Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Should should top grades reflect teachers' perceptions of "habits of mind"?

Here's an update on the new grading system used by the Montgomery County Public Schools which I blogged about earlier. It turns at that the Powers that Be at the MCPS have provided some additional guidelines that purport to address parental concerns (a) that the new grading system is insufficiently transparent, and (b) that the new top grade, "ES", is so highly elusive that hardly any students are getting it.

Here are the criteria for an "ES", as communicated to principals and teachers:

The student consistently demonstrates mastery of the grade-level standards as demonstrated by a variety of work that shows in-depth understanding and flexible use of grade-level concepts within the scope of a Measurement Topic. Students who are exceptional at the grade-level standard are also able to:  
• Demonstrate excellent reasoning skills
• Readily see relationships in ideas, objects, or facts
• Transfer thoughts and ideas from one set of circumstances to another
• Persevere with problems that are not easily solved
• Easily grasp generalizations, pointing out similarities in events and situations
Beyond the initial mention of grade-level mastery, what's remarkable about these criteria is how little they reflect what students are actually learning in school, and how much they reflect vaguer, more innate aspects of personality and intelligence that are relatively independent of the classroom. This raises several concerns:

1. How realistic is it for teachers to accurately assess general aspects of intelligence--reasoning skills, connections skills, generalizations skills--particularly when they've had no special training is this, when their assessment tools don't include any standardized, field-tested intelligence tests, and when they have 20+ students in the class and plenty of other things to do?

2. Is even right to grade students on vaguer, more innate aspects of personality like general intelligence and perseverance? What, exactly, is accomplished by such grading?

3. Isn't the point of grades, rather, to indicate to students, teachers, and parents whether kids are learning what is being taught, or supposed to be taught, in school?

A supplementary memo claims to ensure that teachers know how to provide "to the fullest extent possible (at least 51% of the time)" assignments that "offer students the opportunity to demonstrate exceptional understanding." Such assignments, the memo explains, should include "open-ended questions"; questions that solicit "innovative" connections between current topics and new ideas and/or prior knowledge; opportunities to "transfer knowledge to new situations"; opportunities to "creatively solve problems"; opportunities to explain answers and justify solutions; opportunities to "socially construct knowledge" through interactions; opportunities to demonstrate "metacognitive awareness."

In other words, the teacher's role is to provide opportunities for students to demonstrate those vague aspects of general intelligence. But there's nothing about providing teachers with accurate tools to measure these things, and nothing about the school's role in teaching them. Nor is there any justification, once again, for why skills that are relatively independent of what's going on at school should be factored into grade distinctions. What's wrong with simply basing grades on students' levels of mastery of what's actually being taught?

I'm guessing that most teachers, students, and parents--in other words, pretty much everyone other than the Powers that Be in education--would prefer mastery-based grading to intelligence-based grading. What's less clear to me is whether the Powers that Be have any incentive to show the kind of flexible, open-minded thinking they expect of students, and actively seek out alternative perspectives.


Auntie Ann said...

So a kid who isn't the brightest, but works his pitooty off, figures everything out, does all the work, does it well, and really learns what he should learn, must--must--receive a lower grade than someone for whom it all comes naturally?

lgm said...

If grades are for ranking, yes the talented person should rank higher than the hard worker. There will come a point that the hard worker isn't going to advance. For many, that is Geometry. Why put them in the honors Algebra seat if it is going to take the support of parent and tutor, when you have a talented child who doesn't have teacher pleasing behaviors who could intellectually handle the class with ease (and probably drive the teacher nuts with his/her 'more please' comments)? Better yet, open a few more sections so all qualified can have a seat.

momof4 said...

AND, the talented need to be offered more, deeper material and a faster pace and their grades should reflect this. Of course, lots of teachers - especially ES- in my experience, really don't like the very bright, intellectually curious kids with lots of content knowledge. They too often ask too-challenging questions which make many teachers uncomfortable. They like the artsy-crafty, touchy-feely teacher-pleasers. The former are likely to be boys, who are not interested in making their papers look pretty and the latter are likely to be girls and grades are likely to reflect teacher preferences.

In response to the last sentence, the MoCO admins have no interest in any viewpoint except their own, in my experience as a parent whose kids went through that system. Their creativity and flexibility wouldn't stretch to allow my incoming all-honors freshman to take keyboarding in summer school (as opposed to September, for which class he was already registered) because "he wasn't a HS student" but, since he had taken honors algebra I in 8th, he could take SS non-honors geometry with kids who had already failed it. I was assured that this was a pedagogically sound option for a very mathy kid, at a school with one of the top math/sci tracks in the county, planning a STEM major!! I admit it; I lost patience and told the idiot what I thought about his "pedagically-appropriate" ideas.

Anonymous said...

Oh right. I very much doubt that any of my ES or MS teachers had any idea at all of what their students' "habits of mind" were. A couple of the very insightful HS teachers probably did, but they graded us on results, not on habits of mind.

FedUpMom said...

Katharine asks:

What's wrong with simply basing grades on students' levels of mastery of what's actually being taught?

In order to do that, you'd have to actually teach content and understand what mastery is. That's not happening.

If you start with a squishy, gobbledegook curriculum, or squishy, gobbledegook goals (hello, Common Core!) a squishy, gobbledegook rubric for evaluation is the natural next step.

Auntie Ann said...

Our school had a demonstration of what happens when things are too squishy for too long--and it comes down to the fact that, while standardized tests may not be perfect, at least they can't be fudged (except in Atlanta--google the cheating scandal there.)

Standardized test were given at our school (a private one) in October, but the school didn't hand out the results for months. When they did finally hand them out near the end of February, more than one family were so shocked by how their kids did, that they left the school.