Saturday, March 8, 2014

Moving beyond grades

Grades, let’s face it, are problematic. They are non-transparent, refracting a multitude of factors beyond mere subject-specific mastery. Worse, the more a teacher’s subjective impressions of student grit, creativity, cooperative learning skills, presentation skills, and so-called “higher-level thinking” skills figure into grades, the more those grades distort what many people still assume grades are mostly about—namely, academic achievement. A “B” in biology may mean that you don’t have a complete mastery of biological processes, or it may mean that your poster was sloppy, you didn’t make enough eye contact during your presentation, and that you didn’t get along with your lab partners.

But even when grades are mostly about mastery, it’s not clear how well they signal to future employers, or to graduate and professional schools, how good a candidate you are for what comes next. Recently, a tenured professor in one of the top biology departments in the country told me about the one and only thing he and his colleagues look for in admitting graduate students. It isn’t high grades; it isn’t high GRE scores. Instead, it’s lab experience. This, they feel, is the most direct indicator of what matters the most: how much a student will end up contributing to the field.

So why not dispense with grades altogether and replace them with something a little more indicative of what people can actually do? Why not have a list of concrete skills for each school subject, with mastery tests for each one? Following the latest cognitive science research, deliver these mastery tests over time (to both assess and enhance long term recall), set a high bar for mastery (say 95% correct), and allow students to retake these tests as many times as needed (and whenever they choose to). Also allow them to move through the material at their own pace. The upshot, instead of a report card or transcript, should be a list of the skills currently mastered.

There are, of course, a few caveats. First, the skills listed really should be concrete—as in not vague, as in not like the Common Core Standards, as in both teachable and filled with specific content. In other words, algebra skills would involve things like “Simplify rational expressions involving terms with unlike algebraic denominators using standard tricks for maximum efficiency, including factoring and cancelation of like terms, distributing factors and combining like terms, and seeking out and exploiting differences of squares and other familiar patterns” (as opposed to “Rewrite simple rational expressions in different forms”). And history skills would involve things like “Enumerate the primary causes of the French Revolution” (as opposed to “Understand that revolutions can have multiple causes”).

Not all subjects, of course, naturally break down into lists of discrete sub-skills. Product oriented faculties like writing might better be demonstrated with actual products—i.e., student work samples—though, to ensure that they are purely the student’s own work, proctored, in-class samples would be best.

But that doesn’t mean that the process of learning to write can’t be taught in terms of sub-skills; it can and should.

Another caveat: the skills measured should always reflect what the student can do independently, with any “supports” limited to things like enlarged print or sign language interpretation or keyboards, which enhance access, as opposed to things like simplified texts, movie versions of novels, and word-prediction software, which end up doing for the student a significant part of what’s being measured.

Of course, all this is wishful thinking. But every while it’s nice to stop complaining about how bad things are and fantasize instead about ways in which they could improve.

1 comment:

Auntie Ann said...

That reminds me of the online math website Aleks. They use the state standards (we used it back when the the CA state standards were still the good ones) and build a skill by skill curriculum--they literally showed you the standards and where your kid stood in relation to each one.

For teaching, a student is presented with problems and there are opportunities to look at explanations; then, the student works through to mastery of each skill in the standard. Once that's done, the kid can move up to the next grade level.

I used it because I knew our kid had the main part of what he needed to know, but things like shapes, measurement, area, etc., he wasn't getting at school.