My Stages of Grieving for Grades

I’m getting ready to give a talk about grades. You never really know where people are at on the continuum that is assessment reform, and it makes me think back about my whirlwind tour of the assessment world during my first four years of teaching.

So, if you will, the first five steps of assessment grieving:

1. Oh Sh!t, My Quizzes Don’t Mean Anything.

We all have this moment. The formative work we do to help kids “get ready for the test” doesn’t do that at all. Wrestling with this realization is the first step towards changing the culture of your classroom away from adversarial grading to formative assessment and feedback-based assessment.

In what may be the only slide I’ve ever made that matters, which is frustrating because it breaks every rule of presentation design. Sorry:

Click to embiggen.

These five questions should be enough to start any teacher, administrator, or educator down the road to assessment reform. It made me hold my face in my hands, itelluwhat.

2. Retention vs. Cramming

We then get down to the nitty-grtitty. Instead of just making it through the material by quizzing and testing it once (ding, done! wrong.) Reassessment starts to creep up on your mind. You fight it. You feel like there’s a demon called “retake” that you’re beginning to bring burnt offerings in secret after school. I knew that this had to happen, but how could I do it without having students stay addicted to the points?

Czernobog, the Slavic god of retakes for points. Pure Evil

3. Reassessment Runs Rampant

So I started letting assessment happen whenever. This felt like the wild west. Seriously. I felt like it was the Gunslinger walking with Clint just hoping that the law will get laid down. Kids showed up at all levels of development. Some had studied and the system recorded their learning. Some were just hoping to get an easier problem and walk away with the points to get their parents of their backs. I had to corral this.

It felt like the experiment was failing, but, as the ineffable Matt Townsley would say, if you’re thinking about assessment and learning at a meta level, you’re doing a better job already.

4. Pointslessness

So, things get wacky. I got to give a TEDx talk right in the middle of my genesis of these ideas. I had to come up with something that would be coherent in 17 minutes. I came up with BlueHarvest.

Let’s get rid of the points and just keep track of what the students do. BlueHarvest is not about me making money, it’s about providing all of us a way to keep track of feedback so that we don’t have to pretend that points and grades are doing that for us. They don’t, and we all know it.

I’m now at the tail end of this experiment.

5. The Efficiency Game

Now that I’ve spent an entire semester teaching high schoolers, undergraduates, and graduate students without using and numbers at all, I feel like I owe all of you some sort of Results & Discussion.

First of all, it takes a long time to give this much feedback, especially if it’s the only data you’re keeping to justify the inevitable final grade (barf). I’m still pissed about this, but I can’t just start my own hippy commune, not yet anyway (I had a student ask me if he could go to my BlueHarvest school a few days ago, that was heartening)

I’ve seen the forest for the trees. Psychologically, students only care about feedback. We want to pretend that they won’t do anything unless it’s for points, but I’ve lived it. I’ve taught well over 100 students without using a single number, and it looks a lot like people who just care about getting it.

However, efficiency must be considered. Are numbers truly evil, or is it just the way we use them? I’m going to roll out a hybrid system next semester. The students are going to be responsible for putting evidence into BlueHarvest, and I’m going to use numbers and words to communicate to that student my assessment of that work. Parents still love to be able to look at a letter grade, and I know they’re busy, so I owe them a quick-look.

BlueHarvest still emails the parents whenever a piece of feedback or evidence is uploaded. The parents love it, and they feel like they’re a part of how that kid is learning, not just forcing them to learn once things go wrong.

Can you tell I just had some parent-teacher conferences fly by?

I miss you all.