As we move into a new school year, I find myself reflecting on our standards of assessment. Not state standards, pushed down on us from above, but our own standards, inner standards— standards of honesty, intelligence and kindness. Does the way we grade make sense? Does it accomplish what we behave as though it accomplishes? Is it fair? And perhaps most importantly, does it awaken the intelligence of our students?
In none of these areas does a traditional grading scheme stand up well to close scrutiny. Yet, while it is easy and tempting to bash the ‘traditional system’, it is a much more difficult and noble calling to seek out and offer a sane alternative.
During these meditations, I turn to Krishnamurti’s words. But he has not left us an instruction booklet—quite deliberately. The message I get is that he understands the complexity of being a strong educator, and also that the requirements may change over time. His voice calls us to stay true to our inner standards; navigating the realities of that task is our burden to bear. He reminds us of the why—we have to figure out the how. So, I have lately been upon an exploration of the alternatives, an exploration which is far from complete. If there is an ideal solution out there, I have not found it yet. This article makes no attempt to offer answers that I have not found. Instead, its goal is simply to raise some question and explore some of the possibilities. No option is perfect, but we each must choose something, and considering the options with clear eyes is a worthwhile endeavour.
Let us begin with the traditional model, at least the one used at Oak Grove High School and throughout a vast majority of California schools. Each activity and assignment that students are asked to complete is worth a number of points. The students earn those points if they complete it and don’t if they don’t, or perhaps they receive partial credit, based on how well they complete the task. It is likely, reader that you are familiar with this model. Often these points are sorted into categories and each category is given a weight, i.e., made worth a certain percentage of the grade.
This model is ubiquitous, but hardly perfect. The first problem that strikes me is the sense of constant judgement. Each activity, no matter how minor, becomes an opportunity for the student to be weighed, judged, and found wanting. It creates an Orwellian atmosphere in which we as the teachers are cast as Big Brother, constantly watching, and any misstep is punished with a loss of ‘points’, whatever those are. Students are then sorted, overtly or otherwise, into an impromptu caste system of ‘successful’ students, ‘less successful’, students or, well, ‘failures’—though few of us would ever willingly use that word. The meaning shines through, whatever vocabulary we choose, and an ugly reality covered up with banal, kind-sounding euphemisms simply adds one more layer in which we play the role of Orwellian overlords.
Is this the atmosphere we want to create for our students? One in which every action is scrutinized and the slightest misstep is punished? Each student in this system may start with a sense of confidence, a feeling of being at an A+, a grade that is slowly eroded as the mistakes and failures pile up, until it drops to whatever will be on their report card. A major error early on, especially in a highlyweighted category, can act as a semipermanent ball and chain, dragging down the grade until it is manifested on the report card.
We tell ourselves and our students that failure should be celebrated, that students learn best in an environment where they feel free to explore and stumble without censure. How would the baby learn to walk if it was reprimanded each time it tried and failed? Yet our actions do not align with our stated ideology. We may or may not verbally reprimand our students for failure, but we don’t have to. Our points system does it for us.
A hot item in education in recent years, standards-based grading does indeed offer some solutions, but it also brings its own problems. In the standards-based model, a teacher identifies the specific learning goals that the class will cover, and students receive a unique grade on their success in each of those categories. Consider a math class—one learning goal may be, “I know how to calculate the area of a rectangle.” The teacher would teach to this learning goal and assess each student on how well they are able to succeed at this particular task, usually on a 1–4 scale instead of a per cent scale. The student would be expected to continue studying each topic until they are as close to mastery as they can get and re-doing tests and quizzes is not just an opportunity, but an expectation. The parent would receive a report card listing many such standards, with a number next to each one indicating the level of mastery that their child has been able to reach.
It has the advantage, in theory at least, of making it easier to customize each student’s educational experience to their own level. The idea is that if you know that three-quarters of the class has mastered finding the area of a rectangle, but one-quarter still struggles with it, you can provide tailored instruction to each segment of the class, allowing that one quarter the time they need to catch up.
It’s a wonderful vision, to provide conditions in which each student can and must reach mastery, but what concerns me is the realities of the execution of such a plan in what is otherwise a traditional classroom. While a teacher such as you or me would have the information needed to provide each student with a customized educational experience, that doesn’t mean we have the time to do so. A traditional classroom model asks one adult to teach fifteen, thirty or more students at once. With only one teacher, all students must receive the same instruction at the same time. Most teachers are already pushing the limits of how much they can differentiate given these restrictions. The reason we don’t offer each student a further differentiated experience right now in our everyday practice isn’t because we lack data—we know where each student is at—it’s because we lack the means in a traditionally structured classroom. The standards-based grading model provides a solution to the wrong problem. For it to work as promised, we would need to seriously reconsider the most foundational structures of school.
It’s also important to note that the highly-detailed report card called for in standards-based grading is not effortless. Demanding this form of assessment would add labour to an already-overburdened teacher’s workload, and given the limitations we just discussed, the effect on learning outcomes is questionable.
Advocates of the standards-based grading point out that preparing such a list with a unique grade for each student in each standard, gives the parents and families a much more meaningful insight into student achievement than simply providing a percentage value and a letter grade. (What does ‘B+’ really mean, anyway?) With this model, it’s very clear exactly what each grade means. However, I think it’s actually very important to ask whether it’s truly possible to spell out and measure the most important learning outcomes in such a quantifiable, pre-packaged way. Perhaps it’s more feasible in math or science, but as an English teacher, much of what we do is challenging to quantify.How do I design a standard measuring for whether a student feels Holden Caulfield’s pain and love and hope? If I (or someone) were to break down the skills of excellent writing into a handful of pithy standards, would they accurately reflect a writer’s ability to compose words that stimulate the intellect and sear the soul?
Finally, there is an equity obstacle: when we receive a new class, they are not coming in on equal footing, and thus judging them on equal standards is problematic. Each student has travelled their own educational journey, and some students will be better prepared to quickly acquire the skill of measuring the area of a rectangle, while others will lack the foundational knowledge required to quickly master that skill. Still others may already know it! Standards-based grading can take a snapshot of where a student is, but it doesn’t reflect how hard they worked or how far they came. A student who already knew about calculating the area of a rectangle may loaf about for that entire unit and still get an excellent grade, while a student who worked and sweated and laboured to master three years’ worth of remedial learning—very successfully— may still be rewarded with a poor grade because they didn’t get through the fourth year’s material as they are ‘supposed’ to.
It seems that standards-based grading could only truly succeed in standardsbased classrooms, where students enter a classroom based not on their age or grade level, but on the level of skills that they are poised to learn.
Standards-based grading uses what is called criterion-referenced assessment, in which student success is measured against a certain absolute standard. Another method of assessment exists called ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ipse, meaning, ‘of the self ’. This method measures a student’s success against their own prior achievement. This can often be seen in real life in physical exercise regimes (where you strive to do more push-ups this week than you did last week) or in computer games (where you strive to beat your own previous best score), and it could potentially have real advantages in the world of education.
This method would show a student’s growth, but it contains an implicit expectation that may be unrealistic—that learning consists of a steady upward trajectory. In reality, as with most human pursuits that are worthwhile, it frequently seems to be a matter of taking one step back for every two steps forward. Breakthroughs in understanding and intellectual growth are often preceded by periods of confusion and frustration. I worry about the student who hits one of those plateaus where growth is not obvious or visible. Even if, beneath the surface, their mind is preparing for a great leap, that would not be reflected in the ipsative grade they receive if it comes at an inopportune moment, and the blow that such a low grade could deliver might knock them out of the intrinsic growth curve that they were working on.
I also worry about the student who came into the class already knowledgeable about the stated learning goals for the season. If, as the class begins the unit on calculating the area of a rectangle, one student is already proficient in this, she or he will show no growth over the duration of the unit, and thus would fail according to ipsative assessment.
Perhaps worst of all methods, but worth mentioning here, as it is not uncommon, is the method of comparing student success not against empirical standards, nor against their own prior status, but against their peers. It is well-documented that students develop at different rates and that in many areas of learning the age at which a student hits certain milestones has little consequence for their ultimate level of achievement. Therefore comparing students to their peers gives little useful information. Nor, needless to say, would it hold true to the non-competitive ideals that we strive for as Krishnamurti schools.
A final, perhaps obvious option must be mentioned—what if we don’t assess at all? There is an idea that the focus of an educator should be on learning rather than on the assessment of learning. All of the methods above assume a model in which the teacher pours knowledge into the student, who is simply an empty receptacle waiting to be filled.
What if students are not passive receptacles, but capable of pursuing their own interests, driving their own learning? I would posit that most of us have come to our most profound and formative understandings by chasing our own interests. It is rare that something forced on us by outside powers becomes the important, identity-shaping interest that drives us to full, deep understanding. Is this not the ideal mode of learning which Krishnamurti would want us to strive for?
The drawback to this model, of course, is that we need something to show an outside observer—that something is happening in our schools. Whether its parents, colleges, or a distant administrator, there are professionals and adults who desire—rightly so—to have some evidence that the school is doing what it says it is doing. In our case, at Oak Grove, we have made the choice to be a college preparatory school, and therefore we need to communicate to colleges something about what each student has accomplished. Grades are an intrinsic part of that communication.
Are grades truly the best way to impart that information? In our case we attempt to give a fuller picture to outside observers by writing narrative evaluations as well. Some may argue we should use only narrative evaluations, but letter grades are the system that the outside world is primed to accept. Could those grades be generated in an alternative fashion? Certainly, but which one? The other alternatives are all equally flawed, if not more so. Would one simply be trading one set of problems for a different set of problems?
Ultimately, each of us must come to our own answers, if not the sort of primal answers that indicate the questions have been solved, at least an operative answer that allows us to meet the needs of our students, our families, and ourselves each school year. Yet as we do so, it is worth taking the time to reflect upon the practices we have chosen to follow and ask the hard questions.