|By: Pamela MacIsaac, Ph.D|
Voice Intermediate School
Teachers and administrators argue about it; education researchers and specialists study it; students worry about it; parents don't always get it. Assessment and evaluation is, without a doubt, one of the most contentious aspects of teaching.
(Just for the sake of definition and shared terminology: in the education world, "assessment" refers to the ongoing feedback we give a student as s/he works through the stages of learning and producing. "Evaluation" is grading, the finalized mark that results at the end.)
Here's one argument that I remember in vivid detail: years ago, another teacher (who does not teach at VIS, I should point out) was lamenting her inability to give a student an A- because that student only received 79.5% in her course, which is, technically only a B+ in the arbitrary system of symbolic value that we adhere to in most educational institutions in North America. This student, she told me, really deserved an A-, was really A- not B+ material, and she wanted so much to give this student her due.
My response was, first, mathematical: "Just round it up, for heaven's sake. When you have .5, you round up to the next nearest whole number anyway." "I can't do that." she said, with a shocked expression.
I was bemused. "Why the heck not? If the student deserves an A-, s/he deserves an A-? What's the problem?"
"But she didn't get an A-. She got a B+!"
This conversation is one of many frustrating interactions I've had, as a teacher and a parent, about the supposed immutability of grading, the tendency to view marks as somehow quantitively determined by factors that are outside the control of the teacher.
If there's one thing I've learned in my overly long career as a student and then a teacher, it's that grades are highly subject to a wide range of variables. Sometimes it's as simple as a poor night's sleep before a test, a bad mood following an argument with a friend, personal problems, temporary confusion. A student (or the person marking!) is subject to human frailties, as are we all.
Good teachers know this. One of my most vivid memories from university is a meeting I had with one of my third-year history professors during which he produced my mid-term exam - which I had failed, miserably. I think I received 33%. Actually, I know I received 33% because the number is engraved on my brain. At that point, I had already decided I wanted to do graduate work in history and was used to achieving A and A+ grades. An "F" on a mid-term was unthinkable to me. I could feel the tears welling up as I tried, frantically, to figure out what had gone so wrong. Turns out I had mixed up the 7 Years War with the Hundred Years War. The essay I had written was excellent, apparently - it just happened to be on another topic than the one referred to in the question. Instead of suggesting that this was my own fault (which it, in fact, was) and that I would just have to live with the C or D on my report for that term, this professor told me, privately, that he knew this wasn't indicative of my work overall or my understanding of history and he wasn't going to count it in my grade for the term. Instead, he tossed the whole exam in the basket and told me "this never happened." My grade in his course ended up being an "A" despite my monumental flub.
I never forgot that. And I always told myself that, when I was in a position to deal with students with compassion, reason, and high standards and expectations, I would take him as my model.
Here's the thing: it's important to let kids fail sometimes. They need to mess up and see that if they don't engage with the material, bring their best selves to it, and work hard, they won't do well on assignments, activities, tests, and exams. They need to see a direct connection between their effort and capacities and the marks that they achieve. On the other hand, the brightest, most committed kids can have an off-day or a moment of confusion, which doesn't reflect their overall performance or capacity. While good teachers usually give good assessments and evaluations, really good teachers give really good assessments and evaluations because they know how easy it is for the process to become flawed.
Assessment and evaluation is an inexact science, whether we're grading in math or English or history. The best teachers know this as well as they know their students. As a result, they're willing to take into account a range of factors that can affect grades - and then adjust those grades accordingly. The best teachers develop systems to deal with the potential impact of personal variables on their end - a negative interaction with a student, personal problems, fatigue, stress, etc. - or on the student's end. One teacher I know (who does teach at VIS) goes through her student list and assigns each student a grade, just in general, sizing up each student's overall performance and effort throughout the term qualitatively. Then she goes back and does her calculations, doing a quantitive comparison. She says that almost 100% of the time, the grade is the same; however, when it isn't, she stops to consider why and usually makes an adjustment to bring the two grades closer together.
There are a number of other things teachers can do to avoid the worst mistakes of all-too-human assessment and evaluation. The most important thing is to be aware of our own biases. We humans love to have our prejudices confirmed and to revel in the "knowingness" of categorizing and pigeon-holing others. Fairness and equity require consciousness of these potential prejudices. A brilliant student with an aggravating manner or discipline issue is still a brilliant student, and his or her academic grades have to reflect that. On the other end of the scale, an equitable and fair teacher is always open to the possibility of abilities surfacing in a student who otherwise struggles with the curriculum.
On a very basic level, one of the best things a teacher can do to build flexibility, sense, and compassion into grading is to have as many grades as possible by report card time. When my own daughter moved on to her (very good) high school, I was surprised by how few grades were used to calculate her final report card marks. A handful of tests, a couple of essays and an assignment. Where we might have 8 or 10 grades , at least, to factor in, I suspected that her teachers were using only 5 or maybe 6. As a result, one of those "off-days", resulting in an "off-grade" had a gigantic impact on her final report card. There was no room, ever, to slip up. While one could argue that this keeps a student on his or her toes, the more likely result is a sense of inevitability of failure when the opportunity to redeem oneself isn't presented. Luckily, my daughter's response has been to rise to the challenge and work harder and harder each year to do well in her IB program, but it could, just as easily, have gone the other way.
And, on a systems level, it's impossible to know, for sure, what her "A" in English or math or science means, because one teacher may use 10 assignments and tests to calculate the grade and another may use 4. One teacher may take the time to get to know his students and consider their personal backgrounds and strengths/challenges in his assessment and grading; another may consider this none of her business, and may consider grading anonymously to be the epitome of fairness. The end result is that, unless we know the teachers and the system and how things are done in that school, the results are opaque to us, especially given the paucity of comments on many report cards that might, otherwise, explain how this number was arrived at.
What it comes down to, really, is the negative impact of the myth of standardization. In the past 20 or so years in education, standardization has become the watchword of bureaucracies determined to hold educators "to account". Tests such as the EQAO, the Ontario Curriculum, the No Kid Left Behind Act in the United States have fostered a mistaken belief that somehow, if we could just get all the teachers in the world on board with this, assessment and evaluation would become an entirely level, transparent process. But, because it's such an inexact science and subject to so many variables, true standardization of assessment and evaluation would require massive intrusion into the daily working lives of teachers and students: legislation and monitoring of the number, type, and evaluation of assignments and tests, uniform approaches to curriculum expectations, and frequent, state-run standardized subject testing, beyond the scope of the EQAO.
In my world, education is creative, innovative, exciting, flexible, spontaneous, and gloriously, beautifully human. The teachers I know and respect, in public and private schools, hold themselves to a very high standard of fairness and equity without submitting themselves to the indignities and creativity-destroying elements of standardization. The fairness of their assessment and evaluation comes, as a result, from their own awareness of their subjectivity and willingness to set up systems that confront that subjectivity and allow the variables underlying student performance to be incorporated into grading, with high standards, rigour, and compassion.