verbal reactions (parents/teachers) and the way we assess in school tells them otherwise and these are more powerful than the sentence, “It’s good to fail, you can learn from that.” So it is a culutral change that needs to happen. How you achieve this in a school/community I’m not quite sure.

    On a side note to the above if the only reason our top kids achieve is because they are organised and apply effort to their work then we are not giving them tasks that push them high enough up the ladder of Blooms Taxonomy.

  4. Pingback: A Fear of Failure

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