A brave new plan . . .

I work in a district that established a committee to come up with a new grading policy this year after the Texas legislature passed a new law that drove us to take another look at how we come up with the grades our students receive. This committee, comprised of educators, administrators, and I don’t know who else, worked over this past year to draft a new policy. They started their work with research and the entire time the policy was being drafted, it was (hopefully) being founded on evidence that it would work toward the end result of students mastering the content in their classes.

I’ll talk about the new grading policy in a bit, but first, I’m going to reminisce a little bit. I was one of those kids all through school who didn’t have to study and I’d get A’s and B’s in all my classes. This caused frustration in teachers, my friends, and my parents. Teachers because they knew I hadn’t studied or prepared in any way and was an example to other students of the fact that we don’t all have to study or do the homework they assigned. Friends because some of them had to study to get by. My best friend in high school spent hours every night studying so that she could get good grades and score well on her SAT. She knew that I did nothing to “deserve” the A’s I got and it irritated her. Parents because they had no incentive to dangle before me to get me to do homework each night.

When I was in college, I didn’t even bother to purchase a textbook until my senior year. Even then, I never opened the ones I bought – I had never learned how to use one. I literally had no idea how to study, which is why I received a C in microbio and cancer bio that year. It was the best I could do off the top of my head . . .

Back to the grading policy – kids who are like I was will love it. Kids like my best friend will hate it. Kids who can’t even do well on tests after studying will really hate it.

The new grading policy differentiates between formative and summative assessment. For those who might be reading this who are not educators, formative assessments are things like worksheets, activities, quizzes, and the like, which are meant to be practice in an effort to acquire content. Summative assessments are those things which assess a student’s mastery of the content. Traditional teachers will think of summative assessments as tests. 21st century teachers will include projects, verbal/observational assessments, and presentations as summative assessments.

In our district next year, only summative grades will be calculated into the grade students will receive for their classes. Formative assessments can be graded and entered into the gradebook, as long as they are in a category that has no weight. In other words, students, parents, and teachers will be able to predict from formative assessments how well the student might do on summative assessments, but they will not affect their actual grade.

What this means for teachers and students is a new way of thinking. I think it will be tough for everyone this first year, after having spent years of thinking that formative assessments should be able to pull a student out of a failing grade.

Opponents to the plan say that students won’t have any incentive to complete formative assessments. I think the fact that their success on summative assessments is tied to how much they work on formative assessments is an incentive. For students who have relied on the formative assessments that they may or may not have cheated on to bring their grades up, the incentive to cheat while practicing is no longer there. I can continue to allow my students to do group work and my students no longer find a reason to simply copy one student’s work. Since it isn’t for a grade, there is no gain, and since their success on what is for a grade depends on how well they know the content, they will (hopefully) be a more active participant in that group.

Additionally, teachers might be forced to take another look at what they are using for formative assessments. Students will do things they find relevant and engaging. Maybe those worksheets just won’t be the answer anymore . . .

All of this said, I do worry about how well our teachers will be trained in this new way of thinking. Trying to completely change the way we have thought in the past will be daunting enough. If we go into it thinking that we have to give a lot more tests, we will have failed the new policy.

I’m very proud of the district to take this leap. The more I think about it, I’m excited for what it ultimately will mean to our students (higher content mastery), although I’m also a little frightened for them because of the dip in performance they are likely to experience at first.

I spent my first year teaching giving my students a choice: either their grade was based solely on summative or their grade would be a more traditional mix of formative and summative. The result? Nobody did any homework. However, in retrospect (after having taught a little longer), I think I gave up too soon and allowed them to bring their grades up after-the-fact. I also am sure that my formative work was no where near as engaging and relevant as it should have been.

Kudos to my district for giving it a try – I hope they don’t give up too quickly.

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2 responses to “A brave new plan . . .

  1. I don’t know how brave it is. I feel for the students with the teacher who will only give tests as a summative and for the students who don’t do well on tests. I also think that it will be a long time before the students in your district see the formative as anything but busy work in some classes. It will take 3-5 years to change this culture…the question is, will your district stick it out.

  2. Keishla, I agree with your statements. I also think it could take a few years to make the adjustment (after all, it has taken several decades to establish the current norms). I also worry a lot about teachers who don’t make the transition, who still give traditional tests as the only grade, and who don’t re-evaluate the formative work they assign. It is a HUGE leap, which will take a lot of training for the teachers, a large adjustment for the kids, and a lot of patience all the way around. Pressure from parents and the community will certainly be focused on the district, and as you said, will they stick it out?

    You are also right about those students who don’t test well. This makes it even more important for teachers to find authentic assessments rather than the traditional test.

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