But That’s How We’ve Always Done It

The movement toward proficiency based learning/assessment and narrative assessment instead of standardized, “traditional”, grading with letters and a numeric or percentage scale continues to grow and gain ground. Among the many objections to the change is that traditional grading is familiar and easy to understand. It’s how it has always been done, therefore, everyone understands that A is very good and thing C or below is bad. 

If you dig into the history of education a bit, you will discover that traditional grading is actually pretty new. The first uses of a standardized system of ranking and grading are found in 1785 at Yale University. A tutor at Cambridge Univeristy, Willaim Farish, is reported to have used and developed a grading system in 1792. By the late 1800s more colleges were using point systems to rank or categorize their students, and by the early 1900s, elementary and high schools were using grades. 

How did teachers asses students prior to 1785? US colleges used a process modeled on practices from Oxford and Cambridge. Students attended regular lectures and engaged in a weekly discussion with their proctor, in writing and in person. A student completed a course when the proctor, and sometimes a panel of other professors, decided they had demonstrated an adequate mastery of the subject. 

I find a certain amount of irony in this. The system that everyone wants to keep using has only been around for a little over 100 years, where the system that people don’t trust because it is something new and different, is actually a time tested system. Cambridge University was founded in 1231 and Oxford in 1248. 

It is also interesting to note that the wide adopted use of a standardized grading system coincides with the industrial revolution and an increased number of students due to immigration and  compulsory attendance laws. Education was now something available to all, teachers had a system to quickly assess a large number of students, but the value of a personal experience focused on learning was lost. 

Source articles:

Answers.yahoo.com “Who Invented the Grading System for Schools in Our Country?”

Ehow.com “History of Grading Systems” by Nicole Lassahn

Slate.com “How Come Schools Assign Grades A, B, C, D, and F-But not E?” By Brian Palmer

Wikipedia.org “Grading”

Listening In

Today’s Senior English class was pretty extraordinary for me. I need to figure out a way to translate the evidence of learning and understanding that I heard today as I listened to my seniors talk.

First came the book share. It was Alex’s turn, and even though I gave him the option of waiting until next week (it is after all the first class back after vacation), he was willing to jump in. He is reading a book that his classmates basically dared him to read. It’s a YA Hollywood romance. He’s reading the book, one that is completely opposite of the type he would normally choose. He gave a basic plot summary up to what he’s read so far, he talked about the writing, the story line, the believability of the characters and the situations. He spoke as some one who is reading critically. He did so many of the things that we try to orchestrate from students and often fail to get. It was really cool to listen to him.

Once the book share was over, we moved into a set up of the group project they are going to complete as part of our wrap up of Hamlet. We reoriented our selves to what work we had already completed with the play. I explained to them about the 30 Minute Shakespeare series and how abridgments work, gave them a few guidelines and resources, then set them to work.

I was in and out for a while, dealing with some administrative issues that had come up, but once I was able to sit down and listen to them work, it was wonderful! They reviewed the plot, then went to work discussing what characters they should cut and why, and what scenes they should cut or abbreviate and why. We had some good discussion about the actions and motives of some characters, and we talked about why Shakespeare included the Fortinbras storyline. But mostly I listened to them compare the script with the movie, analyze the characters and scenes, and evaluate and defend their decisions.

Valuable skills were being plied and demonstrated. Their discussion reveled their thinking in clear ways. As I listened to them, I felt so excited to hear evidence of their thinking skills, their understanding of the play, and of Shakespeare’s craft. I thought, “how do I translate that to a number in the online grade book? How do I help them to see the valuable learning and demonstration of learning they are doing right now?

I’m not sure how to answer my own questions. I know that I can do better at giving students more opportunities like this one for them to demonstrate their learning and skills. I know that I can do better at identifying desired outcomes ahead of time and backward plan to design my lessons. I know that I can do a better job of assessing physical work that students produce. But some how I feel as if what I heard today can’t really be assessed, at least not by a number in a spreadsheet column.

Life Long Learner

Yesterday I registered for my very first graduate class. I haven’t applied to grad school yet, although I do want to. I’m able to take a couple of classes as a non-degree student before applying. A friend of mine who knows how desperately I want to start my Masters gave me a little extra encouraging push.

The class I’m taking? Problems In Literacy: Assessment and Instruction. The course description says, “This course conceptualizes reading assessment as a process of becoming informed about learners. The course focuses on the development of diagnostic insights and corrective strategies for struggling readers of all ages. Current trends from research and practice are explored. Case studies and in-class practica help teachers implement effective procedures in the classroom.”

I’m really looking forward to this class for many reasons. First, I have been wanting to start my Masters for a very long time. Second, I love to learn and it will be great to be sitting in a classroom under an instructor I highly respect (I already know the instructor) with other teachers who are in different situations. Third, but not last, I’m looking forward to the opportunity to discuss how to assess readers ¬†and to communicate that in a way that helps students.