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Principal’s Panui – 24 May 2019

Assessment- How much is enough and how many credits are necessary?
Traditional grading has a number of shortcomings and a reliance on mathematical precision can, unfortunately, lead students – and parents – to fixate on the outcomes rather than on the learning. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT is reforming their grading policies, moving toward providing rich feedback, but no letter grades, to first-year students. I believe if schools rely too heavily on grades and extrinsic motivators they risk undermining an individual students’ intrinsic motivation and therefore the ultimate goal of producing self-directed, independent learners.

The recent NCEA review has captured the fact that in modern day schools there is a propensity to over-assess and make the credits the number one goal rather than the depth of learning or experience being the focus. I will be the last one to tell you that grades aren’t important but if that is the sole motivation we have missed the point of education.

Grades that are FAST Fair, Accurate, Specific, and Timely are what is important.

Fair: Fairness involves communicating current achievement to everyone who has the need and right to know – especially students – and giving all students equal opportunity to learn and show what they know, understand, and can do. This means, for example, that the time available on tests and exams must be flexible, not fixed and that students should almost always have a variety of ways to demonstrate their knowledge, understanding, and skills.

Accurate: A key element is separating students’ grades on academic achievement from judgments on non-academic behaviours. The frequency of assessment is also important: teachers need to find the Goldilocks amount of testing, sampling enough to get a good sense of how students are doing, giving them multiple opportunities to show their stuff but not burdening them with too many assessments (especially those of low quality).

Specific: This means basing grades on standards and learning goals (not assessment methods) and clear descriptions of a limited number of levels (not just points and percentages). The best scenario is lots of specific error-correction and praise along the way, like the kind given by good music teachers and athletic coaches, and then a fair summation of progress and attainment at the end. A growing willingness to assess proficiencies developed over a student’s years in high school.

Timely This is a key pathway as the more promptly assessment results are communicated, the sooner teachers and students can work together do something about learning challenges. Grades that are eleventh-hour predictions of failure don’t help anyone.

The big question is whether the teacher is measuring what matters. If we have too many assessments, checklists, and assignments than time for students to complete to a high level of learning and understanding then I believe, it may be best to reduce the number of assessments in order to increase the quality.

We may never agree on a specific grading procedure, but I am hopeful we can agree on values, such as the desire to build personal responsibility and preparedness for the world beyond school.

Acknowledgment: “Gearing Up for FAST Grading and Reporting”
by Ken O’Connor, Lee Ann Jung, and Douglas Reeves in Phi Delta Kappan, May 2018

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