Beyond Letter Grades: Rethinking Assessments

Mark Guzdial recently wrote a series of blog posts on changes that can be made to reduce inequity in Computer Science Education. Many of his posts focused on assessment and this quote in particular struck me:

“What does an ‘A’ mean in your course? The answer likely depends on why you teach. Research on teacher beliefs suggests that grading practices are related to teachers’ reasons for teaching.”

Guzdial’s approach to this question is probably different from that of many K-12 teachers. In K-12, teaching is anchored by standards. Therefore, I would think that many teachers would say that an “A” in their course means that students have achieved mastery in a particular subject or concept. Terms like mastery and proficiency are often accompanied by descriptions to assist teachers in their assessment. For example, Next Generation Science Standards have evidence statements.

Many of the discussions around assessment, while I was teaching, were focused on assessment validity. Does the test actually assess what we think it does? Or, and maybe more importantly, does the test accurately reflect what a student has learned? If a third-grade student is reading on a kindergarten reading level then improves their reading comprehension to a second-grade level, would that student get an “A”? It’s a remarkable achievement, but the student is still below grade level. This student would probably struggle with the grade-level standards. If the student does not receive an “A,” is their grade a true reflection of their progress? This brings us back to where we started: What does an A mean? 

To help answer this question, I recommend giving the following book a read:

In the foreword, John Hattie writes the following: 

“Assessment is something we have done to students rather than with them.”

What if we, as teachers, didn’t try to answer the question of what an “A” is by ourselves, but instead included students in that discussion? I’ve written previously about how STEM is a pedagogy, and that pedagogy is student-centered. I don’t think many would find that to be a controversial statement. However, I think many would find making assessment student-centered to be controversial. As Dueck writes in the book, this does not mean throwing away standards. Instead, Dueck outlines in great detail how to deconstruct standards into clear, student-friendly, and collaborative learning targets. Additionally, student-centered assessments ask us to reconsider things like retesting. As Dueck writes:

“I find it hard to stomach hearing educators state, ‘I don’t offer retests’ when the research is so compelling that we all learn throughout the testing process.”

I never offered retests. I believed that learning and success are the individual students’ responsibility. However, I did reteach. If many students did poorly on a test, then I obviously didn’t do a good job teaching that concept. However, if a few students did poorly, that was on them. This gets to the heart of Guzdial’s argument about equity. In his blog Guzdial says:

“I’m proposing a more just system where the students with less computing background have a chance at the highest grades, where they’re taught in ways that meet their needs, and where their teachers believe that they can grow and improve.”

Dueck’s book gives many examples of how to create a structure where student-centered assessment helps all students. One of my favorite recommendations focuses on teaching students in ways that meet their needs by ensuring that both teachers and students have a clear understanding of the unit of study’s goal. That way everyone is on the same page for what success looks like.

Example Challenge Course for Ocean Emergency VEX GO STEM Lab

A student-centered assessment provides students with a voice and choices in their learning. Dueck cites many examples of research that shows that student-centered evaluations can help to motivate and engage students. This happens because students view themselves as more confident and competent learners. Anyone who has been to a VEX Robotics Competition has seen this first hand. Students cannot wait to tell you about their robot – because it is theirs. Their design, ideas, work, and collaboration are among the best examples of students expressing their voice and choices and the resulting motivation. Not even a pandemic or a snowstorm can slow students down! Just take a look at what Doug Scott’s students are doing – a sharp contrast to the apathy we sadly see in so many classrooms.

Students from Hopkinton High School

It is difficult to provide a blanket answer to the question, “What does an “A” mean in your course?” But what if we, as educators could provide engaging and meaningful learning experiences to all students regardless of background knowledge or experience by focusing on the process over the results, by making assessment a collaborative endeavor between teachers and students, and by providing ownership to students? We all yearn for a return to our schools to “normal” post-covid, but what if we could return and do something better?

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