Friday, May 3, 2013

Grading, Authentic Assessment, and Badges

This week on #jedchat there was much discussion about badges.  Many proponents of them suggest replacing grades altogether with a system of badges that give students credit for successfully accomplishing a given task and acquiring a skill.  The traditional system of grading resulting mostly from performance on tests or quizes is faulty on several levels.  It discourages students from learning the material long term.  They do not see a connection between that learning and the next set of learning done in that class.  The results on these "exams" do not often accurately reflect student growth.  All of this has been researched, yet no districts, aside from isolated charter or magnet schools, are quickly abandoning tests.  There are some schools, like Summerhill in England and The Manhattan Free School that have done so, but they are not the majority.  They do not seem to get mass parent or student buy in.  So, what is the solution?

I'd like to give some background to my experience with testing.  My first year in Israel, I attended a seminary that had no grades, no tests.  It was actually one of the key reasons I chose the school.  I was not a bad student, on the contrary, I was "good" at being a student.  I just was sick of cramming in study sessions 1-2 days before a test to spit back information I was definitely going to forget within a week after taking the exam.   I also felt at times that my quiz score did not accurately reflect what I had learned from the unit of material covered.  I saw this very clearly weekly on quizzes I took for AP US History where I would memorize all aspects of Bailey and Kennedy's American Pageant, digest it entirely, read more than I had to on each topic covered, only to be totally stumped by the fill in the blank quiz that Friday asking about it. I would stay up two nights in a row before the quiz studying terms and key concepts only to receive a B on the quiz the following morning.  When it came time to take the AP, I breezed through it and, aside from falling asleep for part of the exam, performed well.

I love history.  It was and remains my favorite subject, but I was not willing to take AP European my senior year because I knew I'd be subject to the same quizzes.  There were students in my classes who had siblings who had taken this teacher.  They got old quizzes and studied from them.  They did not study half as hard as I did and consistently got A's on quizzes.  I didn't have an older sibling who had taken the course, nor did I feel comfortable locating quizzes administered previous years.  So, senior year, when I thought for sure I would go to college and major in history, I did not take AP European, but rather took AP Psychology to get out of taking the quizzes.  It's ironic that at my first teaching job, I taught AP European and actually gave those type of quizzes.  I don't now.  I want my students to love learning and not dread coming to class.  I want their grades to reflect their learning.

I do not think my experience was an  isolated phenomenon.  I think many students get turned off from taking courses due to assessments.  I don't want this to be confused with students getting "turned off" from the amount of work in a course.  That is another issue altogether for another blog post.  I will say I do not believe in dumbing down courses or getting rid of hard work for the sake of making students "feel good."

If assessments are authentic, provide the student with meaningful feedback to learn from that is really aligned to a school's objectives.  Then, assessments can be rewarding and incredibly useful.  There also needs to be continuity between units so that once a student receives an assessment, the learning they acquired from that unit can then be transferred to the next unit of study and further expanded on, refined, and perfected further.

Ok, you're thinking, if I am advocating authentic assessment, isn't badges then the answer?  Maybe. I like that is a tangible indicator of a student's growth.  I like the focus on expertise and acquisition of skills and knowledge.  I immediately picture in my head my brownies' uniform complete with tons of sewn on patches or "badges" I acquired.  I was so proud.  I loved that vest.  However, now I do not know how to tie those knots anymore, light a fire from sticks, or do many of the things I was taught back then.  I do remember the great friends I made in brownies and that I had fun.   I'm willing to think about it and test it out.  However, my immediate concern is something Daniel Pink says in Drive.

I do not want to make it a carrot to inspire students to work, or a lollipop.   What happens when they do not get a badge in their career for every project they finish or assignment they complete?  Will they view the task as menial like a chore?  Will it depreciate their creativity?  Study after study has been done proving when you link compensation directly to a task it actually does do this. It prevents people from thinking creatively, out of the box, so to speak. Pink writes about this extensively in his book. Regardless, life isn't about getting constant rewards for your efforts.  Many times you will work on something and not reap rewards for much longer.  Sometimes, it won't get noticed at all.  We need creative thinkers in the 21st century.  We need people who can fix problems without all the solutions so easily in front of them.  I do not know if badges really promotes that.  The jury is still out.