Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Mar 08 2010

Positive reinforcement and formative assessment

As I was riding home from school today the middle school principal at my school commented that I always have such great ideas at faculty meetings. I told her “I love coming up with ideas, and I’d be happy to share more.” We had an interesting discussion about formative assessment and teachers hanging on to traditions.
Our school is involved in the process of responding to national trends surrounding formative assessment, tracking based on standards and backwards planning. Although the private school isn’t tied to any particular system when it comes to how we grade and what we teach we are influenced by national trends in education. Of course we have the flexibility to adopt only those trends that we are interested in and hopefully escape the perpetual cycle of new panaceas that new administrators introduce to old teachers who already feel like they’ve heard it all before. There are definitely veteran teachers at my school who don’t enjoy all of the renovations in professional development and compensation models but everyone is willing to think critically and discuss pedagogy enthusiastically at staff meetings.

The most recent meeting revolved around grading practices. The principal wants to follow a national trend which suggests that giving students grades for completion of tasks encourages them to learn how to play school instead of learning content. He wants to adopt the goal of having the primary determining factor in a grade be a summative assessment of content knowledge specific to the discipline. This does not just mean tests and actually necessitates that teachers think carefully about alternative assessments so that kids who do poorly on paper and pencil tests still have a shot of demonstrating mastery of objectives. Greater emphasis on assessments in grades will hopefully force teachers to improve assessments to more fully capture student mastery of topics. Additionally students must receive formative feedback before taking an examination so that they know what is expected of them and have a chance to improve before their work counts for a grade.

A whole host of arguments are raised by teachers who are rightfully cautious of revising their grading methods. Some wonder if grades will go down when students no longer have the additional pad of getting 100% on assignments for completion. They will not longer be able to work hard on homework and have that balance out weak test scores. It certainly gives an advantage to students who master concepts quickly and disadvantages students who struggle with traditional assessments. It’s doubtful that the school as a whole will think of a way to make our assessment favor all learning types equally. It is so much easier to test verbal linguistic and reasoning mathematical intelligences that I doubt we will ever be able to appropriately assess kinesthetic, musical, social, or other types of skills on a balanced percentage of assessments. Some teachers worry that students will be discouraged from working hard. I think that we just need to be creative with our grades. If we want to reward hard work then there are ways to incorporate that into the grading. Presumably we value hard work because it helps the students achieve. We might realize that some kids will never be quite as mathematically fluent or as gifted as writers no matter how hard they try but I think we all believe that there will be progress. We hope that they will learn that intelligence is malleable and that by working hard they can improve so that they will transfer that skill set into other areas of their lives. I don’t think the teachers would argue that hard work for the sake of hard work is really the goal of the class. No one thinks I should give extra credit to the student who comes and digs holes in my yard and fills them back in just because that took a lot of hard work.
So perhaps in the new system where we no longer have the homework padding for hard working students who struggle with demonstrating mastery we can pad them by giving them additional opportunities to show what they have learned. Small amounts of oral tests, retakes, alternative assessments and more could be used to give kids a second chance on a summative assessment. I think if there is student buy in(and at my school there usually is) kids will still want to do well on tests the first time because they won’t want to come in for a second round of testing. I think it makes sense if the ultimate goal is to learn and teach that hard work on specific weaknesses pays off that it’s not a bad idea to give second chance assessments. This definitely allows hard work to impact a grade in the way it used to with homework but hopefully it is more focused than simply giving points for completion. It will also force kids to think carefully about what they are learning and why and how they will correct errors on future tests.

There is also debate about what are appropriate learning goals. Many teachers have ideas about instilling hard work, respect, organization, and other non content related skills into their instruction. Organization is important and so is respect and the debate is whether or not that should be tied to a grade. One teacher surprised me by saying that kids are respectful because they have 6 or 7 classes where they receive grades partially based on respect. They thought that if we take the respect grade away kids will know we value it less. This shocked me because I’ve never considered giving a grade for respect. Sure, my first year teaching the disrespectful kids got sent to the dean, missed class and had lower grades as a result but this wasn’t about a direct respect grade. I do have to admit I give bonus points on tests for kids who make me laugh while grading. But the effect on the final grade is so small that it’s basically a token thank you for improving the grading process. I’ve definitely become much less strict about when homework is handed in for absent students. I’ve decided that I’ll trust them if they tell me they couldn’t do it for a particular reason and if they are really actually slacking on it I’ll find out on the test.

We spent some time discussing being tied to tradition and what a hard time teachers have of changing their ways. I’m definitely guilty of that myself. I’m completely excited about constructivist pedagogy and am not very willing to make my class revolve around direct instruction. I know some of my kids yearn for direct instruction because they like the comfort of notes, steps, procedures and formulas but I’m just not so sure where those take them.
I felt really respected by the administrator and really enjoyed discussing the changes in grading at the school and possibilities for implementation.

One Response

  1. I found your article interesting. It is quite dangerous when you start grading things like respect, politeness, etc. Where does it stop?

    But if you do have respectfulness as an objective, you certainly would have to think a bit on how to formatively assess this element. Have not seen much on this subject in my research. Interesting.

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Learning more about life than math…

Las Vegas Valley
High School

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