Sunday, February 16, 2014

Changing the Metaphor of Grading: from Compensation to Communication

At a recent conference, presenter Rick Wormeli said that we need to change the metaphor for grading: we have to stop thinking of grades as compensation, and start thinking of them as communication. While I had heard this before and while I had even said it to colleagues and parents, I don't think I had truly made the shift in my head until that moment. Since the conference, Stan and I have done a lot of thinking about the new metaphor, and here's what we've come up with.

The Old Metaphor: Compensation for Learning

Traditional grading works on a system very similar to currency. Students can "earn" grades or points like they earn money. Points are given and taken away for many reasons--some about learning and some not. This means that traditional grades vary greatly from teacher to teacher. In addition, because this is a system of compensation, we (teachers) can use grades as reward and punishment as well.

Grades as Compensation

The New Metaphor: Communication of Learning

Imagine you're trying to get to the Revere Hotel in Boston. You click on your MapQuest app and it asks you to enter your destination. You do. It asks you to be more specific. You are. Then it asks you for your starting location. You type in your address and click Calculate Directions.

This is the start of standards based learning. First, we determine our learning targets (our destination). We need to be specific...not enough to say we want to go to Boston, or to a hotel in Boston. We must precisely define the target. So let's say our target is "I can analyze an author's use of rhetoric." Second, we must determine where we are starting. This may be where the whole class is starting, or it may be where our individual students are starting based on a pre-assessment. If we have students starting from different locations, it becomes obvious that we will need to use different routes to get to the destination (and that it won't take the same amount of time for all students).

So we have the destination (learning target) and the starting location (current student knowledge, understanding or skill), and we hit "Calculate Directions." The map comes up. This is where our expertise as teachers and content area experts comes in. Do we know only one way to get students to the destination? What if there's a road block? Are there pitstops we want to take on the way? Do we want to take the student on main roads or back roads? We are the GPS. We are that programmed voice that suggests u-turns, locates coffee shops, calculates (and recalculates) estimated time of arrival, and ultimately that says, "you have arrived at your destination."

So what is the grade? The grade is the blue dot. It's the exact location of the student in relation to their destination. That's all. There is no judgement. The grade is a clear communication of the student's current achievement of the goal.

This metaphor has changed the way we think about grades. Grades are no longer a game. It's not a system of compensation, where you "earn" points or "lose" points based on an incredibly wide, varied, and frankly, arbitrary set of rules. They are a way to clearly communicate achievement of a goal. That's it. Is standards based grading perfect? No. And it's certainly not easy. We have a lot of work to do to write good targets, calibrate expectations, and most importantly, to make our maps as detailed as possible so we are able to help more of our students reach (or go beyond) our destinations. Ultimately, I feel much better acting as my students' GPS, than I did acting as their banker.

Thanks for reading! Emily and Stan @CVULearns

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