The standards based movement is now encouraging us to base grades solely on assessments. – and a fairly narrow range of assessments at that. Homework, class work, participation and the like should no longer be considered in formulating grades. The nice, participatory kid can no longer pass a class by being nice and participatory – this is presented along with the assumption that we all agree this would be a positive development. Advocates of this position, by the way, don’t use the word participation, they call it compliance – a clever bit of linguistic trickery. Their dichotomous minds can’t seem to allow for a distinction between compliance and sincere participation in an academic process, something I believe still has inherent value.
Their weak, ill conceived analogy:
The analogy I’ve heard — more than once— to justify this new “fixed,” as in repaired, grading system is sports related. It is as follows: “In football (insert other preferred sport if you wish) we don’t score practice, we only score games.” Ugh, please, bring a lazy lay-up of an analogy up in here, I’ll slap it away like I was Hakeem Olajuwon!
Ok, here’s what’s wrong with this. First, most people don’t play sports to win necessarily. In fact, unless someone is a professional or otherwise elite athlete, most people participate in sports for other reasons – especially in high school. Most participate because it’s fun, it’s something they enjoy. They want to stay active, to be athletic. They want to be part of a team. To be sure, they want to challenge themselves, to improve, to play the best they can as individuals and as a team. Certainly they will try their best to win as many games as possible, even a few they aren’t supposed to win. But the bottom line is that we, coaches, players and fans, are fairly flexible in defining success – and we honor strong effort and work ethic – the player or team that performs admirably, even in defeat. If our not-so-great football team is playing against the local powerhouse, a team that is clearly bigger, stronger, faster and more talented than us, we can’t tell our guys that they’ve failed (no achievement has taken place) because they lost the game. If we scored a touchdown or two, got a few first downs, made them punt a couple of times, lost by 20 instead of by 40, we can tell our team, in all sincerity – and they should believe – that they have achieved something. Sometimes in sports, our goal is to do ourselves proud through our effort, by competing with honor while enjoying the game. Not winning is not always a failure. It’s more complicated than that.
Second, let’s go back to the assumption that the nice, participatory kid deserves nothing more than a pat on the head. Most high school sports teams have a kid that rides the bench but is still a contributing member of the team. Maybe through attitude, through personality, through positive contributions in the locker room, through dogged participation in practice, that player has elevated the performance of those around him. Even if he rarely sets foot on the field, he has contributed to whatever success the team has achieved. Is that worthless?
Now, I’m not entirely opposed to assessment-heavy grading, but I don’t think it’s the slam-dunk no-brainer that it’s presented as. My discomfort is that assessment-only grading reduces learning, education and academics to simple results. I have to believe that at the High School level we still need to encourage and reward the notion that learning is a process and inherently worthy.
My clearly superior analogy:
Currently, my school is like the Olympics. But an Olympics that only gives medals for the high jump. We say we appreciate the weight-lifters, swimmers, wrestlers and badminton players – they’re welcome to attend and compete in their events, but they will also be required to attempt the high jump. The only official record of their participation will be the height they can clear. After all, they are athletes and athletes should be able to jump. Ivan, the 350 pound weight lifer who can clean and jerk 500 pounds, but has a three-inch vertical leap will, sadly, be regarded as far below basic. We will have meetings where we look at charts and graphs – analyze the data. We will figure out how to “re-teach” or “tutor” Ivan into better high jump results. We will denigrate what he does well, and has a natural aptitude for. We will try to make him lose 200 pounds and teach him proper form. But Ivan’s never going to be more than a mediocre high jumper, and in trying to make him a decent one, we’re going to make him a pretty crappy weight lifter as well.
It’s no better for the high jumpers either. Once they’ve cleared a respectable height, we really don’t care what they do. We’re not going to push them to set, strive for, or reach higher goals. We’re too busy working on poor Ivan. At a recent professional development training, I heard a well respected educational expert, consultant and author tell us that our job is to teach the low performing kids … the smart kids will take care of themselves. The following day at a breakout session, the principal of a local school said the same thing. That’s a remarkable position, and one I’d like to see either of these men explain to the parents of the smart kids. Or better yet, to the smart kids themselves.