Friday, August 16, 2013

Understanding the Past To Move Forward For the Future

Disclaimer: This blog is part of a series that summarizes and discusses the book "Developing Grading & Reporting Systems for Student Learning" by Thomas R. Guskey & Jane M. Bailey. Please consider reading the whole book...these are just my thoughts on the text.

Chapter 2: Exploring the History of Grading and Reporting

What is clear about grading and reporting systems in general is that there has been tons of talk and research on the topic. What this chapter clearly points out is that we know a lot about grading and reporting students' work and we've known this information for a very very long time. But what's troubling throughout the literature is while the education community has known a lot about student learning and how to evaluate it for this very long period of time that we have had public education in America, this knowledge has not actually made it into the practice of grading and reporting. Its really been since the 1990s that what we have learned is really starting to find its way into the classroom.

Its not a big surprise to educators that we are struggling with this topic in our profession. I know personally I am struggling right now (hence why I ready the book and am writing the blog). What was interesting to me in the first chapter of this book was quotes from reports that clearly listed serious problems with the current grading systems of....1933. This is not a new problem and so it makes it even more troubling that we have an issue at all.

Early Developments....
Grading and reporting systems didn't come about until after the 1850s. Back in the days of the one room school house everyone just learned together and teachers went to a students' home and just shared their progress over a nice meal or happy hour :) (ok I added that part). It wasn't until the late 1800s in which the whole concept of grade levels crept up into education and with this came new ideas about curriculum and teaching methods....and with that came formal student assessments. Back then they were simply a list of the skills a student had mastered and what they needed to improve. Simple enough. My favorite observation about these assessments was that these assessments were done "primarily for students' benefits." This was the first instance of failing students because if they didn't master the necessary skills they couldn't go on to the next level....welcome to our first narrative report card.

Next we find ourselves in a new era of American education....compulsory education. With the influx of students and the growing need to evaluate this large quantity of students elementary education continued to mostly focus on the narrative style of report card while at the high school level grading moved to the more percentage style based grades that were precursors to the grading and reporting systems that we have today.

Problems with Subjectivity in Grading
Percentage based grading may have crept up on American education but not the criticism of it. As early as 1912 a study was released that brought up serious concerns about the "reliability of percentage grades as accurate indicators of students achievement" (p. 26). For me this is what caught my attention early on in the book. Percentage based grades is what I use because I know no other way and the resources that I am given at my job are percentage based grade book systems. What kind of education malpractice am I committing if I am using a grading system that doesn't even reflect their achievement? Well that brought me to the morale dilemma I have been unpacking for the last few we are....

The book continues to elaborate on this topic through specific examples. You can read the book for more on that but here's what I can tell was shocking....but they were real world examples...from 1912....that sounded an awful lot like now.

Modern Grading & Reporting Systems
In the era of modern grading we see the move from percentage scores to "scales that had fewer and larger categories" (p. 27). This includes scales like "excellent, average, poor" or our modern grading system of "A, B, C, D, F" We also see the emergence of grading on the curve. It was believed at the time that grading on the curve was a good idea because students intelligence scores often resembled a "normal probability curve," it was believed to be fair and equitable, and finally it was easier for teachers. What is easier for teachers might not be what is right for students. "Grading on the curve also relieved teachers of the difficult task of having to identify specific learning criteria (p.27)." The book goes on to say/assume this "Fortunately, educators today have a better understanding of the flawed premises behind this practice and its many negative consequences."

What has happened in the last several years is that we have seen schools abandon the traditional grading systems by getting rid of grades, moving to pass/fail systems, and final the mastery learning approach. Since there is no common ground on what actually works we have a lot of different systems in our education midst. We've got letter grades and number systems. We've got "proficient" and "distinguished". We've got "standards based" reporting systems. We commonly find the more traditional approaches taking place at the secondary level where they are adding plus and minuses to the grades and then trying to lump in a multitude of factors into a single letter grade. As the book quotes "the result is a 'hodgepodge grade of attitude, effort, and achievement" (p. 28). And you know what my response to that statement was....

Great. That's exactly what I have been doing.

The Effects of Grading on Students
One of the my biggest concerns about our current education system is that my students are not actually focused on learning but are focused on getting an A for their transcript (or they don't care about their grades because they don't care about learning and aren't going to go to college). Well, I am a super big dork and one of my favorite things in the world is to learn. I like learning instruments.  I like learning about history. I will be the one standing there reading every sign at Yosemite including all the materials they handed us when they entered the park and am disappointed that I don't have service....not because I can't check in on facebook but because I can't wikipedia the hell out of that place to learn more.

Ok back to the kids...they are effected by our grading systems in a profound way, this we may or may not know. If you didn't know that....well they are. Our grades and our commentary that we give them on their papers in our red pens. All of it matters. Students who receive comments with grades achieve higher scores than those just given a mark. Grades aren't essential to teaching and learning people, but here's the big one "grading can be used in positive ways to enhance students' achievement and performance," in other words "grades can be used for good & not evil" (that's my quote by the way). And "positive effects can be gained with relatively little effort on the part of teachers"(p. 29). Crazy......if we give the kids just a little it will go a long way! "The message teachers communicate in their comments to students is vital to its effects on students."

So what do we need to do as a profession? We need to know our "ever-expanding" knowledge base about education. We need to learn and then actually change. We need to know where we came from and move forward. We need to make "thoughtful decisions" because if we don't well....."we are indeed doomed to repeat that history, committing the same mistakes again and again (Cuban, 1990), and will never realize our true potential as educators".

And ain't that the truth! (and just think all of these powerful statements in quotes came from a delightful book with kind of a boring title....I'm telling should really read the whole thing at some point).

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