by Cathy Gassenheimer
I still remember the first time I heard someone say that in classrooms, “achievement ought to be the constant, with time being the variable.” While that comment made a lot of sense to me, I wondered where such a belief was being operationalized in a systematic way.
Years later, I heard Tom Guskey
speak about grading and he addressed my wondering. In athletics, he said, the emphasis is frequently on talent development and improving skills over time, not just during “snapshot moments."
To illustrate his point, Guskey told the story of a football coach watching the development of two potential quarterbacks over spring training and into the summer. At the beginning, one quarterback was sub-par. He didn’t throw the ball well, couldn’t read the defense, and couldn’t remember play calls. If given a grade at that snapshot moment in time, the coach would give him an “F.”
The other quarterback was better than the first but, if given a grade at that same snapshot moment, he’d receive “B-.” Time advanced and during the spring and summer practice, the first quarterback vastly improved, while the other quarterback remained a solid “B-“ player.
The first quarterback’s passing accuracy went up, he effectively read defensive positions, and he had mastered the art of play calling. As a result, the coach now considered him the top choice for the position.
If, however, the coach had determined who would be the starting quarterback by averaging several months of snapshot grades, chances are that the B- player would be named the starting quarterback, even though the other quarterback was now much more effective and displayed a greater level of skill.
Grade averaging seldom singles out growth over time.
Getting smarter about grading
According to Myron Dueck, the author of Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies That Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn
, this type of misguided grading occurs every day in most classrooms across the U.S. and Canada. Students are penalized for not effectively understanding concepts at snapshot moments, even if at the end of the course they can demonstrate complete mastery.
Dueck is a Canadian vice principal and teacher who has studied with assessment experts Ken O’Connor and Rick Stiggins. His book is designed to challenge our thinking, touch our hearts, and invite us to explore new ways of thinking about grading. His inviting writing style (he's a storyteller) helps Dueck accomplish each of these goals.
Dueck’s mentor Ken O’Connor wrote the forward to this book and identifies what he calls four key lessons:
- Teachers should grade smarter, not harder;
- We are often better coaches than we are teachers;
- Learning is more important than grades; and
- Relationships are crucial.
As a practicing educator, over time Dueck made a major sea change in his thinking about student learning and grading. He became more explicit about the composition of learning targets and unit lessons. He shifted homework from a summative event, which was graded, to a formative tool for student feedback and instructional planning.
Dueck also dramatically increased the number of in-class quizzes. He based this decision on 2010 research at Kent State University that found frequent testing “involves recall of information from memory (and) improves learning.”
The researchers concluded that “practice tests that involve attempting to recall something from memory...can drastically increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to remember that information again later.” (pp. 56-59). Dueck used his in-class quizzes both summatively and formatively to improve instruction.
As he made "smart" changes in his assessment practices, Dueck discovered that students became more motivated and most often learned more, while at the same time his workload as a teacher became much more manageable. The secret to his success appears in the book’s title: Grading Smarter, Not Harder
Student-friendly assessment strategies
A strong proponent of formative assessment and the need for students to both understand and “own” their learning, Dueck stresses the importance of student-friendly learning targets embedded in lesson units. He suggests that teachers should encourage what he calls “positive transfer” of knowledge through the creation of unit lessons that are completely aligned with unit tests.
Unit tests, contends Dueck, “should measure student learning of material explicitly covered in class and should not be used as a tool of surprise.”
Throughout the book, Dueck provides solid strategies for shifting from a rigid grading system to one that promotes student engagement, motivation, and improved learning. Calling on the work of Rick Stiggins and colleagues, he outlines four different types of learning targets:
► Knowledge Targets,
which are fact-based objectives often including “definitions, dates, names, and other specific information that students need to know
► Reasoning Targets
that relate to what students can do with what they know. Dueck suggests that reasoning targets build on the knowledge targets. They are often populated with words like “to what extent, justify, determine, compare, and evaluate.
► Skill Targets,
where the student demonstrates understanding by doing
something, whether it be preparing a speech on a topic studied, developing a number line, etc.
► Product Targets
that require the student to produce something and are most of often found in project-based learning (pp. 73-75)
Creating lesson units with these four types of targets and designing assessments that are completely aligned with the unit and learning targets, provide students with a comprehensive road map and study guide and let “students know the basic requirements for meeting each target in advance.” (p. 75)
Powerful Conversations connections
As I read this book, I saw so many connections to the guiding text for this year’s Powerful Conversations Network, Leaders of Their Own Learning: Transforming Schools Through Student-Engaged Assessment,
by Ron Berger, et al.
Grading Smarter Not Harder
can augment the rich ideas and suggestions in the Berger book. And, like the Berger book, it is filled with examples of templates, formats, and ideas. It is also accompanied with an online study guide and additional resources here
. (You can also review the table of contents at this link).
It is not often that experts suggest best practice that can actually save time and allow teachers to focus their energy on what really matters: building relationships with students in ways that tap engagement, motivation and, as a result, improves student learning.
Dueck closes his book with a testimonial:
“When I first started making grading and assessment changes in my classroom, I had no idea that the most profound side effects would center on relationships. I thought building a simple unit plan would be a good way to let my students know what they were about to learn. What I didn’t know was that I was about to introduce a host of changes to the way I interacted with my students and that my role in the classroom was also going to change.
"I didn’t know that student-monitored retesting would dramatically alter the education trajectories for many of my students, or that eliminating zeros for missed assignments would also remove a key barrier to student success (especially for those living in poverty), or that getting rid of late penalties would greatly alleviate student stress. I undertook these changes for reasons related to teaching, never realizing the effect they would have on my relationship with students.”
So, I invite you to take the plunge. Be open to the new ideas and suggestions in Dueck’s book. It just might make your job more enjoyable and effective, for both you and your students—and for the community of teachers with whom you work.
Read a MiddleWeb article by Myron Dueck about smarter assessment here: "Aha Moments on the Road to Better Teaching".
[permalink for this post]