There are certain writers who elicit a “YES! Where have you been all my life?” kind of reaction with me. Daniel Pink did that to me with Drive. Much longer ago, Howard Gardner did it to with his Multiple Intelligences theory. Most recently Alfie Kohn did it to me with an article that I was reading in Educational Leadership magazine entitled, “The Case Against Grades.”
Now, I’d make an incredibly poor scientist. I am, frankly, lazy with data collection. I’m not saying that I don’t gather information, it’s just that I don’t go about it in a terribly methodical way and I don’t usually record it very well. I am an observer and I do think about what I observe and sometimes, someone comes along that articulates a hunch that I have had in a way that resonates deeply with me. “Collecting information doesn’t require tests, and sharing that information doesn’t require grades” was one such statement.
Maybe it’s because I’d had a conversation a few weeks ago that has been bugging me. It was a discussion about assessment but the terms assessment and evaluation were being used interchangeably. I thought that this was odd, questioned the use of the terms and have since paid careful attention when researching to the use of these two terms. It seems that there are many who equate the two.
In my mind evaluation is a form of assessment, but assessment does not necessarily include evaluation. Evaluation involves attaching a value, usually a mark, to that which you are assessing. Assessment is simply the act of determining where along a continuum something or someone is. If a young musician can play a certain scale at a certain speed and she needs to be able to play it at another, faster speed, then we can assess her progress up to this point. She is neither a good or bad musician. She is not at 80%, she simply is playing at one tempo. She may be playing that scale evenly and with great control. Another musician may be playing the same scale faster, but not as evenly and controlled. Who is to say that one musician is “better” than the other? Does assigning a grade to either make the discussion of their progress more or less meaningful? In fact, telling the slower musician that she is a “B” musician could be quite harmful.
Kohn advocates the complete abolition of grades in education. He sees them as quite harmful and adding nothing to the assessment of students. He does, however, recognize that the current system often demands grades. The solution is to change the system, but this system will not change overnight. So, what do we do in the meantime? Maybe we start be emphasizing grades. We return work with comments but no value laden mark. Maybe marks occur only at benchmark times in the term or year. Maybe students participate in the assigning of marks to their term’s or year’s work. There are many ways to de-emphasize the grade given and many are suggested by Kohn in his article. My experience tells me that the students’ best work is done before a value judgement is placed on their abilities and they begin to fear failure.
The argument is often made that we’d like to eliminate grades but the universities demand them of us. And, when the students get to university, everything is about grades so we need to train them for that environment. Kohn argues both points by pointing to university prep schools who have done away with grades successfully and to universities who are just as anxious to de-emphasize them as we are. Someone needs to take the first step.
The big idea that I get out of this whole discussion is that at the end of the day, our job as teachers is to help students do their best learning. To do that, we need feedback on their progress. This is called assessment. Assessment can be in the form of observation, conversation, constructivist demonstrations of their knowledge through any number of means or, sometimes, tests. As part of the process, we as educators may find it useful to analyze the results of our assessments, compare and contrast students and plot their progress against a benchmark, but this is only as a means to planning our next step in the students’ learning. Somewhere in our quest for efficiency, we started putting numbers to this assessment and then the numbers began to control the assessment. This is the classic “tail wagging the dog.” We need to take a step back, look at assessment for what it is, and devalue the value judgements we put on our students and their efforts in order that they can strive to do their best work.