Thursday, July 1, 2010

taking the judgment out of assessment

When I first heard the term "standards-based grading," I cringed.  I mistook standards for standardized and common for a hierarchical, admin-imposed practing we would have to use.  My paradigm had already shifted away from traditional grading, because it seemed to be an artificial construct designed from a behaviorist perspective.  If learning was about mastering a cognitive process, how could we justify a random number based upon an arbitrary point scale?

I feared that this was yet another traditionalist approach to assessment where the unquantifiable would be quantified and I'd be judged.  Or worse yet, my students would be judged.  I imagined the Judge Judy styled conversations with curriculum specialists who would yell at us if our benchmark scores were too low.

*     *     *

Instead, what I found was that standard-based grading could be more authentic.  Instead of having to explain to someone why I encourage students to retake an assessment, I was able to explain that mastery of a standard was the new paradigm and that the ultimate goal was mastery by the year's end.

Instead of seeming like a push-over when I wanted authentic assessments, I was able to point out that the we can have a common standard and used differentiated instruction and differentiated assessment models. Standards-based didn't have to mean standardized. (I see this as one of the biggest misconceptions about standards-based assessment. It doesn't have to be multiple choice.)

Rather than arguing about whether an incomplete should receive an F, we were engaging in dialog based upon questions like, "What is the purpose of assessment?  Who benefits from it? How do we assess in a way that informs rather than judges?"

*     *     *

What happened was a larger shift from judging to informing. Through honest, sometimes painful conversations, our school began to shift from a judgmental assessment environment to an informative one.  We finally used assessment to inform instruction and help us understand our students at a deeper level.

On the teacher level, when we had common assessments, it meant we could analyze data collectively and help plan intervention.  When we had the freedom to exchange ideas on a shared platform.  Rather than competing or judging, we helped one another out.  We shared strategies.

On a student level, standards-based grading let them know exactly what they needed and how they were doing.  It wasn't about work completion.  It wasn't about a behavior.  It was about learning and when the goal shifted toward mastery, students felt at ease.  The assessment environment became safer.  So, if a child fell behind on a standard, he or she knew that there was an entire quarter to move up.

On the parent level, standards-based grading took away the guesswork and the judgment as well.  We could say honestly to a parent, "He's struggling in using context clues, but he's doing great on thinking critically about the text."  When spoken as a method of informing, it took the judgment piece out of the picture.

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Ultimately, standards-based assessments meant that I could enjoy assessing student work.  It meant that I could be honest without being judgmental.  It meant that I had a chance, on a relational level, to know my students deeper and help plan further instruction.

I still take issue with elements of standards-based grading.  I would like teachers to be a larger part of the conversation on developing standards.  I would love to see more local control and more student input in developing standards.  I still take issue with certain elements of trying to quantify what cannot be quantified.  Yet, I see standards-based grading as a step toward authenticity.  I see it as a way to work within the system to change it toward something less judgmental.


  1. I hope you're right, that standards based assessment will continue to lead to a warmer classroom.

    My problem here is we're (gradually) moving to a standards based system through Understanding By Design yet my students will need to pass the state end of course exam to graduate, an exam not yet sophisticated enough to measure whether children "get" biology.

    New Jersey just adopted the Common Core State Standards (despite being released just a month ago). Take a hard look at them.

    Let me (us) know what you think....

  2. And all the science I don't understand. It's just my job five days a week.

    Yes, I just quoted "Rocket Man." I should be shot for that.