Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

My wife picked up a parenting magazine today as we entered our local swimming pool as we took our son to his regular swimming lesson. As she flicked through it, the advertisement in the picture above, caught my eye. As a PE teacher, it was the picture that initially drew my attention and so I looked closely to see that it was an advertisement for an externally administered, standardised testing program. The tests typically take the form of a ‘bubble’ test that requires student’s to circle the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer. After they’re marked, students get a certificate that tells them whether they got a credit, distinction or high distinction. (I’m not sure whether the students who get in the bottom 10 percent get certificates, but maybe they’ve decided that that would be detrimental to a student’s well-being?).

The claim on the advertisement is “Assessment: The real start to your child’s academic growth”. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What’s it saying exactly? That until students’ are properly assessed they can’t achieve substantial academic growth until they are assessed. And, that that assessment is best done by a once per year multiple choice bubble test that is marked by computer?
It also claims that their tests help you (the parent) identify strengths, weaknesses and progress to support academic success. For this to occur, parents need to be given feedback saying what the student got correct, what they got wrong, where they can improve on. However, in a subject that requires particular skills to answer the question, how can a test that doesn’t require a student to show how they solved the problem give accurate feedback?
It makes me think, if parents need to rely on the information gathered from a once per year, standardised (mostly) multiple choice test to find out what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are then our school’s information gathering about student understanding and reporting on it is not doing it’s job.
On the other hand, are we (teachers) using these because it’s ‘good’ for the students to see how they compare to other students, then we need to consider whether learning is a competition in which we need to compare ourselves to one another and whether that is good for the well being of the students.
In his article “The case against grading“, Alfie Kohn sets out clearly how research has shown how detrimental grading is to learning – that it decrease the learners interest in whatever they’re learning, that they create a preference for the easiest possible task, that they reduce the quality of student’s thinking.
More and more I feel our number one priority must be to encourage students to become individuals with a desire to learn more, who enjoy learning and have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of grades or marks completely from our schools because we often have to collect information or prepare our students for their final leaving exams. Here in New South Wales, where I teach, that is the Higher School Certificate. However, we can take steps to minimise the number of grades that our students get and endeavour to give more helpful feedback to students that doesn’t provide judgement on their work but shows them what they’ve done well and what they can improve and what direction they can move in next.
In my classes, I’ve started using feedback forms that outline the areas of their work that they’ve shown they’ve shown they understand what they are doing and a section that sets out areas that they can still develop. Maybe this isn’t perfect but I’m trying to keep my feedback free from judgment. I also give students opportunities to re-submit (even on tests when we still have them) so that they have the opportunity to show what they actually know rather than using it to test their performance at that one moment in time.
Does anyone else keep portfolios of learning and give feedback rather than grades? I’d love to hear how you do it and what format you use, and what the advantages and disadvantages are as I seek to do it better.
Also, if you haven’t read any of Alfie Kohn’s work on grading, motivation and extrinsic rewards I strongly recommed you take a look. You can find a lot of his articles here.
Reference: Alfie Kohn (2011) “The Case Against Grading”

6 thoughts on “Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

  1. I think at some point students come to ‘expect’ grades and adjust their engagement/behaviour/etc. I think this is where classroom dynamics kick in, i.e. how students relate with the teacher and with each other.

    Last term, I did a fair bit of experimenting with my pedagogy, trying PBL, GBL and Inquiry. All activities were non-graded and involved plenty of feedback face-to-face and online, typically via edmodo. We covered all the required content. No tests. No grades. I found my year 11s responded best….read more here, if you like.

    I think we’re on the same journey! 🙂

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment Malyn. It sounds like we are on a similar journey in many ways. I too have been experimenting with PBL and inquiry based learning. However, it’s mostly been with a set agenda of what the students need to achieve by the end of it. I’m thinking I need to explore how to be more open ended to allow them freedom to find something they really want to learn and then help direct their learning. I can only help prod them in certain directions by knowing what they’ve found, learned and understood I guess. Some would argue that that can happen using tests and they may be correct, but I am certain that it can’t come from multiple choice ‘bubble’ tests. More open ended questions would be the best option, but then again, using PBL this is what you start with and what they produce and how the get there gives you the information you need. The key is, that as soon as we put a judgement of a letter, number or even a word (which is what I’ve been using for some time now on most assessments) it seems to put a handbrake on further learning in that the students don’t want to improve, they are usually just happy with what they ‘got’. No grades and re-submitting improved products/finished (draft) products must be something we implement as well as reflection that requires them to consider what is the next thing they should consider, what is the implication of what I’ve just learned.

      1. an approach I haven’t blogged is giving feedback a day or so before the grades. This one’s from @cpaterso. At least my feedback had some chance of getting through to some of them!

      2. I’ve heard of that but I still don’t think it’s the ideal. What it does do is gives the students the opportunity to consider the feedback before getting the grade as research has shown that if it’s given together, the feedback is disregarded. However, it still seems as though if the students know they’re getting a grade they will wait for that and probably won’t act on the feedback or improve their work. The problem with grades is that students do just what they need to do get the good grades and may be less likely to push the boundaries of their learning or take risks in case they get a poor grade/mark.

  2. This is an excellent post and a topic of discussion that I am finding myself more and more involved with in our school. We are planning to move towards more portfolio-based reflection on learning in our senior school and have student personalise their education. Until higher ed changes entrance requirements, we will never rid the system of grades – which is unfortunate. Always a challenge to get students to focus less on grades and more on learning when the system for college entry is not designed that way. Look forward to following the discussion…

    1. Thanks Denise. You’re right that until Higher education institutions change their entrance requirements we will never completely get rid of grades, however, here in Australia I have heard a number of stories of some universities using (or considering) different entrance requirements which is positive. Whether it occurs is a different matter. While it exists we will continue to hear teachers saying they need exams and grades to prepare students for final exams, but I can’t see that students who are 12-16yrs of age need the stress of long exam sessions that teach them to concentrate for 2hrs at a time, doing exams that aren’t the same format as their final exams anyway. There doesn’t seem to be any reason for teachers in primary (elementary) school using grades/numbers to judge student work, but there is. If we can change the perception of teachers, parents and students at this age, it will make it easier in high school. My experience is that 1. That’s how we were assessed at school and so that’s what we understand, and 2. We don’t know better alternatives, or any alternatives. That’s why I’m asking for examples of what people are doing so that I can learn better ways of doing it myself.

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