I have the honor of teaching at a laboratory school and working with many pre-service teachers as they move through their teacher training programs. The mission of our school is to act as a model for educational methods and theory in support of the preparation of future educators. Many of the pre-service teachers that come through my classroom, as well as many of us, went through school with very traditional assessment practices and a traditional mindset when it comes to education, assessment, and grading. Tests were high stakes, early attempts at learning distorted our final grades, and we weren’t given full credit for our learning.
One of the experiences that I enjoy most is having having four-week clinical interns during the semester before they student teach, and through this I have the power to change their mindset about assessment. Changing over to a standards-based mindset is challenging task, especially when we don’t know differently. My last clinical student had never experienced a standards-based learning and grading classroom and was extremely hesitant at first. However, her eyes were opened to the power that sound assessment practices have on student hope, efficacy, and achievement. At our final meeting she had some thoughts to share. The following are some of my favorite and most memorable comments.
“Assessments aren’t stressful for the students.”
If set up with the appropriate assessment architecture, summative assessments don’t need to be high stakes or stressful experiences for our students. Cassandra Erkens (2016) says, “Teachers and learners alike should walk into the summative assessment experience already knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt how they will perform. If the formative assessment process is handled well, summative assessments simply become celebrations of all that has been learned.” (p. 12) Just as an athlete views practices as a chance to learn and grow, our students should view formative assessment in the same manner. This is a time to practice, communicate, make mistakes, receive feedback, and grow. When the heavy lifting is done in the formative assessment paradigm, summative assessment simply becomes a celebration of learning. As educators, we need to make sure that we have gathered enough evidence that we, as well as the students, know how they will perform walking into a summative assessment.
“Because of the way I provided feedback, I can tell you every kid’s strengths and what they need to work on next.”
When we teach to the standards, we have a very clear idea of what we need students to learn. When we change our language to focus on learning those standards, students have a clear idea of what their target is. When our assessments are aligned to the standards, we have the ability to help our students narrow in on that target. Providing students with actionable, meaningful feedback will give them the tools to do just that. Goal oriented feedback always guides our learners along a path of greater learning, making it much more valuable than simple value judgement feedback. While I suppose feedback like “good job” is appreciated, it does not inspire the student to take the next step in his or her learning. We should view feedback as a new opportunity to guide students to think about their learning in a new way. Our feedback rarely, if ever, should simply provide a correct answer, but rather direct students to reconsider their initial response or encourage well-thought out responses. If students begin to see feedback as a helpful growth opportunity versus a negative judgement on their abilities, they are no longer paralyzed by the goal of achieving a certain grade and are freed to be imperfect in the process of learning. When we, as educators, change the way we provide feedback to look at where students currently are, what they understand, and what they need to do next, we have a much clearer picture of the strengths and areas for growth of each student. After all, Hattie (2008) has shown that the single factor that has the greatest impact on student achievement is feedback.
“My grades are valid and accurate. They truly represent student learning.”
As the clinical student and I moved through our experience together, we talked about this topic often. She told me how she always understood the “game of school” and was really good at accumulating points to achieve the desired “A.” However, we also talked about how that “A” didn’t truly represent her most recent or most consistent understanding. In many classes she was able to put forth a great effort to achieve that desired level, regardless of her understanding. It made the focus of her schooling point accumulation, instead of learning. In a standards-based classroom the grade you deliver to students and other educational stakeholders represents only one thing: student achievement against the standards. It is imperative that behaviors (work habits, respect, attendance, etc.) are removed from the academic grade. These habits are just as important, but need to be reported separately as not to distort the whole picture of student achievement. By only reporting most recent or most consistent evidence of achievement of the standards, we are communicating a clear picture of student understanding. Schimmer (2016) says, “When schools allow an endless number of combinations or interpretations in grading, the reported data become ambiguous. If schools ensure that grades are only about achievement, they are more likely to convey a clear and consistent message.” (p. 24)
“I feel like there is an overall hopeful feeling. Everyone feels like they can and will be successful.”
We need to establish a culture that supports risk taking. It students are penalized for their early attempts at learning or our marks or grades are punitive in nature, they have the ability to crush confidence and hinder student learning. When our feedback in the formative assessment paradigm instead looks at each students current level of understanding and provides next steps for learning, we have the ability to give students the tools to improve their proficiency with standards. Students who take longer to learn aren’t punished by us focusing on what they did wrong. Rather, we are able to take that student at their current place and provide them tools to improve. At the same time, higher achieving learners don’t hit a desired level of achievement and stop learning. The journey continues as we always direct students to push themselves in the right direction. Scriffiny (2008) adds that, “…talented students can be truly challenged in a standards-based classroom because if they show early master of fundamental skills and concepts, they can then concentrate on more challenge work that is at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy or that seeks connections among objectives.” In a standards-based learning classroom, we recognize the unique qualities of each learner and can personalize our instruction and feedback.
Teaching in a standards-based grading system has the power to overhaul the learning process and put students in the driver’s seat of their educational journey. We stop playing the game of school and show students what is truly important — their learning. We just need to take that initial leap to see the change it elicits in our teaching and in our students. As my clinical student and I wrapped up our conversation, she stopped to thank me. She said that without this experience she would have went into her teaching career assessing the same way she had been assessed. It’s time to do what is best for our students.
Erkens, C. (2016). Collaborative common assessments: Teamwork. Instruction. Results. Indiana: Solution Tree.
Scriffiny, P. L. (2008). Seven reasons for standards-based grading. Educational Leadership, 66(2), 70-74.
Schimmer, T. (2016). Grading from the inside out: Bringing accuracy to student assessment through a standards-based mindset. Indiana: Solution Tree.
Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2008). The Power of Feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1),81-112.