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How to Assess What We Value

Katie has a freshman in college. Her son was adamant about not wanting her to co-sign a loan with him because, he explained, he didn't want his mom's years of being a consumer to mess up his credit. This puzzled her greatly until she realized that he was assuming that everyone starts with a perfect credit score, and that anything you do wrong can drop it.

In fact, she had to explain to him, credit works the opposite way. You start out with no credit and have to build it up. Then she patted him on the back. No wonder, she said. Years of schooling have conditioned you to expect that everyone starts with an A unless you do something wrong!

Schools traditionally use a model of grading in which students start with an A in class, and as they are graded on assignments, anything less than a perfect score brings their average down. This can discourage risk-taking and innovation. It rewards "coloring within the lines" in a world where the lines are becoming increasingly fluid.

Recently, a number of innovative approaches to grading have emerged that more accurately reflect what educators feel is valuable. As schools have conversations about assessment, it also places the focus back on whether they are assessing what they truly value; and if not, how they can address that disparity.

One such model is known as XP grading, and it is based on how gamers accumulate experience points (XP) in a typical role-playing game. Jared Colley, English Department Chair at the Oakridge School in Texas, starts his middle school students out with zero points at the start of the semester. Everything they successfully accomplish in class earns them a small amount of points towards a grand total, which at the end of the semester determines their final grade. Students know ahead of time exactly how many points they need to earn the grade they want, and they can retry any task as many times as they like until they master it, at which point they are awarded the points. There are no due dates, and students never lose points, they only gain them as they level up. This system of grading is based on affirming students' achievement, not penalizing their lapses in perfection.

Punahou School in Honolulu, Hawaii is also looking at the concept of mastery as it applies to school transcripts. As part of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, Punahou School is working toward an alternative way of measuring and displaying evidence of how students have mastered each of the qualities that define a graduate. The goal is to provide a more nuanced and personalized portrait of each student by showing real examples of the good work they have done in their time at the school. What's exciting about this work towards assessing and crediting mastery is that it promotes more opportunities to recognize and value learning throughout the school, whether by apprenticeship, independent project work, or in-class achievement.

In terms of measuring what educators truly value, MetaRubric is a card game designed by MIT's Teaching Systems Lab that provides a valuable and revealing look at how rubrics can be used to assess student work. Educators are challenged to come up with a rubric for evaluating a piece of artistic work, and then to use that rubric to grade their own work and that of their peers. What results is an insightful, often boisterous, discussion about rubrics and what they can and cannot measure. MetaRubric makes a great professional learning experience for a group of teachers or a department, and many teachers feel that it is a valuable tool for stimulating rich discussions about assessment.


MetaRubric challenges educators to discuss and debate the rubrics they create to judge their own work.

Finally, it's good to think about the balance between assessing the product of student work, and the process students used to generate that work. In my mathematics class, when students turn in a completed problem set, I ask them to also turn in a narrative of three separate "a-ha!" moments that they have encountered while working. An "a-ha!" moment is a moment where all of a sudden something made sense, the light bulb went off, or they realized all of a sudden where a mistake in their thinking was. I grade these along with the completed problem set so that even if their completed work isn't ultimately correct, a good narrative of the moments along the way where good learning occurred can offset some of those points.

The way we assess our students signals to them what we value. If we say that we value risk-taking and innovation, but exclusively use traditional forms of grading that deduct points for less than perfect work, then our grading belies our words. Perhaps the finest demonstration of our ability to embrace change lies in our willingness to experiment and try new approaches of assessing what we truly want to measure and reward.

Photo by Douglas Kiang

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