ASSESSMENT FOR OUR TIME: Are Grades as We Know Them Going the Way of the Dodo?

February 7, 2017
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s February 2017 newsletter; it has been edited and updated for this format.)

It seems de rigueur to trash any formal education courses one has been forced to take, especially for such mundane reasons as becoming certified. But I loved those courses, crammed into summers and evenings over a couple of years. I didn’t even realize it at the time, but the best of those courses provided me with a beacon that 15 years later I realized I should be following and that set the course for the rest of my life.

The course was on “Curriculum.” In 1976, in the third year of my voyage as a teacher, I equated curriculum with my textbook, at least where I had a textbook. The steady passage from chapter to chapter, review exercise to review exercise, and quiz to quiz seemed perfectly adequate as a pathway through the year, although I’d often find myself deviating—and feeling guilty about it.

Professor Walter Crocker at Rhode Island College was offering up a different version. He loved to quote a strange and wonderful book, The Sage of Petaluma, written in 1965 by Harold R. W. Benjamin under the

Harold R.W. Benjamin, a.k.a. The Sage of Petaluma, in 1963

Harold R.W. Benjamin, a.k.a. The Sage of Petaluma, in 1963.

pseudonym “J. Abner Peddiwell.” The Sage saw curriculum as a different kind of journey, framed by three questions: Where are we going? How are we going to get there? How are we going to know when we’ve arrived?

Yup, “backwards design.” It seemed obscure at the time to novice me, but when I encountered the same notion via the late Grant Wiggins in 1992 I was finally ready for it, and so were a whole lot of us.

The last question, the assessment question, still challenges us, and the smarter we get, the more complex the challenge seems to become. When the destination was mostly content and a few rote skills or templatized writing routines (e.g., the five-paragraph essay), tests and quizzes were just the thing. But as we learn more and more about the characteristics and nature of deep learning we are discovering how difficult it is to measure, say, collaborative capacity or creativity. Even the SAT, the test of “scholastic aptitude,” and the ACT, with “College” shining bright at its center, fail to provide a really useful measure of those “21st-century skills” that we value so highly, whatever we may call them—“soft” (yuck), non-cognitive (not hardly), or co-cognitive (slickly side-stepping the definitional difficulty).

Many ICG Partner Schools have undertaken to explore other ways of gathering and representing evidence of this kind of learning. The College and Work Readiness Assessment (CWRA) has established a solid and worthy beachhead and is working to help schools find ever more effective ways of using the data its performance task assessment generates, and the Mission Skills Assessment (MSA) and Character Skills Assessment (CSA) have a strong base. Other players are in the conversation: the Tessera “noncognitive assessment system” (on which we hope to be offering a webinar soon) and Lectica’s Disco tests, on which we are offering a free (as always) webinar this week .

The challenge of measuring and representing learning—learning that is important, that matters, to quote Grant Wiggins—remains with us, along with the actual purpose of and audience for such learning. Parents seem to like “grades” and “scores,” and so, we are told, do next-school and especially college admission offices. The transcript in its usual form is full of course lists, letters, and numbers that serve as proxies for something else, a too-handy shortcut that permits rapid evaluation for the express purpose of sorting.

But reality tells us that success—the kinds of material success associated in the popular mind with giant incomes and lavish lifestyles—is not always, nor necessarily even often, the province of those who have been blessed high numbers. High numbers help, of course, in the area of selective admission, but there are other factors that seem to determine “success” and even, if the material gains are more modest, happiness. Surely a system that would allow the evaluation of students based on a more extensive array of traits and attainments might be a better predictor of whatever it is that colleges, for example, want to predict.

Such a system would also, of course, transform school as we know it. Content may be king on the worldwide web, but its reign in classrooms is coming to an end; those other things, those “21st-century skills,” matter more.

We will all soon be learning much more about the Mastery Transcript Consortium, an endeavor by a growing group of schools to develop such a system for the measurement and representation of student learning in a number of domains and to bring a large group of influential colleges and universities on board in recognizing this system in their admission process. The MTC doesn’t yet have much of an online presence, but an executive director has been appointed. An invitational gathering in connection with the National Association of Independent Schools Annual Conference later this month will no doubt further illuminate this exciting initiative for many of those still in the dark.

Teachers grouse about grades and having to award them, their distorting effect on the culture of learning, their disproportionate influence, the subjective nature that makes them fertile ground for student and family complaints. Part of the issue is that we still haven’t agreed, even within schools and often within divisions and departments, on what “grades” mean and how they are determined. The new approaches to assessment, based on research and data and not just a zero-sum game of right and wrong answers, are still in their a-borning stage, but I believe that grades as we once knew them may go the way of the dodo sooner rather than later, replaced by assessments that are consonant with the Sage of Petaluma’s questions as I learned them forty years ago and as we explore and expand upon them in our practice today: Where are we going? How are we going to get there? How are we going to know when we’ve arrived?

I think it’s about damn time. And thank you, Professor Crocker!

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