Grading Not for Compliance, but for Competency

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Lawrence’s Free State Brewery was abuzz yesterday evening, but everyone still managed to talk some shop at our first Study Hall.  We had contributions from a wide variety of backgrounds, with teachers from the KC area and Lawrence schools, a virtual school, and even a pre-service teacher.  We found that while everyone’s grading scheme will be unique, there are also some practices that we would like to promote.

The initial talk revealed that even among our group some of us use weighted grades while some use point totals, we grade different amounts and kinds of homework, and we use all manner of assessments (oral, written, practical, and performance assessments to name a few).  However there was a common sentiment that single line items should not sink student grades.  A zero for one homework assignment or one low test score does not indicate a failure by that student for the entire quarter and our weighting system should take that into consideration.
The majority of our discussion then turned to the question of what a grade in a science class should reflect.  With the Next Generation Science Standards being accepted, we have a much clearer idea of what a successful mark in biology should equate to in student ability.  At the end of the day the student’s grade should reflect their ability to demonstrate their understanding of those core curriculum concepts.  The question then turns to how can we, as teachers, make the student’s grade reflect their competency?

We believe that there are two key components to achieving that goal.  The first is eliminating the garbage in our grading systems.  Points for compliance must be eliminated.  It is a major paradigm shift to remove the all mighty “point” as the motivator, but making students jump through hoops to obtain points serves only to directly undermine the meaning of their grade.  Assignments should be done because they have learning value, and should only be graded if they directly reflect competency.  That isn’t to say that exploration assignments and practice don’t have a role to play in a science classroom.  Rather they should be done for THOSE REASONS, and not just to obtain the requisite points.  Some in the group have already tried removing all grading weight from those tasks with significant success, and we are all interested in exploring this further.

The second requirement in making a grade meaningful is to have a highly coherent feedback system in place.  Students need frequent formative feedback.  Students need frequent formative feedback.  It is worth saying twice because too many students (and adults for that matter) lack sufficient practice both in evaluating their own understanding and taking steps to improve that understanding when found to be insufficient.  Further, if students pass or fail based only on understanding they will need many opportunities to monitor their own progress to ensure they have the chance to succeed.

Formative feedback can take many forms.  Recall practice tests, working memory journals, exit cards, and peer review are all methods of providing that feedback.  None of this feedback needs to be graded either, but it must be deliberate and intentional.  Much of this process can also be automated using a class website service such as Moodle or Blackboard or a classroom management system such as CPS clickers.

Finally the summative assessments must be highly consistent with the exposure the students have received throughout the unit.  The students must have clear learning objectives that are communicated and accurate.  If you ask a student simply if they “understand”, you will likely just get a noncommittal answer.  However, if they are told they need to know how chromosomes separate during meiosis they can ask themselves if they can explain that process.  Concise learning objectives allow the students to monitor for themselves whether or not they have the understanding necessary at that point in the class.

Our discussion identified a few areas we would like to elaborate upon in future meetings.  We believe that it would be useful to design an example unit with a learning trajectory similar to what we discussed on the 13th.  Using that example we could identify a process for producing meaningful grades based on competency rather than compliance.  We also believe that these performance based assessments will facilitate more inquiry and freedom in the classroom.  Stay tuned, because this could be the start of something cool…

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3 thoughts on “Grading Not for Compliance, but for Competency

  1. Inserting the picture shuffled some of the text… I think I got it fixed now. Perhaps it makes a bit more sense in the correct order.

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