I have been trying to create more meaningful assessment for the past 5 years. Not a small feat if you would, especially now when I am teaching more than 120 students. Yet, a few things I have realized over the years may help others as they try to move away from grades as an end point, and instead move into better assessment and feedback, where students actually feel like they are in charge of their own learning journey.
Let me preface that this move from giving grades to giving feedback has not always been easy. I find it is much easier to simply assign a grade to something, yet it has definitely been worth it. By the end of the year my students are much better at evaluating, reflecting, and goal setting than they are when we start. And that is worth it all in itself. So a few things that I had to realize to make this shift was…
I am not the only one assessing. Students self-assess on almost every assignment once we get started. This is important, because they should not always be looking to me for how they did. They need to know themselves well enough to reflect on their own performance.
It is an ongoing conversation. We take the time to deconstruct the standards and rewrite them in student language. We take the time to go through what an assignment is actually asking them to do. We take the time to plan together so students can get ownership over what they are doing. Assessment is not something that only happens once in a while so it should not just be discussed once in a while.
I cannot assume. Too often we assume as teachers that we know what a child is doing or thinking. It is not accurate most of the time. So instead, I ask a child what they meant, I ask them to explain it to me as if I was not in the room. I ask them to make sure that I can understand their thinking at all times. We seem to focus too much on brevity, I would rather have a child be able to explain the full extent of their thinking than assume I know what they mean.
They need to produce more than I can assess. Our job is not to assess every single thing that a child produces, but instead to assess the pieces they feel are worth others looking at. Asking students to evaluate their work and only submit the one piece from a unit that they feel will show off their knowledge the best? That is an assessment in itself.
They need to assess each other, but not until they trust each other. We love using students as peer editors, as peer reviewers, and even as peer assessors. However this can be incredibly hard for students who do not trust one another. So wait. Let them build community first. Let them choose the people who will see their work. Do not force them into vulnerability, it is not worth it in the end.
Assessment needs to happen in class. They need to take ownership of the whole process, not just the end result, so that means that we are constantly evaluating our work, we are constantly engaged with our work, and we are doing it in class, not at home, not with parents. But here, now, this day, so that the conversations can happen as a group, as a partnership and as a self-reflection. And so the conversation can mean something and not just be homework or something else to get through.
Finally, assessment is a point in the journey, not the end of the journey. And students don’t often understand that. We have to have these conversations with them in order to change their mindset. If students think that grades are something being done to them, that grades are out of their control and do not happen until the end when it is too late to do anything about it, then we are missing the whole point of assessment. Assessment is for bettering yourself, for deepening your understanding, for helping you set goals. Not for completing something so you can cross it off the to-do list. Once again, I am reminded of the saying; We do not teach standards, we teach kids. And that is painfully apparent in the way we use assessment, feedback, and grades in our classrooms.
PS: For the how-to for eliminating or limiting grades, please consider reading my book Passionate Learners. There is a whole chapter dedicated to not just the why, but the actual how.