What Does a Grade Mean?

After establishing what a grade or assessment is, we move on to the issue of what it indicates or means.

If a grade indicates the teacher’s assessment of learning, then we have to distinguish between the “kinds” of learning occurring.  The first distinction I would make is between Arts and Sciences.  In short, we teach students either to do or to know.  A full discussion of this can be found here, but you can’t teach, or assess, these two things the same.  An art (the ability to do something) is not taught or tested in the same way as a science (something we learn intellectually or that which we know).

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As I see it, the following are at the very least the ways in which these things must be assessed differently.  In the arts we seek to judge how well the art is able to be done.  This further breaks down into those who have obtained enough of the ability that they can be said to be able to do “x.”  These assessments of basic ability, when done correctly, indicate that Johnny can dribble a basketball and Susie cannot, etc. But most times, the instruction is more than just distinguishing between those who can or cannot, but how well one can do the thing being taught compared either to other artists or to some standard for that art.  Here the task of assessment is to demonstrate a growing ability with the art.  “You started at this level and have progressed further to this current level.”  This is demonstrated well by such things as various karate belt colors.  You progress from white, to yellow, to gold, orange, green, blue, purple, brown, red and eventually finally to black (which then even has degrees within its highest distinction).  The color around your waist is an instantaneous indicator to all who care with what level of proficiency you have progressed through your karate training.  And that leads to the final act of assessment in the arts.  Though no art is ever perfected in a human, there are masters of the art, and at some point one must be judged such, usually demonstrating their readiness to leave formal training in that art and become a teacher of the art themselves.

The sciences are taught and assessed quite a bit differently.  I must reiterate from other discussions on this that Arts and Sciences work together.  Confusing the two is problematic to be sure, but sealing them off hermetically from each is equally harmful.  At least three things are assessed in a student’s growing knowledge of a subject: the level of knowledge, the student’s competency of that knowledge, and his ability to integrate his knowledge of the subject with the rest of his life.  The first is often what most people default to in educational assessment:  “How much do you know about the subject.”  But most teachers want students to know the material in such a way as to be able to connect the content together into something like understanding.  Given that these things (the knowledge) are so, how does fact A connect to and affect facts B, C, and D?  And this simply leads right into the third aspect of this mode of assessment:  how does subject A integrate or fit into the other subjects or “sciences” of life.  See my discussion here of the four sciences and how they are used to better educate the whole student.

So a grade or assessment shows a great number of things, depending on what is being assessed.  The last question for this blog is just as fundamental:  Who wants to know?  As an assessment is a judgment being made, it seems the main purpose of the grade is to communicate the judgment among all involved parties.  I think the teacher, student, and depending on the age, the parent behind the student, want to know the judgment contained in an assessment.  The teacher can use assessment to better his teaching, determine the progress of his students, and be clear with student and parent where he thinks the learning process currently resides.  A student is able to adjust his learning experience based on this feedback from his teacher.  And the parent, who is often funding and responsible ultimately for the learning going on, but not in the classroom, is able to know how things are progressing.

Some of the following questions flow out of these thoughts:

  1. How individual or collective can assessment be? Can the same assessment judge all students, or should there be individual tests for all?  The whole standardized testing thing comes into the discussion here.
  2. How objective or subjective is a grade? What can affect the objectivity/subjectivity of assessment? [I wander over into this sticky mud hole in my next blog].
  3. Should teachers seek premade test banks or make all their own assessments?
  4. If the arts and sciences are assessed differently but their grades appear side by side on a “report card” what is to be done to avoid the common confusion of these things?
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What is a Grade?

I get asked about grading and assessment often enough to know that our modern minds do not know how to deal with the issue well.  From some type of cosmic game show to a quantitative evaluation of a person’s worth, misunderstanding in this area is rampant.  Teachers seem to labor over obtaining a chimerical objectivity in their grading, while students seem more intent on how to “get an A” than how to become truly educated.  And reform in education is almost totally fixed on outcomes, on the grades achieved either in standardized tests or some other number generating endeavor.

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In the following series of blogs I will consider a number of related questions regarding how learning is assessed and how that assessment is communicated between two minds.  I don’t promise to be thorough, but hopefully to reinvigorate a discussion about these things as I am convinced many of the current issues in education are issues of assessment and grading.

So first, what is assessment?  Every act of learning follows a sequence of events.  The mind must first come to perceive it’s need to know something.  Once this is done, learning begins.  The mind seeks and hopefully through good teachers is able to find an expression of the idea being sought.  If all goes well, models are given of what is being learned.  These are compared and the new learning begins to be embodied in the learner.  Assessment comes at the end of this sequence when the learner, and often the teacher, determine if learning has been thorough and effective.

Not all assessment is the same.  The distinction most helpful is the one between quantitative and qualitative assessment.  When assessment is for oneself, this is intuitive and almost always results in both types of assessment.  But for the teacher who has several or many students, and is often assessing a number of them together, this distinction is necessary.  Quantitative assessment determines how much has been learned.  If a child is asked to memorize the bones of the body, he is then assessed by how many he was able to recall on the assessment, whether that is verbal, written, or otherwise.  Modern education loves this because it feels more objective.  It is not, but we will leave that for later.  Qualitative assessment seeks to determine how well learning has occurred.  If the previous student has been asked to teach a lesson on the bones of the body, qualitatively the assessor will indicate how clear, how complete, or how compelling the presentation was.  This requires a master of the lesson to comment on or coach the student in their progress toward becoming a better student of the subject at hand.  Again, much of what passes for assessment in most classrooms is a mixture of these two types.

Before going deeper, it may also help to state in rather short fashion what assessment is not.  Stating the antithesis can often make the thesis clearer.  Therefore, assessment should not be construed to be…

  • an objective measurement. This is one of the strongest fictions in education and will be dealt with in full later, but for now I will say that no assessment is totally objective.  All assessment is a master assessing a student through various means.
  • a singular method or instrument. Learning cannot be assessed by one means only.  It requires multiple forms of assessment.
  • a judgment upon the student. Assessments only show where a student is.  They can be compared to show progress or trends, but they can only demonstrate a moment in learning.  They cannot define a student, only communicate where they currently are.
  • (because of the previous statement) an indicator of ability, only a demonstration of where the student was during that assessment. One of the horrible things that happens with too much emphasis on assessment and grading is the stratification of learners into tight boxes of ability: these are the “A” students and these are the “struggling ones” etc.  More on this when we get to grading.

Before ending this first meditation, let me state that we must put cart and horse in order here.  Assessment is the overall term for assessing student learning.  Grades, which often are placed in the forefront, are simply an attempt to communicate between the parties involved (teacher, student, and parent) what has been seen in assessment.  If assessments are subjective, grades are even more so.  I think this places us before a lot of questions yet to be answered.  More on this soon.

Show Me Your Work

The concept of collecting a student’s work over a given year or school career has a long and successful history, but with the coming of the digital classroom, seems to be enjoying a revival of popularity.  Now more than ever it is easy to form a student portfolio of work.  But why?  Does building a portfolio for each student really have any demonstrable purpose for all the work involved?

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Defining the term:

According to a great white paper on eportfolios (electronically collected portfolios), Dr. Helen Barrett divides the practice into two categories: the Positivist and the Constructivist approaches (Barrett).  The first type are created for learning, while the second are as learning.  The Positivist approach is usually for some lengthy project (a research paper, for example) where the student gathers evidence of their work for a summative grade at the end of the project.  In the case of a research paper, the portfolio would include their notes, outline, and successive drafts.  The Constructivist approach is often a series of works that show formative assessment, with each entry showing progress toward overarching goals, like a series of ever increasing essays to show writing improvement.  The two can certainly be used in tandem, but generally these two categories cover the major reasons for having student portfolios.

I think good practice would be to have a single Positivist type eportfolio that shows work from all classes throughout a four year high school career.  Certainly Constructivist portfolios for major projects could be rolled into the Positivist one, but one portfolio to rule them all should the ultimate goal.

Arguments for their use:

What are the arguments making this kind of long term effort worthwhile?  Isn’t this just a form of “cya” in education where teachers kind of shrug their shoulders and say, “Here is the best they could do”?  No, there are several compelling arguments for positive portfolio pursuit.

Let’s start with the obvious.  The move in education toward digital work is almost complete.  What is needed these days is a way of storing all the work in such a way that it is organized, useful, and accessible.  Portfolios are a simple way to get this need addressed.  It is the parking garage for all a student’s digital work, maybe with some “public” and some kept private.

A second great reason for portfolio use is the “resume” argument.  Showcasing a student’s work in high school is becoming an ever increasing need for college entrance.  Requiring a student to form such a portfolio throughout high school greatly reduces the stress of forming one late in their high school career.

But the most compelling reason for me is a pedagogical one.  I have often stated that education is not about any one day or lesson, but the whole string of sausages.  It is a cumulative enterprise, in other less picturesque words.  A portfolio promotes lifelong learning in a student through causing them to contemplate their work.  In doing so, they determine a number of things including but limited to: what is their best work (and why), the incremental development of their learning skills, finding connections between assignments and projects stretched out over several years, and, of course, an appreciation for how far they have come over the course of the collection.

I could further argue the case with the assessment value of such a portfolio as it pertains to parents and teachers assessment of the student’s progress.  But the above student contemplation is more important perhaps than even this clear advantage.

Possible pitfalls:

But portfolio use is not a panecea.  There are any number of possible portfolio pitfalls.  First is the question of who decides its content?  I would argue for the student leading the decision with a set of criteria provided by the school.  As stated above in discussing the need for “storage” I think all digital work should be kept, but some should be shared publically (becoming the actual portfolio) and rest kept “in house” and out of access to all except those involved in the assignment.  This becomes a skill that is helpful to the student throughout life: learning to critique their work and select that which is their best effort for public display.

But this begs another question: that of privacy.  Shouldn’t a student’s work remain private: just between himself and his teacher?  I will grant the question but ask in return for the possible reasons for this to be so.  Is there something negative in the work that should be kept private?  Most of the time this argument is coming from a place of embarrassment or the like.  I would argue that both student and teacher enter into the class work with more vigor when the final result might be on display for all to see.  Policy to protect the privacy of students can easily be put in place, but again I think the question of why is important to consider rather than just assuming it.

Perhaps the issue whether to display the content with or without grading and instructive marking addresses the previous privacy issue.  In many cases the student just doesn’t want everyone to see how much “red ink” is on the paper, or what the final grade was.  I think it is quite appropriate for such to be left off, and with digital work this is very easy.  The grade book keeps the grade record; the portfolio shows the work.

Another possible pitfall is the manner of presentation.  If the portfolio is online (and some schools choose to use offline digital means: thumb drives, CDR’s, etc.), then the question of access must be addressed as the portfolio process is put in place.  Certainly all the portfolios should pull from the same sources, look roughly the same, and be consistent.  But making such fully public, or a shared private domain, are issues that need to be addressed as the means of making the portfolios are investigated and determined.  In the Resources section below there are loads of places both free and by subscription that can help address this issue.

But one pitfall stands above all others:  when a portfolio system is implemented but then not used and therefore becomes a huge waste of time.  If a school is going to do this well, teacher and student must buy in and be prepared to use the system across the curriculum and consistently.  Keeping things going all along the career of a high school student is way more beneficial and time conscious than when one tries late in the career to go back and build one.  I recommend beginning such a project with a given Freshman class and building it forward with that class each year, not trying to back log anything from the past.

Suggested Use/Process:

Anyone who knows me knows I use Evernote extensively.  I would therefore adhere to those who believe this product to be the easiest way to curate the portfolio.  A simple “portfolio” notebook within Evernote, shared with all concerned, would be rather simple.

If the school chooses to have some summative presentation for the portfolio, either at the end of each year, or end of Senior year, then the student would need to “clean up” the notes into something a little more flowing, but that would still be easy within Evernote, given its “Presentation” tool in Premium.  Of course a no cost solution would be to export the portfolio to some other presentation tool when that time comes.

There are online portfolio options, the best of which cost money, but this seems the simplest to me, and keeping it simple seems the best way for it actually get used.  (See resources below for more options).

The most practical thing to keep in mind is simplicity of use.  The more steps and the more work, the less likely for everyone to keep using it, teachers and students alike.

Great resources:

 

John Milton Gregory’s 7 Laws of Teaching

I was recently surprised to find that although I have mentioned these laws, I have never listed or blogged on them here.  These laws, stated in a book originally written to make sure Sunday School teachers knew the basics of teaching, are quite valuable in helping a teacher contemplate the basics of teaching.  Below is the outline I prepared for these laws some twelve or so years ago.  No updating necessary…

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The Seven Laws of Teaching

John Milton Gregory – 1884 – written for Sunday school teachers

  1. 1. The teacher must be one who knows the lesson or truth or art to be taught.
  • Guidelines:
    • We must know our subject well – prepare fresh every year.
    • While planning, ask yourself, “What am I teaching and why?”
    • Use several resources for teaching.
  • Violation:  Teachers who don’t study the material well enough.  You should know the material deeply enough that you never have enough time to teach everything you know about it.

 

  1. The Learner is one who attends with interest to the lesson.
  • Guidelines:
    • Never begin without the full attention of the class.
    • Adapt lesson time and style to the age of the students.
    • Prepare thought provoking questions.
    • Make your enthusiasm contagious.
  • Violation:  Teachers who start or continue to teach without the attention of the students or who exceed student interest.

 

  1. The language used as a medium between teacher and learner must be common to both.
  • Guidelines:
    • Study how your students are using what you have taught them when they use the language.
    • Require full and complete answers – not one word answers – written and verbally.
  • Violations – Using slang. Not insuring that they can rephrase the lesson in their own words.  Using clichés they don’t understand.

 

  1. The lesson to be mastered must be explicable in the terms of the truth already known by the learner; the unknown must be explained by the means of the known.
  • Guidelines:
    • Plan to compare to what they already know.
    • First, find out what they already know so that you know where to start.
    • Arrange your lesson in logical steps from known to unknown; simple to complex.
  • Violations – Asking for what you haven’t taught, pushing along too rapidly.

 

  1. Teaching is arousing and using the pupil’s mind to grasp the desired thought or to master the desired art.
  • Guidelines:
    • Tell the student nothing he could learn for himself. 
    • The students are the ones who do the work.
    • Your work is planning and guiding.
    • Keep asking yourself: “How can I make these kids understand?”
    • Realize that mental digestion is as individual as physical digestion.
  • Violations – forgetting that telling is not teaching, thought by the student is necessary.

 

  1. Learning is thinking into one’s own understanding a new idea or truth or working into habit a new art or skill.
  • Guidelines:
    • They can do all the work and it just goes by them.
    • Don’t let the test be the end-all, be-all.
    • Help them to have a clear idea of what is going to be done.
    • They should be able to tell you what they’re doing.
    • Don’t settle for incomplete thoughts-make them articulate.
  • Violations – the pupil has an imperfect mastery, the student merely believes what the book says without reasons or practical applications given.

 

  1. The test and proof of teaching done – the finishing and fastening process – must be a reviewing, rethinking, reproducing , and applying of the material that has been taught, the knowledge and ideals and arts that have been communicated.
  • Guidelines:
    • Completion, test and work of confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by application.  Not tests alone – find out what they know in other ways.
    • Show me, do it, give me a quote, tell me why this is important, make a timeline.
    • Reviews are always in order and are never a waste of time.  Make students apply what they do.  Begin and end the lesson in review.
  • Violations:  Not doing it because you think you don’t have time.

 

Thoughts on How Best to Read Literature with the Modern High School Student

The following are my own meditations on reading literature in our modern setting with high school students.  I have struggled with this idea for some time.  I find very few who truly love reading.  Some view it as a means toward the education they believe will lead to big paycheck.  Others view reading as an antiquated form of entertainment that has been long since been replaced by other more engaging screens and images.  So if my job is to engage students in a study of literature, it would seem I must convince them of its being worthwhile, then leading them toward a delight in and felicity with great literature.  This would include heightening their taste, training their abilities, and directing them toward self-motivated reading.

Why are we even doing this?  Literature is a part of the Humanities.  It is how we prepare young people to pursue the moral maturity that adult humans must have to be happy.  Fictional stories cultivate a moral imagination in young people.  Poetry brings them to feel sublime.  Truth is posited, Goodness exemplified, and Beauty is loved in the great works of literature.

So my first task is to present to their minds an apologetic for reading, and for reading great literature so as to develop a moral imagination.  Hence my first “lesson” must be the construction of the idea of a moral imagination, using mimetic teaching to birth this notion in their own hearts.  Vigen Guroian has written most helpfully on this subject in many places, including here.

I believe that the experience of a good literature class will do more than a single lecture to convince students of their need for a moral imagination, but that is where is should start.  Moving beyond simply saying they should pursue a moral imagination through great literature, the class should delight itself in that literature.  I currently teach two literature classes:  American and British.  Delighting in these things includes a good understanding of the context of these works, having some knowledge of the authors, but mostly would include the following key components:  having the time to delight (no break neck speed or firehose velocity here), allowing students to find what they like rather than telling them what to like, and open discussion that hears the students more than the teacher.

So how does one teach a student to read with delight?  I think there are three levels to this delight:  simple apprehension, connections, and reflections.  In simple apprehension, the student skims over the story looking for hints as to the characters, places, and such.  In short, finding the nouns.  It amuses me that for many literature classes, this is all that is expected, is converted to objective questions on a test, and every one claps their hands.  But that is only very surface enjoyment.  Going deeper, the student seeks to find the connections, how the plot is developed by the characters, places, “things” of the story.  Here he is in essence seeking the verbs.  What led to what?  What are the causes and effects?  But the best is kept for a final reading of the text, this time with the heart.  Given my knowledge of the text, having skimmed it over twice now, what passages move me?  What do I like about this text?  What is meaningful to me and why?

An easy way to teach this reading, and it can be done independently in this manner, is teach the student to mark the text in each reading with a differing color.  Having the student mark the important nouns in pink, the connecting verbs in green, and the really good stuff in blue allows them to return with the teacher to the text in class and discuss it well.  Yes this means they have to own the books, but this is a small price to pay for truly great reading and discussion.  If highlighter is not your thing, give them alternative ways to mark these three layers of reading.

This leads to a pedagogy something like the following for most texts (any form of text):

  1. Preparation – saying just enough about the text to gain the student’s interest, give them a context for the book, and guide their mind toward the one or two great ideas of the work. The key here is brevity with engagement.  Wow, I really want to read this book now.
  2. Direct Interaction with the text – whether alone or in the classroom, the student should read the text twice quickly and then a third time slowly, following the pursuits and markings mentioned above.
  3. Discussion – the great texts are above everyone’s head. This is why we read them.  Thus they are best when discussed with others.  Students have to be taught dialectic to do this well.  Some success can come from a teacher presenting them with key passages to be discussed, but often a simple “playing the blues” or discussion of those things they have highlighted in blue will suffice.  The key is to focus on the moral aspects of the story.  What was true, good, and beautiful?
  4. Fastening – I don’t like the term assessment in relation to good reading. Schooling demands feedback, but this is much more mentoring, discipleship, and apprenticeship than mastering a discreet set of information.  The content, skills, and understanding can be assessed, but one should always remember this is much more a start than an end.  The best form of assessing one’s interaction with great literature is writing.    While the essay or paper is certainly good and legit, more is gained by guided journaling.  Here is a great blog on that issue.

All this to say that great literature classes are an art form.  At the heart of it is the teacher’s own passion and enjoyment of great literature.  Beyond that, we are trying to see ice to Eskimos, but when we really passionately love the ice, it sells itself.

And if any of this needs more, I have written on these things before: here, here, and here are some that come readily to mind.

The Power of Holding Out an Ideal

At the moment my school’s faculty are discussing and shaping for ourselves to ideals.  We are gathering ideas to produce a portrait of an Ideal Graduate and defining what an Ideal Teacher at our school would be like.  These are powerful pursuits because they can lift every student and teacher to a higher plane of community and unity.

But not everyone in our day believes in ideals.  I often hear that ideals lead to idealism, meaning having a standard that is impractical makes those who pursue it impractical.  This is often argued in the area of assessment.  The argument goes something like, “If you place some arbitrary ideal in front of a student, one they can never reach, you are just going to frustrate them.”

I disagree.  Some of the argument is due to the shift from “teaching the father of the man” to a child centered pedagogy in modern theory.  I will blog more extensively on the old concept that makes truth, not the person, the center of education later.  But when education became more focused on how children feel in school than on what they are learning, we definitely stopped believing in ideals.

An ideal anything sets the normative basis for that thing.  The ideal basketball player (who cannot possibly exists) helps the coach set before his players not only a vision they can never attain, but it also reveals to the players and coach what portion less than that ideal is acceptable on the team.

In another way of approaching it, if there is no “100%” there can be nothing to measure a 90 or 80 or 70 against.  The truly great education calls a student to something beyond his reach.  It certainly has to help him rise up to that calling, but once he believes himself lifted up to a higher plateau, he realizes that from that vantage point, there is another, higher, goal calling him yet up and in.  I have solioquized often about how powerful I think David Hick’s Norms and Nobility is as a modern work on education.  Let me allow him to more fully develop this idea in ways that are beyond my skill.

“In his quest for the best education, the ancient schoolmaster possessed two advantages over the modern educator. First, he knew exactly what kind of a person he wished to produce…Second, he agreed in form upon an inquiry-based or knowledge-centered – as opposed to a child-centered – approach to education.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 39)

“The past instructs us that man has only understood himself and mastered himself in pursuit of a self-transcendent Ideal, a Golden Fleece, a Promised Land, a Holy Grail, a numinous windmill. He defines himself in the quest, not on Kalypso’s unblown isle, where he is only judged against himself, where all obstacles are removed, where the question of human significance seems insignificant, and where there are no moral restraints or binding ideals. On Kalypso’s idyllic estate, Odyssean man is a nobody. He languishes in egocentric frustration, self-doubt, and insecurity. In many ways, he is a portrait of the modern student, seated “on the vacant beach with a shattered heart, scanning the sea’s bare horizon with wet eyes.” Only Odysseus’ knowledge of the past- his longing for Ithaka, Penelope, and Telemakhos- keeps him alive; and only the responsibility he takes for that knowledge rescues him from Kalypso’s pointless life of pleasure.” (David Hicks, Norms and Nobility, p. 51)

Questionable Grades

Some questions about grading that come from a discussion I am having at my school:

Questions of Diversity (are all grades the same):

  1. Why do some teachers use percentages of right answers, others use letter grades, some use Pass/Fail, and still others some other measurement of grading?
  2. What are the differences in grading by individual, by group, or by independent standards?
  3. Should all students be graded in the same manner? In what cases, if any, would there be differences?

Questions of Gestation (by what means are grades brought into being):

  1. How do grades differ when gathered from test data, performance, participation, or simply put, from what students know versus what they do?
  2. How do the limitations of a teacher’s knowledge, experience, assessment forming skills, and opinions affect the assigning of grades to a specific assessment? In other words, can a grade be objective despite the subjective nature of a teacher and teaching?
  3. How does a teacher grade self-expression (art, poetry, music, etc.)?
  4. If grading by percentage of correct responses, should a teacher expect all students to arrive at the “right” answer in the same way, or allow for creativity and imagination, only grading the result and not the path to the answer? What would this imply for science and math grades?

Questions of Communication (what does a grade imply or speak to):

  1. What does a grade measure?
  2. What does a grade communicate to the student and parent?
  3. What should a grade tell a teacher?
  4. What should a grade tell a future institution of learning that receives a student’s grades?

Questions of Action (what should be done with grades):

  1. What should a student do with his grade?
  2. What is the importance of grading?
  3. How accurate is a grade in demonstrating mastery of a subject?
  4. Should a student who has, say, an 83% mastery of Algebra be allowed to pass into a Calculus course?