I’ve been holding off on this one until I was sure I had said everything else I could think of about assessment. I’m at that point now. This is my last word on the subject. And it’s a long one.
I’ve been thinking a lot about why this no-zero thing is getting the huge media play it is right now in Alberta. It’s a story that won’t quit. 97% of the respondents to an Edmonton Journal poll are outraged and demand that we give 0’s to high school children. Stuart Thomson of the Edmonton Journal takes a stab at explaining the momentum behind the outrage in this fascinating piece. His take is that people are outraged whenever they perceive that someone else is getting away with something.
So what do we perceive that students are getting away with if we don’t assign zeros? Most of the general public (and a lot of teachers and students) believe, whether they even realize it or not, that the purpose of high school is to rank and sort students. Public perception is that we are inflating the grades of kids, which is unfair to the kids who get it all done on time. The public doesn’t seem concerned at all that a zero might artificially lower the grade of a student, but I’ve covered that topic to death in previous posts.
The public wants to make sure that the best and brightest become doctors and engineers, and they are right in this sentiment. But in their haste to condemn the student who is “gaming the system” by handing things in late or learning material later, the public is missing the point that we may be artificially lowering the grades of some of the best and brightest. I really don’t need the surgeon who got it right the first time. I certainly do want the one who got it right the last ten times, regardless of what happened the first time.
We have allowed the system of grading in Alberta to become a competitive one in which we reward and punish students with grades. At the same time, we have 100 possible grades we can assign to high school students, and the grade we assign has come to be too important and come to mean much more than it should. This entire province seems completely obsessed with ranking and sorting kids when the goal of education should really be to educate kids.
The understanding that they are being ranked is more evident in our top students, who are competing for scholarships and University entrance than it is in our struggling students. Most parents and the general public would probably agree that giving a failing student a second chance to improve his grade is probably a good thing.
Let’s look at how much these grades mean. The Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta has a minimum entrance requirement of 70%. But the quota is limited to 590 spots. Admission is based entirely on the high school grade, so in most years the minimum entrance requirement for Engineering is well over 80%. Let’s assume that next year that cut-off falls at 85%. A student with 86% gets in. A student with 84% does not. They’re only 2% apart on a 100 point scale. How different are those two kids in terms of their knowledge? That extra 2% is huge.
The marks that these students get in their high school classes are high-stakes for all involved (teachers and students). But here’s the problem. High school grades are imprecise, despite the perception that a 100 point scale means accuracy. An 85% in my class is not the same as an 85% in another teacher’s class. An 85% in my school is not the same as an 85% in another school. Despite that inconsistency, we attach incredible significance to these grades.
Again, we have allowed our grades to become high-stakes measures despite their imprecision. We don’t have a choice but to report percentages. Alberta Education, in their Guide to Education (P. 41) states clearly that high school marks “are to be submitted to Alberta Eduction in percentages.”
We (teachers, students, and the public) know that these grades are high-stakes, so we fall into ranking and sorting children. Just about every single poor assessment practice I see in schools can be traced back to this one issue. Here’s how each of the various groups demonstrates their belief that sorting and ranking students is important.
Our top students are motivated by their grade. Their first concern is the mark they receive, when it really should be about the learning. They show us this motivation when they ask, “Will this be on the test?” or “Is this for marks?” When they get their assessments back, they look only at the mark. If it’s not to their satisfaction, they ask for a re-write even before they have looked at what they did wrong.
When parents ask me, “What’s the class average?”, what they are really asking is, “Is my kid better than most of the class?” Once, when I explained my assessment policy to parents on parent night, a concerned parent stayed after to talk. She was concerned about my belief that sometimes kids need second chances. Her daughter got near-perfect grades on every assessment I gave. Her daughter got these near-perfect grades the first time around. This parent didn’t come right out and say it, but her real concern was that by giving other kids second chances, I was closing the gap between her daughter and the rest of the class. Why would what happens to other kids concern her? Because in a competitive grading system, it matters. What if a child who got a second chance ended up beating her daughter for a scholarship?
Parents also seem to think I should be harder on late work. If their child hands something in on time, and I give another child an extension, the perception is that I have been unfair to the child who handed it in on time. The reality is that it had no effect on the child who handed it in on time. This belief seems to suggest that I should give higher marks to an absolutely terrible product that was handed in on time than I should to an absolutely brilliant one that came in a day late. What would be fair, here, is that I make it clear to all my students that if they occasionally need an extension, I will grant it. I want to see each child’s best work.
As high school teachers, we know that the grade is high-stakes. This pressure makes us want to be as accurate as possible. I used to think that this meant I had to grade everything. I used to have 50 or 60 marks in my grade book by the end of an 80 day course, and I relied too heavily on the mean. I thought that if I had a lot of marks in my grade book, and the grade book spit out 84%, then I could stand firmly behind that 84% (and the resulting inability of that child to enter Engineering).
Because it’s so high-stakes, high school teachers are terrified to use professional judgement. We need the evidence, not some kind of touchy-feely observational data.
We also fall into the trap of placing more value on the first kid to learn it. A kid who learns it later on will have a lower mark. A kid who doesn’t do it will get a zero. It’s another tool that we use to stand behind our imprecise grades because we know, at the heart of it, we must rank and sort children.
I could go on and on outlining questionable assessment practices that are a result of ranking and sorting students. I’m not judging. I fully admit that I have done everything I mention above. It’s not the teacher’s fault. It’s because our system is broken.
It kills me that we have reduced schools to giant sorting machines. Kids come to us in grade 10, and by the end of grade 12 we send them out into the world with a number stamped on them. Where’s the passion for learning? Where’s the enthusiasm for problem solving? Where’s the desire to foster deep thinking? The entire system is way too focused on the grade.
Two things will eradicate this problem.
- We need to move to letter grades in our high schools. Kids can earn only A, B, C, D, or INC.
- We need Alberta Education to fully fund each of those grades, as long as the kid was actually at the school. Quit paying schools only when kids get 25%. We work hard for all our kids.
Letter grades like the ones I have above would represent some kind of standard which we would need to clearly define for teachers. I’m available for consultation if anyone in the ministry would like my opinion on it. I’ll do it for free. Some beginnings of suggested standards are outlined below.
A = Honors (or excellence)
I assume the Faculty of Engineering would select their students from the pool of A applicants. I’ll give my 84% student and my 86% student both A’s. How the University decides which of the A applicants they want to admit would be entirely up to them. I don’t know what makes a good engineering student. The University should. Maybe they use an entrance exam. Perhaps they ask teachers to fill out a form indicating how hard the student works. Maybe the ask the kids to build a bridge out of toothpicks. I have no idea, other than it shouldn’t be my job to sort and rank kids for them. I should teach my kids. My kids should learn. Let somebody else sort them.
I can be far more confident that an A in my class is equivalent to an A in another teacher’s class than I am that our 85%’s mean the same thing. An A in my school would probably mean the same thing as an A in another school. It’s a fairer way of assessing and it takes much of the sorting and ranking out of the equation.
B = Proficient
These are the kids who were doing pretty well, but couldn’t quite make the A standard. I hope a B in math would get students into programs that didn’t require math. I hope B wouldn’t close too many doors.
C = Adequate
This grade represents the minimum pass. These students have demonstrated that they meet our most basic requirements.
D = Fail
Do we really need to call it F? We can if we want. It means the same thing.
Right now we have 49 possible failing grades we assign to kids. That’s ridiculous. Does it really matter to a kid if he fails with 45% or 25%? I suspect it feels pretty crappy either way. To earn a D, the student would have to have completed our essential assessments, and demonstrated the inability to meet the curricular outcomes.
INC = Incomplete
This grade indicates that the student didn’t complete the course requirements. It indicates that we didn’t get enough out of the student to properly assess him. He might be able to meet the curricular outcomes, but we just don’t know. He will have to repeat the course. INC would need to be fully funded by Alberta Education so that we could use this indicator.
I suspect many people will point out that the D and the INC have the same outcome. They are right. In both cases, the student will have to repeat the course. I just really want to distinguish between the reasons the student is repeating the course.