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”

Burden of Proof

I’ve been spending time looking at the foundational skills that Watershed School uses. I really like the idea of kids keeping a portfolio that demonstrates their competence in the foundational skills and the content area expectations. The proof of mastery lies on the student, not the teacher. I want to do this. I want to present my students with the standards and give them guidance, but have the burden of proof on them. They need to have a digital portfolio where they are posting the artifacts that demonstrate their learning. Parents can check that to see how their child is doing, rather than asking me. They can see for themselves.

I wonder if we could try to do this for third quarter? Each teacher can select the specific skills and content they want students to master and to be in the learning phase. They can set a base line of assignments, and then it is the students’ responsibility to meet the standards, to review their work with the teacher and determine their level of mastery, and then create their digital portfolio. At the conferences at the end of the quarter parents will be able to review the student’s work, and long with the student’s evaluation and the teacher’s evaluation. A true discussion of learning could take place.

Now I need to figure out what standards and portfolio pieces I would require for English!

(why) I (want to) Quit (grading)!

My school operates on a semester system with each grades reported quarterly. Every year we get to November, the second marking quarter, and we start to panic, and this year has been no different. Second quarter begin the first week of November and ends the middle of January. During that time, we will have had a three day high school retreat, a half day for report card conferences, a day off for Veterans Day, NWEA testing, three days off for Thanksgiving, two half days for staff development, 2 weeks off for Christmas vacation, and three days for midterm exams. When we return from Christmas Break, we will have a week and a half before midterms. That time will need to be spent reviewing for said midterms. The month of October wasn’t much better. In fact, last week was our first full week of school since the beginning of October. Teachers are lamenting the fact that they don’t have any grades for report cards and what are we going to test them on for midterms because we’re so far behind now in our curriculum.

The focus is on the test and the alpha-numeric grade, not on the learning. Has learning been taking place? Sure it has. On the retreat the students learned a lot about themselves, each other, and their faith. My seniors are learning as they continue in the college process, applying to schools and for scholarships. My sophomores have been watching The Crucible over the past week and we’ve had wonderful discussions about theme and author and director/producer purpose. Friday they started to get into logical fallacies and were already making connections between the official terms and arguments that they’ve heard or used. My freshmen are learning to write extended definitions and about Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. They are reading, and writing, and getting introduced to concepts that they knew but now have a name to put to. But I’ve not been able to test them. We haven’t fully developed any writing pieces. So how do I show them and their parents that learning is taking place? A number or letter isn’t going to do it. There isn’t enough data to justify a grade.

This is just part of my struggle with the traditional grading system. Even when I have lots of work to grade, I still struggle, feeling ┬áthat a letter or number does nothing to communicate the real learning that is taking place. Now there is a support group for someone like me. Through Twitter and Facebook I am connecting with like minded educators, and the conversations are fabulous. We’re all in different stages of this journey. Some have been “no grades” for some time, while others are just beginning to have their thinking challenged. Last week the first #TTOG chat took place on Twitter. The conversation had taken shape on Facebook through the Teachers Throwing Out Grades group┬áprior to the organized chat. People are raising through-provoking questions and sharing helpful resources.

My goal is to help kids learn and to discover the joy of learning for the sake of learning. I’m looking for the best way to achieve that. I’m excited that as I’m trying to figure out the best way to do this thing called education, I have an ever growing group of like minded people with me on this journey!