Teach & Serve II, No. 39 – Grades vs. Assessment

Teach & Serve II, No. 39 – Grades vs. Assessment

May 3, 2017

If the days of asking students to memorize and return sets of facts and figures to their teachers are not over in your school, I would suggest you have deeply rooted problems.

As we approach the end of this school year, the thoughts of many students turn even more pressingly to grades. It may well seem that some of these students are considering their final grades for the first time in fact. Regardless, the ante is upped this time of year and the pressure around grades seems to rise with each passing day.

Many in education avoid the term “grades” and substitute the word “assessment” when they discuss their students’ progress in their classes and this is not simply a turn of phrase. “Grades” is a word that suggests the result of a review of a product – an essay or project or test – while “assessment” connotes a process.

This is a very important distinction and how a school overall and a teacher individually measure student progress says very much about how both the school and the teacher function. It also indicates how the learning process is conceptualized by school leaders.

Answer sheet

A focus on grades versus a focus on assessment defines so much of what a school does and defines almost all of what a teacher does. Grading is a teacher-centered process: the teacher grades the assignment; the student is graded. Assessment is a collaborative process: the student illustrates her progress towards understanding and mastery; the teacher collaborates with the student.

If the days of asking students to memorize and return sets of facts and figures to their teachers are not over in your school, I would suggest you have deeply rooted problems. Neither do students of today truly learn this way, nor does the world of today function this way. Grades tend to value how students master series of objective facts. Assessment tends to value how students master the overall process of learning.

Schools which are focused primarily on grades – on the product and not the process – are schools preparing students for a world that is long past. This approach suggests that what students can do is more important than how they do it.

At this point of the school year, it is far too late for a school or teacher to change the approach to end marks. However, the summer approaches and the cyclic nature of our work means fall cannot be far behind.

Take a deep breath, enjoy a few moments of down time and consider the tension between assessment and grades. Consider how you value each. Consider why you ask your students to do what you ask them to do and consider the type of reality for which you are preparing them. Are you more concerned with what they can produce or how they produce? Is not how our students critically think at least as important as what they think? Is not what they think deeply influenced by how we have taught them to think? By what is your process of assigning a letter or percentage to your students more informed – by assessments or by grades?