Going Gradeless: Student Self-Assessment in PBL

Edutopia

I like reading professional material. I would posit that most teachers do. Professional reading (OK, all reading, really) allows our thoughts to constantly shift, transform, and travel to currently uncharted mental territory. If we are lucky, we encounter a watershed idea or concept that shatters our thoughts and understanding to such an extent that it requires a complete rebuilding of our philosophy.

I was provided such a moment when I read Mark Barnes’ Role Reversal: Achieving Uncommonly Excellent Results in a Student-Centered Classroom in the spring of 2015. Mr. Barnes advocated using narrative feedback to enter a feedback loop that would culminate in mastery of specific learning targets within the context of a larger project. I was immediately transfixed by this idea. My mind was figuratively blown when Mr. Barnes mentioned that he did this without ever assigning a formal grade until the end of the grading period, at which time he and the student conferenced and agreed on a grade based on feedback. I stewed on this for a roughly a year until I decided, for the good of my students, that I had to do it. I was going to go gradeless. My question became: “How can I implement this in my sixth-grade PBL classroom?”

My Goal

It was my intention to simultaneously promote mastery learning as well as increase students’ ability to metacognitively assess their work against a given set of standards. Here’s how I would accomplish this:

  • Remove grades from the daily equation.
  • Have students reach learning mastery using narrative feedback loops (Mark Barnes’ SE2R model).
  • Students would self-assess their work in a 1:1 conference with the teacher at the end of the quarter, at which time student and teacher would agree upon a final grade.

My Plan

I knew that I needed to maintain accountability to various stakeholders in this process — the students, their families, and the administration. After a great deal of thought, I came up with the skeleton of a plan that looked like this:

    1. Use the SE2R model to provide feedback on our two PBL projects per quarter via documents created on Google Classroom. There would be no grades assigned to any of the projects, just feedback.
    1. Furnish families with an outline of the process at the beginning of the quarter, complete with learning targets and the research behind this process.
    1. On the first day of the quarter, provide students with a list of the learning targets for the following nine weeks.
    1. Administer approximately one standards-based assessment per week on the provided learning targets using the program MasteryConnect.
      • The results of the assessments would be placed in our online grading system for parent viewing. However, the results would not calculate toward a final grade.
      • The assessment scores would be used as data points in our end-of-quarter meeting.
  1. Confer with individual students on the last two days of the quarter and ask them: “Based on the project feedback that you received, the standards-based assessments that you took, and your ability to elaborate on how you showed evidence of the learning targets in your projects, what grade do you feel that you have earned this quarter?”
    • If I agreed with the student’s response, I would put that grade into the grading system.
    • If I didn’t agree, I would interject my viewpoint based on the feedback that I had given, as well as on the results of standards-based assessments. I would then ask the student to reevaluate his or her response to encourage deeper metacognitive thinking.

The Results

I’ve only been officially gradeless for less than a quarter, but the results have been astounding. As soon as the students came to understand and be comfortable with the process, my inbox has been continuously flooded with their emails asking me, “What can I do better?” The conversation has completely shifted from getting a grade to learning. It’s been amazing! Similarly, when I communicated this process to students’ families, I thought I would be walking into the lion’s den. Of the 80 families who received that communication, I heard back from only three — and all three said, “Sounds awesome.” All in all, it’s been a wonderful experience, and a true illustration of the power that the written word can have over all of us. (Thank you, Mark Barnes!)

I would love to hear your feedback, thoughts, or other ideas in the comments section below. And please feel free to follow our story this year at our Byron 6th blog.

Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’

The Atlantic

The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

Pesky Library/Flickr
Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

 

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

 

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.

Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?

At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

 

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn’t stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn’t believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.

The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.

Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

 

 

Missouri School District Eliminates Grades K-6

Neosho students ‘take ownership’ of their education

  • By Ariel Cooley acooley@joplinglobe.com
  • Aug 4, 2016
  • Joplin Globe

NEOSHO, Mo. — When school starts in Neosho in about two weeks, some students won’t have to worry about receiving an “F.”

Kindergarten to sixth-grade classrooms will be implementing a new grading system that is standard based.

The new system breaks down subjects into standards. The students will receive a 1 to 4 for each standard, with “1” meaning the student is “emerging,” but does not yet understand the standard. A “4” means the student is “advanced” and understands the standard completely. Participation and behavior will still be important, but will be evaluated separately from academics.

“Ultimately, the benefit as a school leader is that once you put standards in place and you have a way to assess where a student is,” said Superintendent Dan Decker. “It allows us to tailor make the education for each student.”

Students who master content more quickly than others will be able to move on to more challenging material. Teachers will be able to pinpoint where other students are struggling and help them to move ahead.

Becky Sears, assistant superintendent of curriculum, said the goal is for every student to be at a “3” in each standard by the end of the year.

“It’s all about progress and learning,” she said.

Though Sears said she hopes to implement some of the standard-based grading philosophy at the high school, she doesn’t expect to be able to be able to stray away from the traditional letter-grade system.

“If they have an assignment and do really poorly, but go spend some extra time working on that standard, they could come back and show us they have improved in their learning,” Sears said.

Students and parents will receive detailed explanations of the new grading system, what each number means and how to progress from one number to another.

IN OTHER NEWS: STUDENTS SURPRISE TEACHER WITH KITTENS

“It will really put the ownership of the learning back into the student’s hands,” she said. “They will have so much information and will know how to get to the higher level.”

Students will have ample time to work on each standard. Unlike traditional grading, after the final test on the subject they will still have chances to learn and show their teachers they have mastered the standard.

“It will help to keep us from leaving students behind that really haven’t grasped it yet,” Sears said.

Sears said that eventually they will individualize instruction for each child. This, she said, will require more work and research from the teachers, but a lot of teachers have already started doing this on their own.

A few teachers began using the grading system last year as a sort of test run. Sears said that in those classrooms, students are already “taking ownership of their education and are more motivated and engaged in their learning.”

Eileen Ford, principal at Neosho Middle School, said she is excited about the change.

“With standard-based grading, the number is only what the child knows,” Ford said. “So it actually gives you a more valid picture of their learning level.”

Ford said she thinks parents will like the new system, too. “It will let them know how to help and their child know how to improve to reach that goal and that standard,” she said.

Origin

Some schools adopted a standard-based grading system as early as the 1970s and 1980s. T.H. Bell, the U.S. Secretary of Education at the time, created a task force that wrote “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The report detailed educational standards and gave recommendations to improve the quality of education in the United States.

When It Comes to Grading, Is ’50’ the New ‘Zero’?

EdWeek

By Kate Stoltzfus on July 11, 2016

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This fall, fewer students in the D.C.-metro area will have reason to fear their report cards.

Schools in Fairfax County in Virginia and Prince George’s County in Maryland will implement “no zero” policies to prevent students who put forth effort to finish their assignments from receiving grades below 50, reports the Washington Post. 

The districts are two of the latest to jump on an increasing trend to rethink grading practices, including efforts that make it harder for students to fail by giving them more chances to make up tests or missing work and increased evaluation on learning over behavior and homework.

The trend stirs questions about the motives for grading in the first place: Are grades truly accurate representations of learning? Should they serve as a system of reward or punishment for students’ behavioral and academic performance? How best can they be used to support student progress?

Grading policies have been slowly shifting in the Washington, D.C. area and elsewhere, according the Washington Post. In 2010, West Potomac High School in Fairfax County stopped giving out Fs. Several years before that, Montgomery County Schools in Maryland began scoring Fs as no lower than 50 percentSome middle schools in South Carolina implemented a no-zero policy even when students fail or cheat on an assignment.

Rick Wormeli, an educator and author, told the Post he estimates that close to 50 percent of schools nationwide are looking into changing their grading policies in some way.

For years, educators have debated the effects of a minimum-grading shelf in the classroom. Those in favor of the change believe such policies improve the drop-out rate and allow struggling students to stay motivated. They allow schools to focus on learning rather than behavior, Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, told the radio station WTOP.  Handing out zeros for missed assignments boils down to a disciplinary measure, one that prevents schools from effectively assessing their students’ learning, argues author Powers Thaddeus Norrell in the American School Board Journal. 

Those in disagreement say such policies decrease student accountability and will hurt student college- and career-readiness; university professors will not likely be so tolerant in giving grades, and students’ future bosses will have clear performance expectations. Gina Caneva, a teacher in Chicago, spoke out strongly against no-zero policies after her school on the city’s South Side implemented one. By lowering expectations for her students, she wrote in a post for Catalyst Chicago, it gave many of them an excuse to stop working hard. 

Student cheating also complicates the equation. Cindi Rigsbee, a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, was shocked when her principal suggested zeros should not be given even to dishonest students.

But after she began reassigning work and harder tests to those who cheated, she agreed with him. “I really do want grades to reflect what my students know, not what behavioral choices they make,” she wrote in an Education Week Teacher article in May 2012. 

Other teachers advocate throwing out grades altogether. Mark Barnes, author of Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, independently replaced traditional grades in favor of self-evaluation and reflection. And Starr Sackstein, who writes Education Week Teacher’s opinion blog Work in Progress, has documented her journey of going grades-free in the classroom over the last few years and shares how the process can work for other teachers.

“Student learning has increased and the focus of our classroom is less about end grades and more about the growth process,” she wrote in June. “Although I suspected when I started the impact that this choice would have on my students, I could have never guessed how much change would occur, not just for them, but for me.”

Why Online Gradebooks Are Changing Education

The Atlantic

New software better connects parents with what’s happening in their children’s classrooms—but it can also lead to heightened surveillance and less risk-taking.

LAURA MCKENNA MAR 10, 2016
How did my son perform on his high-school physics test this morning? Seconds after the teacher posts his score online, I can find out. With just a few more clicks, I can also tell you how the grade affected his overall performance for the quarter, his GPA for the year, how many times he was late for school, and what he ate for lunch this week.

All of this information is readily available to parents at any time through our school district’s virtual gradebook—an increasingly popular tool that is reshaping parental involvement in schools nationwide and opening up the black box of student assessment. Experts predict that these programs will evolve using the latest technology to measure increasingly varied facets of students’ educational lives. While many parents seem to appreciate the increased connections with their schools, others—myself included—are not interested in the constant surveillance and assessment of their children.
Nearly all of America’s public schools now post grades online through student-management software such as PowerSchool, Engrade, LearnBoost, and ThinkWave, according to Jim Flanagan, the chief learning services officer for the nonprofit International Society for Technology in Education. And online gradebooks are only one component of these programs, which also typically aggregate students’ demographic information, arrange schedules, and track and manage payments for food services—ideally, Flanagan said, providing comprehensive collection of data for every student.

Many parents are not interested in the constant surveillance and assessment of their children.
Student-management software was first developed by locally operated companies about 15 years ago, before being slowly acquired by larger education technology firms, and now accounts for a big chunk of the $8.38 billion ed-tech market. Those within the industry are very optimistic about its expansion. These systems have the potential to rethink the ways that schools assess students, Flanagan said, beyond the traditional quizzes and tests—for example, through data dashboards that measure students’ emotional state, level of engagement, and mood or motivation. One San Francisco start-up has created a program that utilizes motion-tracking and facial- and speech-recognition software to collect this type of data, which they say will increase hands-on, project-based learning.

Some parents have reported that this new software is an effective method for increasing communication between school and home. Many of my friends are very happy with this technology. One said that she learned that her daughter was struggling with reading by reviewing her marks on the online gradebook; the teacher never informed my friend of these issues. With this knowledge, she was able to get help for her daughter early in the year. Others have said that they’ve been able to correct teachers’ grading errors with these programs.

To respond the proliferation of these online gradebooks, the Harvard Family Research Project has a list of useful tips for administrators, teachers, and parents on how to effectively use these new tools. It recommends that parents strike a balance between monitoring data and allowing the child to progress at his or her own pace, noting that parents should avoid constantly checking online portals, also known as “e-hovering.”

 

Others are less impressed with the impact of this technology on family life. Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author of The Price of Privilege, described online gradebooks as “a miserable idea.” Teachers these days grade “everything,” even works in progress, she said, and the online gradebooks make these scores subject to constant inspection by parents—potentially discouraging kids from experimenting or making mistakes that are integral to learning.
This heightened adult surveillance of kids, Levine added, is precisely what they don’t need during this stage of development; it can create “robo-students” and exacerbate the already-distressing levels of stress, anxiety, and depression among teenagers. “As an adult, what would it be like to have your every move evaluated?” Levine asked.

At the same time, parents can get overly attached to the constant information rewards the software provides. “Your kid gets an A one day, then a C the next, and then an A the following day,” Levine said. “Parents end up logging in too many times. It’s seductive and addictive. One loses the ability to manage it.” When her children were in school, she found that she was logging in every day, so, she requested that school not send her any information. “There wasn’t anything there that I couldn’t learn from talking to my kids.”

Although I can easily find out how my 16-year-old son fared on this morning’s physics test by logging into our online gradebook, I won’t. Like Levine, I stopped looking at his grades about a year ago, because daily monitoring of his performance made everyone miserable. Dinner time had become the place for all-caps conversations about grades that did nothing to help an already-stressed high-school junior. Between school, track practice, and homework, he routinely works 18-hour days, his weekends packed with SATs, track competitions, and term papers. We decided that home had to be a refuge from those pressures; he couldn’t handle angry parents on top of everything else.

“Parents end up logging in too many times. It’s seductive and addictive.”
By stepping away from the Big Brother of online gradebooks, my husband and I chose to prioritize learning and sanity—both his and ours—over grades. We were not interested in producing another “excellent sheep” or fracturing our family. So, I ask my son about once a week if he’s checked his grades and whether he’s doing okay, but that’s about it. I can see that he’s working hard and learning, and that’s good enough for me. Schools have to balance the demands of parents who want more data with parents who want less—and maybe a simple “opt out” button on these gradebooks could create a happy middle ground.

Now that we’re not arguing about grades during family meals, we’re talking about other things. We talk about the primary results and the policy differences between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. He and his dad talk about European soccer teams. We’re helping his little brother learn the names of all the countries in Europe. Because learning doesn’t just happen at school; it also happens at the dinner table.

Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’

The Atlantic
The adoption of the Common Core could usher in a new era of standards-based grading.

JESSICA LAHEY MAR 12, 2014 EDUCATION
Letter grades are a tradition in our educational system, and we accept them as fair and objective measures of academic success. However, if the purpose of academic grading is to communicate accurate and specific information about learning, letter, or points-based grades, are a woefully blunt and inadequate instrument. Worse, points-based grading undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.

Letter grades communicate precious little about the process of learning a given subject. When a child earns a ‘B’ in Algebra I, what does that ‘B’ represent? That ‘B’ may represent hundreds of points-based assignments, arranged and calculated in categories of varying weights and relative significance depending on the a teacher’s training or habit. But that ‘B’ says nothing about the specific skills John has (or has not) learned in a given class, or if he can apply that learning to other contexts. Even when paired with a narrative comment such as, “John is a pleasure to have in class,” parents, students, and even colleges are left to guess at precisely which Algebra I skills John has learned and will be able to apply to Algebra II.

As a teacher, I struggled with the fuzzy logic of grading every term. I was invested in all those points I totaled and calculated, in categories I devised and weighted on assessments I wrote. I considered their relative value, their worth as a measure of learning, their objectivity and subjectivity. Did I grade that first paper, the one I graded just after dinner, when I was fresh, full, and in a good mood, on the same relative scale as that last paper, when I was exhausted, and just wanted to get to bed? Did the midterm test comprehension or rote memorization? I agonized over these details as if they were my final and unequivocal communication of educational truth.

We are asked to assess students precisely and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process.
I realized that the current system of points-based grading is highly subjective. As Alfie Kohn has written, “what grades offer is spurious precision—a subjective rating masquerading as an objective evaluation.” A few years ago, I told my students about a study I’d read that showed judges rule more favorably after breaks, so from then on, students left snacks in my office and reminded me to take breaks when they knew I would be grading their work. If the purpose of grading is to objectively evaluate student learning and achievement, surely my work breaks and snacking habits should prove irrelevant in their calculation.

Teachers are trapped in a Catch-22. We are asked to assess our students precisely (many grading programs track scores to the hundredths place) and with the appearance of objectivity while using an inherently subjective process. Teachers are then asked to present their calculations on official documents and defend those numbers at parent-teacher conferences as if they are objective measures of student learning. For all the effort, time, and best intentions teachers invest in those reams of grade reports, we are lying to ourselves and to our students’ parents, cheating our students out of clear and accurate feedback on their academic process, and contributing to the greater illusion that grades are an accurate reflection of skill mastery.
Teachers have struggled for years with the calculation and purpose of grades. The evolution of the grading system we use today reflects that search for a valid system of evaluation and assessment. In 1913, I. E. Finkelstein sought to find answers to a few basic questions about grading in his book The Marking System in Theory and Practice:

What should the mark really represent? Should the mark be based upon ability or performance, or even upon zeal and enthusiasm? What is the best set of symbols to represent ability or achievement?
At the heart of his book is the question of what a grade ought to represent. In the early days of American education, teachers used all sorts of distinctions in order to evaluate and differentiate students for the convenience of the teacher and the institution. As former Harvard University president Charles William Eliot explained in his book Harvard Memories, 18th-century Harvard students were arranged “in an order determined by the occupational standing of their parents.” As colleges moved toward a more academically relevant measure of distinction, Yale was the first institution to use a system of evaluating achievement, first with a series of descriptive adjectives, and later with a numerical scale of 1 to 4, which probably led to the 4.0 scale we use today. In 1877, Harvard began using academic “divisions” and a system of “classes” to rank students. Finally, in 1897, Mount Holyoke College adopted the familiar system of A-D and F for grading students.

Recently, a few schools have recognized the many drawbacks to points-based letter grades and have moved to a more informative and logical approach to evaluating students’ learning. This approach is known as standards-based grading. It is a system of evaluation that is formative, meaning it shapes instruction in order to fill in knowledge gaps, and measures mastery based on a set of course objectives, standards or skills.

Veteran high-school math teacher Patricia Scriffiny, who has been using standards-based grading at her high school for a few years, uses the example of homework to illustrate why standards-based grading is a better tool than points-based grading. She wrote in an article a few years back:

Many notions I had at the beginning of my career about grading didn’t stand up to real scrutiny. The thorny issue of homework is one example of how the status quo needed to change. I once thought it was essential to award points to students simply for completing homework. I didn’t believe students would do homework unless it was graded. And yet, in my classroom, students who were clearly learning sometimes earned low grades because of missing work. Conversely, some students actually learned very little but were good at “playing school.” Despite dismal test scores, these students earned decent grades by turning in homework and doing extra credit. They would often go on to struggle in later courses, while their parents watched and worried.
The answer for Scriffany was to stop awarding points-based grades and switch to standards-based grading. The goal in her classroom is no longer points or grades, but mastery. Students are held accountable not for the maximum points total assigned to a homework set, but for mastery of the concepts it contains.
Consequently, her grade book is much more informative and useful in that it clearly shows which skills need more work as a class and where each student stands in their individual journey toward mastery of those skills. Here’s an illustration of the difference:

ff67e7f89.png
In a points-based grade book, the student at the top, Zoe, might assume she’s doing great, but according to the standards-based grade book, she (and the teacher) can see that Zoe is not proficient in an essential skill she needs to move forward in her writing education. Conversely, Pierce’s points-based grade would be lower than Zoe’s due to that lost homework assignment, but in reality, he is already proficient in the skill that assignment was designed to reinforce.

Teaching and learning with an eye toward mastery of a defined list of competencies circumvents many of the pitfalls that points-based grading causes. If mastery of a specific concept or skill is the stated goal for everyone, students are free to be more creative in their thinking. They are encouraged to challenge themselves in pursuit of that mastery. And they maintain a focus on the process of learning rather than the destination of a grade. Finally, if mastery is understood to be the goal of education, students have little incentive to cheat.

While a shift to standards-based grading from the traditional, points-based system sounds daunting, now is the perfect time to make the transition. Currently, 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, a ready-made, comprehensive list of standards for math and English, a list of skills that could be used to communicate what a particular student has learned in a given marking period. For example, if John is in 8th grade, the Common Core math standard requires that he “know and apply the properties of integer exponents to generate equivalent numerical expressions.” If John understands, and can apply this skill, his teacher will be able to communicate his proficiency simply and clearly to him, his parents, and other schools.

Standards-based grading establishes one high standard—mastery—for all students. Students who move often, such as kids in poverty, the military, or the foster care system, benefit the most from a standards-based system of evaluation because it would quickly and clearly communicate their competence in a given subject based on a common set of standards. As standards are not dependent on geography, socio-economics, or ethnicity, all students subject to that standard are held to the same expectations for mastery, and eventually, graduation.

Don’t Grade Schools on Grit

Lilli Carre

Philadelphia — THE Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once observed, “Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of true education.”

Evidence has now accumulated in support of King’s proposition: Attributes like self-control predict children’s success in school and beyond. Over the past few years, I’ve seen a groundswell of popular interest in character development.

As a social scientist researching the importance of character, I was heartened. It seemed that the narrow focus on standardized achievement test scores from the years I taught in public schools was giving way to a broader, more enlightened perspective.

These days, however, I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment. New federallegislation can be interpreted as encouraging states and schools to incorporate measures of character into their accountability systems. This year, nine California school districts will begin doing this.

Here’s how it all started. A decade ago, in my final year of graduate school, I met two educators, Dave Levin, of the KIPP charter schoolnetwork, and Dominic Randolph, of Riverdale Country School. Though they served students at opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, both understood the importance of character development. They came to me because they wanted to provide feedback to kids on character strengths. Feedback is fundamental, they reasoned, because it’s hard to improve what you can’t measure.

This wasn’t entirely a new idea. Students have long received grades for behavior-related categories like citizenship or conduct. But an omnibus rating implies that character is singular when, in fact, it is plural.

In data collected on thousands of students from district, charter and independent schools, I’ve identified three correlated but distinct clusters of character strengths. One includes strengths like grit, self-control and optimism. They help you achieve your goals. The second includes social intelligence and gratitude; these strengths help you relate to, and help, other people. The third includes curiosity, open-mindedness and zest for learning, which enable independent thinking.

Still, separating character into specific strengths doesn’t go far enough. As a teacher, I had a habit of entreating students to “use some self-control, please!” Such abstract exhortations rarely worked. My students didn’t know what, specifically, I wanted them to do.

In designing what we called a Character Growth Card — a simple questionnaire that generates numeric scores for character strengths in a given marking period — Mr. Levin, Mr. Randolph and I hoped to provide students with feedback that pinpointed specific behaviors.

For instance, the character strength of self-control is assessed by questions about whether students “came to class prepared” and “allowed others to speak without interrupting”; gratitude, by items like “did something nice for someone else as a way of saying thank you.” The frequency of these observed behaviors is estimated using a seven-point scale from “almost never” to “almost always.”

Most students and parents said this feedback was useful. But it was still falling short. Getting feedback is one thing, and listening to it is another.

To encourage self-reflection, we asked students to rate themselves. Thinking you’re “almost always” paying attention but seeing that your teachers say this happens only “sometimes” was often the wake-up call students needed.

This model still has many shortcomings. Some teachers say students would benefit from more frequent feedback. Others have suggested that scores should be replaced by written narratives. Most important, we’ve discovered that feedback is insufficient. If a student struggles with “demonstrating respect for the feelings of others,” for example, raising awareness of this problem isn’t enough. That student needs strategies for what to do differently. His teachers and parents also need guidance in how to help him.

Scientists and educators are working together to discover more effective ways of cultivating character. For example, research has shown that we can teach children the self-control strategy of setting goals and making plans, with measurable benefits for academic achievement. It’s also possible to help children manage their emotions and to develop a “growth mind-set” about learning (that is, believing that their abilities are malleable rather than fixed).

This is exciting progress. A 2011 meta-analysis of more than 200 school-based programs found that teaching social and emotional skills can improve behavior and raise academic achievement, strong evidence that school is an important arena for the development of character.

But we’re nowhere near ready — and perhaps never will be — to use feedback on character as a metric for judging the effectiveness of teachers and schools. We shouldn’t be rewarding or punishing schools for how students perform on these measures.

MY concerns stem from intimate acquaintance with the limitations of the measures themselves.

One problem is reference bias: A judgment about whether you “came to class prepared” depends on your frame of reference. If you consider being prepared arriving before the bell rings, with your notebook open, last night’s homework complete, and your full attention turned toward the day’s lesson, you might rate yourself lower than a less prepared student with more lax standards.

For instance, in a study of self-reported conscientiousness in 56 countries, it was the Japanese, Chinese and Korean respondents who rated themselves lowest. The authors of the study speculated that this reflected differences in cultural norms, rather than in actual behavior.

Comparisons between American schools often produce similarly paradoxical findings. In a study colleagues and I published last year, we found that eighth graders at high-performing charter schools gave themselves lower scores on conscientiousness, self-control and grit than their counterparts at district schools. This was perhaps because students at these charter schools held themselves to higher standards.

I also worry that tying external rewards and punishments to character assessment will create incentives for cheating. Policy makers who assume that giving educators and students more reasons to care about character can be only a good thing should take heed of research suggesting that extrinsic motivation can, in fact, displace intrinsic motivation. While carrots and sticks can bring about short-term changes in behavior, they often undermine interest in and responsibility for the behavior itself.

A couple of weeks ago, a colleague told me that she’d heard from a teacher in one of the California school districts adopting the new character test. The teacher was unsettled that questionnaires her students filled out about their grit and growth mind-set would contribute to an evaluation of her school’s quality. I felt queasy. This was not at all my intent, and this is not at all a good idea.

Does character matter, and can character be developed? Science and experience unequivocally say yes. Can the practice of giving feedback to students on character be improved? Absolutely. Can scientists and educators work together to cultivate students’ character? Without question.

Should we turn measures of character intended for research and self-discovery into high-stakes metrics for accountability? In my view, no.

Angela Duckworth is the founder and scientific director of the Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the forthcoming book “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.”