Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Road Less Traveled - Standards-based Grading in Secondary Schools

On April 20, 2006, I heard Tom Guskey speak at a conference in St. Louis. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be a turning point in my career. As I think back on it now, I’m reminded of the poem by Robert Frost that says,

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

At that time, I was struggling with supporting, and even defending, current practices in relation to assessment and grading. Some extreme examples included late work that wasn’t accepted in one instance if the work wasn’t turned in within the first five minutes of a class period. This of course resulted in a death penalty (aka a 0) grade. Or, one of my favorites, awarding extra credit for students if they brought in boxes of tissues.  Talk about seriously diluting a student’s grade with non-academic criteria!

I’m proud to say that we have come a long way in the last six years. We began studying Dr. Guskey’s journal articles and books in small groups of interested teachers. Rethinking some of these practices was hard. Perhaps the hardest in the beginning was changing the way we honor graduates. What? No more valedictorian? Dr. Guskey taught us that “valedictorian” has nothing to do with academic achievement, but instead means “to say farewell.” So, we said “farewell” to the idea that we were capable of separating one student from another by as little as a tenth of a decimal point. (or even less in some cases) We now honor multiple students who meet specific criteria.  It’s probably familiar from your college days - Cum laude (with honor), Magna cum laude (with great honor), and Summa cum laude (with highest honor).

We also participate in a grading and assessment consortium of other area schools with the leadership and research of Bob Marzano. Bea McGarvey and Deb Pickering led us down the path of action research with experimenting in various aspects of improving grading practice. We started small through separating out academic and non-academic factors, helping students track their own progress on specific learning goals, and even experimenting with a whole new grading scale. Yes, we did all of this at a high school, where grades are the most sacred of all traditions.

Although we have not fully implemented standards-based grading in the entire school, I believe we have reached a tipping point. Asking teachers to change from using a traditional system (100 point scale) that was designed during World War I to sort and rank military recruits might seem daunting. But, if I ask them about choosing a doctor who is using practices from the World War I era versus one who is on the cutting edge of research and new practices, it seems amazingly clear. It’s a harsh reminder that we already know what is needed to improve the education for our kids. The question is, will we do it?

If you’re interested in taking the road less traveled, I’d love to be a part of your professional learning network. Follow me @MulveyBeth on Twitter.

1 comment:

  1. Great thinking! I, too, am one of those educators who has recently been "rethinking" my traditional views on grading and assessment. It is a difficult transition, but so important. Assessments should truly reflect educational capabilities and learning of students. As a parent of a 15 year old myself, I especially applaud the idea of recognizing at graduation that group of students who excel rather than encouraging cut-throat competition for one top spot of valedictorian.
    I look forward to more interesting commentaries from you, my friend.