Comprehensive Assessment and the Meaning of Grades

Survival of the Fittest

On the same day that I lost an lengthy post on my experience with comprehensive assessment as a means of focusing classroom learning around the engagement of each student’s role in the group, Dave Truss used as inspiration for his post, Chasing the A, a link to an extensive student blog post: Why our education system is failing. Written in the fiery throat of youth, it is a lengthy tirade against competitive education with an emphasis placed upon the lifelong implications of bad grades:

Education is about unleashing one’s confidence. Education is learning from failure. Education is growing from experience. Education is discovering your passions then pursuing them. Education is not rote memorization. Education is not analyzing books that have no meaning to you. Education is not wasting your time on subjects you hate. Education is not being paralyzed because your afraid to fail.

In his comment to the above post, Dave makes a case for the intrinsic human compassion schools must foster is compromised in lieu of competition:

Marks seem to take our attention away from what matters. I find it funny that we can assess young kids without grades and then around Grade 3 we suddenly start indoctrinating students into the paradigm of good marks = success…. and the really important things we learn in Kindergarden about sharing, respecting and loving one another, as well as communicating how we feel and getting along with each other, suddenly takes a back seat to achieving some sort of success beyond these things that really matter.

My own remarks, as posted as a comment on Dave’s Pair-A-Dimes Blog, are these:

Amen, to both of you. Teaching the TALONS we espouse that real learning can seldom be measured by something so crude as numbers, and make a distinction between marks-for-report cards and expectations that go beyond the curriculum on a personal level: the real challenges in our class – as the real challenges of life – involve reflection and risk, a personal investment that is not met where there is a tangible fear of failure (with ramifications that could ruin into “YOUR ENTIRE LIFE!”). When posed with the inevitable report card, I have found that comprehensive assessment activities have been the most effective in personalizing and empowering learning, while giving an honest reflection of the student’s comprehension of the government’s outcomes. I have students discuss how they went about learning about the topic, sharing strategies and taking ownership over the process. Those who invest throughout the project rise to the occaision, when they must speak to their committment to their learning,and can refer to specific examples of their engagement, while those who may have passively studied only textbook and peer-generated notes package will contribute less to a conversation about ’shared’ learning. Which all works fine and well in a classroom where the students are peers for two years, who share responsibilites for class trips, events, and community service projects. While some more linear thinkers balk at the idea of self-assessment, and student-created criteria, I tell them that they will only have teachers for a few more years: at some point they will need to know themselves when they have done a ‘good job.’ But in a ‘mainstream’ honours class I taught this past school year, creating such an environment of collaboration and risk-taking among a class of students one year from graduation (a class which yeilded one of my all-time favourite student quotes: A girl in the class showed me her report card, bearing marks in the upper 90s through three courses (chemistry, biology, and PE) and a 92% in my English course. “I know this isn’t my best class,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s my 92-class.” Sigh.). Conversations were guarded, and essay topics seldom shared; more than once a week – even several weeks from report cards – I had discussions with individual students concerned about their grade; report card times were a flood of offers to ‘make up’ marks, ‘rewrite,’ and on and on. In my opinion, grades spoil the true potential of student learning. Having seen many of my friends, intelligent, ambitious, creative and successful friends make liars of many of our teachers, counsellors & administrators, I feel strongly that what we choose to measure in school is a far cry from what we seek to achieve. Thanks for making me realize this is not my lone opinion!

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