By Jennifer S. Carter, Assistant Director, New Roads Middle School/Herb Alpert Campus
People assume the A-F grade scale provides plenty of information: ability, work ethic, concentration, interest in the subject, how much the teacher likes the student, how much the student likes the teacher, attendance, engagement, and how much a student knows about a subject. Really? How can a grade mean so many things? What has the learner learned? Can the learner even use what she’s learned? A-F grades are familiar, ubiquitous tools that are easy to pick up when we need to explain or understand school, but they do not adequately lead learners to deeper, and more useful learning.
A simple letter grade-even with a paragraph or two of justification-just doesn’t adequately tell it like it is. Learners (and their educational team, i.e. parents and teachers) need topic specific feedback that will sustain and build on knowledge. For example, Jenny earned a 68% on a math test. We are free to assume about that 68% many things, but more information offers a deeper, more useful understanding of the grade’s representation. Our assumptions of the grade could change if we know that Jenny knows 95% of all Calculus equations, and can apply them with 68% accuracy. Our assumptions change more if we’re told Jenny is a 7th grader. The D+ looses its sting with more data. Alfie Kohn addresses the impact of A-F scale grades in Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, Praise and Other Bribes. Kohn warns that “Getting students to think about [grades] also increases their fear of failure” because trying to get a certain grade is actually “a student ‘doing damage control, minimizing risks’”. (54) He suggests the more emphasis teachers and parents place on grades, the more students seek grades instead of learning.
New Roads has spent quite a bit of time making assessment, rigor and curriculum amount to grades that narrate the evolution from simple knowledge into sophisticated application. David Bryan, President and Head of New Roads School, says, “I love that the focus will be on what Johnny can demonstrate. With a letter grade, what Johnny can do gets massaged away.” Instead of massaging the meaning away with a simplistic grade, teachers will be able to assess particular things students know. Those things, called Scope and Sequence items, are loaded into the Learning Tool, and are carefully selected during the creation of LOs. The feedback then, will be planned and targeted, thereby giving students (and everyone else) specific data about progress. LOs can remain creative and inspiring while also inviting crucial discourse during students’ progress.
The basis of providing all this information is pretty simple. We want to think about the facts that kids know (Knowledge), the tasks they can complete with those facts (Doing) and the ways they can independently put the Knowledge and Doing into actions in and outside of the classroom to Create Meaning. The best part of all this is that students (and parents and teachers) can gauge their progress through topics (Scope and Sequence items). W. James Popham’s book The Truth About Testing: An Educator’s Call to Action suggests that conventional assessments often lack sufficient information for the learner and the teacher. He says, “Teachers are beginning to use the results of classrooms assessments to help them decide how to teach their students” (32). Attention to Scope and Sequence items ensures that students can identify specific pathways to a better knowledge base, stronger skills and more depth in transferring those details in a variety of situations across curricular areas.
Joe Wise, the Assistant Head of the school and Director of C4EL, uses the doctor and a patient analogy. A patient goes into a doctor to get an assessment of health. The doctor diagnoses the patient and offers a prescription for better health. Teachers will assess/diagnose students, and prescribe Learning Opportunities that will benefit them intellectually. Wise sees the crucial importance of this relationship. According to Wise,
“We’re not saying a kid is bad because he can’t do something. We’re honoring that [a student can’t do or doesn’t know something] and working to help the student fix that. LOs and the Learning Tool gives faculty a chance to have conversations with students about attribution; kids can reflect on their learning.”
The quagmire of what a grade means diminishes because a student will know what needs improving, and with help, they will know how to improve.
Students have more confidence in their learning when expectations and progress are both made clear. Dr. Vandana Thadani, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Loyola Marymont University, discussed the power of feedback for a learner last year when she presented Metacognition, Attributions, and Everyday Teaching and Learning Practices at a symposium held last year. You can view the PowerPoint of her presentation at http://www.newroads.org/web/c4el/symposium/vandana.pdf .
Our new assessment fleshes out the letter grade with an individualized evaluation on student progress. It can seem like a lot of work for teachers and parents. Teachers have to be much more mindful about feedback and actual Scope and Sequence items they want to teach, and parents have to read much more to understand the student’s end grade. Still, it’s not much different than what good teachers and thoughtful parents currently do. A good teacher assesses the individual needs of students. Now, ‘needs’ will be identified through Scope and Sequence Items and level of understanding. Parents ask teachers and students to give rationale for grades. Now, the rationale will be clearly categorized and classified on the Learning Tool.
As a (new) New Roads parent, I’m excited by the notion that my middle school son will know what his grades ‘mean’. As an educator, it’s refreshing to know that learners will have a detailed prescription for their learning and a descriptive regimen to follow. Gone are the days when everything is implied with just a single letter.