What is the purpose of grades? What is the purpose of assessment? You jump on the scale and after a couple of seconds you reluctantly open your eyes and say: the scale is wrong, I did not gain those extra pounds, it’s the scale! 'It is the teacher, she does not like me.' 'It was the test, it was too hard.' ' It was my friend, he gave me the wrong answer.' We are wired to view evaluation as a scary, daunting, accusatory judgment and we will find any excuse to get away from evaluation and hide our mistakes and deficiencies.
Time has come to view assessment as part of the learning process. It must be natural, organic, an ordinary event for us to ask and receive feedback. After all, assessment is merely feedback. From a teacher, from a computer, from a friend, from a parent. We are used to everyday feedback. When you ask the 'pro' to look at your swing on the golf course, or your shopping partner says leave that dress, the same one is on discount across the hallway, you are experiencing peer feedback. Everyday-life real, meaningful feedback. It is not that daunting if we look at it that way. How come we got to be so scared of academic assessment then?
We have unfortunately created a system of compliance and collecting points. You sit still 5 points. Finish the worksheet 10 points. Managed to be nice and ‘group work’ a poster 15 points. Landed in the wrong group and chatted your way through the lesson minus 10 points. Did not hand in the assignment on time 0 points. The more you comply the more points you get. Points make your teacher happy, your parents happy and your college admissions happy. Who you are, what you have done and all that ‘soft’ information will only be looked at after we look at your SAT, GPA and TOEFL scores, once you are placed on the ‘these have already been sifted pile’ because you managed to collect your points.
Then the genuine idea of standards based grading comes along, wonderful theory, great advocates but down at the trenches it translated into collecting less points, 1-5 or 1-7 instead of 1 to 100 but we continue to collect points, tokens of our compliance. The ultimate and most important premise is that, in order to learn, what's essential is timely, meaningful, accurate feedback. All systems, whatever the name we decide to give them, standards based, percentage based, happy rainbow based, will not matter once we understand that what is absolutely necessary is that students have access to timely, accurate, meaningful feedback.
Notice ‘students have access to’ versus ‘teachers provide’. We are not the Wizard of Oz or the Fairy Godmother, we do not have the answers to all questions and the perfect, most timely meaningful feedback at all times. However, we sure do have the capacities to facilitate the conditions in which each one of our students have access to such feedback. We can make it a habit and a systemic effort to request and provide feedback, and to embrace the idea that to grow we must confront our mistakes and chart a new course to overcome our deficiencies. If everyone is right the first time then we are not learning. We are either lucky or repeating something we already knew.
We learn when we are challenged, when our thoughts and ideas are disrupted, connected or augmented by new ideas, new concepts, new ways to perform skills, new understandings. In that process we might figure it out by ourselves (meta-cognition) or we might need the help from others (feedback). Assessment is simply put: part of the process, it is not punitive nor celebratory. We take it to extremes. You are a failure or you are in the honor roll. In fact, assessments are simply parts of the strokes of a big learning picture. The reward is to grow: to know now, something that I did not know yesterday, to be able to do something that I could not do before, to understand something and transfer that knowledge to an unknown situation. Learning needs adjustment, assessment, evaluation, rainbow based grading or flying unicorns feedback, whatever you want to call it, don’t kill the messenger, don’t blame the system, it is not the scale’s fault, allow your students to have access to timely, accurate, meaningful feedback and they will learn.