As part of our professional development focus on assessment, my colleagues and I were asked to read from our choice of several articles (many of which came from the November 2005 edition of Educational Leadership, which focused on “Assessment to Promote Learning.” One article I found particularly interesting was Tony Winger’s “Grading to Communicate.” If you are concerned about the recent trend in grade inflation, I have to highly recommend that you read this article.
Winger proposes that teachers assess students in specific areas, such as formal writing, application, and conceptual understanding. The specific areas upon which each individual teacher focuses would vary according to subject matter, grade level, and individual course emphasis. Winger’s contention is that too often, students who do the homework are able to make excellent or above average grades — A’s and B’s — when their understanding is lacking as shown on tests or writing assignments. As teachers, we understand that the students’ true understanding and/or ability to apply or synthesize material is not what is reflected in their grades; rather, their work habits are the focus. As a result, we have a school culture that values the grade above the learning. Student assessment is not a reflection of what the student knows, but how well the student plays the school game. I think we have all had a student who demonstrates a firm grasp of the concepts we teach but has poor work habits that keep him/her from earning a grade commensurate with his/her true understanding of the material. I have several every year. These students don’t do the homework, but in spite of that, they still ace the test. On the other hand, we also have those little worker bees who do each and every assignment, but demonstrate large gaps in writing or on tests. In our hearts, we feel as if we are not sending them an accurate picture with that A or B, but as grades are most commonly assessed, it is more likely that the student who demonstrates little or no understanding but has excellent work habits will have an “inflated” grade.
As I read through this article, my mind started swimming with the possibilities. If I could make this work out, I could genuinely show students where they are, what they know instead of how hard they work. Don’t get me wrong. Strong work habits are necessary, and they should figure into the grade. Winger suggest making Work Habits about 10-20% of the average. Thus, a student who turned in a paper late, as in the example he gives in the article, might earn an A for conceptual understanding, but an F in work habits. The student is still penalized for not turning the assignment in on time, but he/she still has a true picture of his or her understanding rather than a grade that has been deflated due to lateness. In addition, in Winger’s configuration, homework assignments are part of the work habits grade; therefore, a student who always does his/her homework and turns work in on time is still rewarded and students who do not will earn poor work habits grades.
I think this system could give a student a clear picture of exactly what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, once the different areas of assessment are broken down. For example, students may discover that their poor work habits are truly an issue if isolated from their other grades — there is a direct correlation between whether they do their homework and turn in assignments on time and a percentage of their grade.
I think one thing a teacher would have to do to make this work is to grade assignments from several angles, which may not be feasible. I admit to feeling daunted by the prospect of grading an assignment in three areas or more — for example, work habits, conceptual understanding, and formal writing skills. On the other hand, I think this sort of feedback could be so critical for students in helping them to see a true picture of their progress.
I would like to learn more about it before I proceed to try it out, but the prospect of this sort of assessment really excites me. Some things I need to do to make it work:
- Probably weigh grades by percentages instead of figuring by total points, as I do now.
- Collect fewer work samples, or I will go crazy with grading.
- Create more rubrics.
- Do more formative assessment, less formal assessment.
- Figure out what to do about parents and students who “treat a ‘C’ grade the same way that students a few years ago would have treated an ‘F.’”
- Determine whether or not this is something my department and administration buy into and support (my gut feeling is yes, but it’s better to know before I start).