Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Dread Post: Grades

You may have noticed that HoneyFern is a progressive school.

Only two vestiges of the traditional remain: a standardized test (required for accreditation) and grades (not required, but certainly part of the system we have with regard to college admission). The standardized test will remain in place for now, but I have been thinking about grades for many years and am thinking of how to satisfy the system we have in place while still offering appropriate, instructive and useful feedback for students.

I have always attempted to ameliorate the meaninglessness of a letter with plenty of narrative feedback; Mark Barnes set forth his method for grading in this blog. In a nutshell, he eliminated grades in his classroom years ago, replacing them instead with SE2R: Summarize, Explain, Redirect and Resubmit. This feedback cycle

"...eliminates [the subjective nature of grades], creating a true cycle of learning that overcomes the traditional instruct-practice-test-grade-move-on approach to education, which completely fails students who don’t master concepts."

I love the cyclical nature of this system. Learning isn't linear, and we often need to revisit concepts as we apply them in new settings to reinforce what we know. I am a huge fan of narrative feedback, and most parents are huge fans of a structured way to measure growth. This combines both.

The main benefit, the lasting benefit, of a structured system of feedback is felt by the students. Grades, good or bad,  are no longer arbitrarily given by a teacher, and they are no longer the motivation for working (or not). When done well, narrative feedback gives students specific things to work on, specific areas in which they are improving, and things to think about for the future. A grade gives them a letter.

The middle school parents are all on the no-grades bandwagon; although I do still keep grades, students are an integral part of them, sitting with me to discuss their work and give their own grade, explaining what they did really well and what they need to think about for next time. There is no one-shot assignment here; they get chances to improve on what they have done.

Today's pertinent example: Ella had a a materials list for her coop due today. She started this morning (totally acceptable), but when her list was "done," she had a few glaring errors (e.g., not enough wire, missing some materials, etc.). I asked her to evaluate herself, with comments about why she gave herself that grade, and then I gave my take and why. We were far apart, and we talked why that was. We hit on crucial points (could she build her coop with what she had?), and she decided to finish it tomorrow. Yes, she is accountable for the work. Yes, she needs another day to do a good job. So what? She got experience critiquing her work, an understanding of what "success" in this assignment means, and the opportunity/requirement to get it right. That conversation is worth more than the grade she would have gotten which would have told her nothing about why she got it.

Still continuing the thinking and conversation. For parents, if grades were eliminated what would you need to feel like you had a good handle on your kid's progress?

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