Moving education beyond the report card

A different way to look at learning assessment for today's students
By: and | Issue: October, 2015
September 25, 2015

Once used to reflect successful memorization of facts and figures, the process of grading has transformed into a near meaningless code, often fogged by a variety of factors that have nothing to do with learning.

Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, says that over the years, grades have come to reflect student compliance more than student learning and engagement.

In her book Rethinking Grading: Meaningful Assessment for Standards-Based Learning (ASCD, 2015), Vatterott advocates for a standards-based approach to grading that can more accurately demonstrate learning through mastery.

“When you get into standards-based grading, you can collect data that shows that those grades are more realistic,” Vatterott says. “You are actually making them learn things instead of just giving them a grade and moving on.”

It’s pretty clear from what you write that the way we teach and the way we grade are out of sync, with little relation to each other. How did we arrive at this point?

There are two historical forces that brought this on. First is that we have this legacy of behaviorism in schoolsÑthis is the way we control kids. That carries over into gradingÑ”Well, if I want people to do something, I reward and punish. And that’s how I change behavior.”

I recently did a webinar on this for ACSD. There were a large number of questions like, “How do we teach responsibility and how do we make work habits count in the grade?” And I said, “They don’t count in the grade. That’s not what we’re trying to do.”

Teachers look at it as though points are their only tool, their only form of control, but they also have this delusion that it works. Guess what? If zeros worked, we wouldn’t have to keep giving them. If penalizing kids with points worked, our problem would be solved, right? We’d do it once and it would never happen again.

The second force is that our curriculum has changed. If you go back historically, our grades were based on rote memory and all our tests were rote memory. I was an honor roll student and I can’t draw a timeline of American History to save my life, because all I did was memorize stuff, spit it out on the test and then forget it.

Now we’ve upped the game. With Common Core and standards-based learning, we’ve said, “Wait a minute. People actually have to be able to think at higher levels.” That’s part of my dilemma with my college studentsÑthey’re coming in as sophomores and they can’t think. It’s insane.

We also see it contribute to a number of mental health issues as students go on to college and suddenly they’re not getting an A in everything.

Very true. That’s one reason we have such a high dropout rate at the college level. The students come in thinking, “OK, this is what I need to do to get the grade. Got it.”

But when they get to college, their professors say, “Wait a minute. We’re expecting you to do more on your own. We’re expecting you to perform at higher levels of learning.” And students don’t know how to do that.

I am reeducating my college sophomores and freshmen about what has to happen in order for them to get an A in my class. It’s not about showing up every day and it’s not about sucking up to the teacher. It’s a whole different world.

You write that studentsÑand parentsÑlearn how to game the system, because they know that the grade is the only thing that counts.

There’s a whole reeducation piece that’s got to happen with parents, as well. It’s like, “I know you are concerned about grades and GPA and all that, but do you want your kid to finish college? Do you want them to go forward with the concepts that they need or do you want them to flunk out of freshman chemistry?”

You mentioned the Common Core standards. Why do you think there is so much resistance to that?

First, I believe there’s a huge anti-government movement in this country. People have either been misled by information that’s out there or they have a kneejerk reaction to any government involvement.

Part of it is state’s rightsÑstates don’t want the federal government telling them what to do. I do workshops all over the country. I’ll go to Indiana or Alaska, and they tell me, “Oh, no! We’re not Common Core, but we did come up with our own standards.” Their standards are 95 percent the same as Common CoreÑbut they had to do it themselves.

And then, I think there is a group of people who are so anti-government that they have taken this and blown this all up like it’s some plot.

But people in this country are fed up with standardized tests. They are fed up with the amount of time that it takes away from learning and the absolute hysteria that goes onÑespecially in low-income school districts.

I also think we haven’t done a good PR job with teachers in Common Core. We’ve not gotten all the classroom teachers to join the church. When I first heard people were against Common Core, I thought, “How can you be against Common Core?” It’s upping the game. It’s upping the standards. And with the mobility rate of people that we have in this country, how can you not want some standardization across states? It has just never made any sense to me.

I hear many classroom teachers bad-mouthing Common Core because they have been told they have to do this. They’ve not gotten adequate staff development. They’ve not had time to adapt their curriculum. This is a huge shift for many classroom teachers because we’re back at the rote learning thing.

Maybe it’s the word “standard.” There’s so much backlash against standardized tests that when you say “standards-based learning” people don’t differentiate.

Right. And, in fact, when I talk to districts, they’ll say, “We’re not going to call it standards-based learning. We’re going to call it learning for achievement” or some other name.

It’s really funny that some schools won’t even talk about Common Core. Even though they are doing Common Core, they won’t use those words and they won’t say that this is standards-based learning. They’ll call it something else, because that word has gotten such a negative connotation.

When do you introduce this change? Is it best in the earliest grades, so teachers and the students go through the system knowing what’s expected of them or can it begin later?

I’ve seen it done both ways. You have to look at your teachers and ask, “Which group of people are most open to trying to this?” Most districts that I’ve seen have started at K2, which is pretty easy to do, because many schools in K2 don’t give grades anyway. That, to me, is the easiest place to start.

I’ve seen a lot of districts that have gotten their entire elementary staff on board, but the middle school and high school are not. In the middle school and high school, I think you find a department that’s interested in looking at it.

So I’ve seen schools where they started with one math teacher. And then that teacher got the whole department on board at his building. And then they got the whole secondary group of math teachers. And now the science teachers are looking at it.

You write about districts that are doing this, but what can those district leaders show politicians and the community to say, “These schools are working, whether it looks like it or not.”?

One of the things that these schools do is run correlations of the grades that teachers give with how students perform on standardized tests. And sometimes that’s the evidence to prompt the change. They can say, “We did this analysis of all these kids in the seventh grade. Here are their math grades and there’s absolutely no correlation between them and the standardized tests.”

When you go into this implementation of standards-based grading, you can then collect data that shows that those grades are more reflective of kids’ standardized tests. And most of the places are seeing that their performance improves on standardized tests because you are actually making them learn things instead of just giving them a grade and moving on. I think that’s where you go for your evidence.

How do you get people on board with this?

Most of the schools that I talked to that were successful in doing this started with a book study. There are a number of books and journal articles that discuss and document this idea.

I love this approach to doing any kind of building-wide or even districtwide change, because it gives teachers the opportunity to read about it, think about it, absorb it at their own pace and then discuss it.

Parents have to be involved, too. That’s another thing that’s changed over the years. Parents expect school change to be a democratic process in which they have some involvement and some voice.

The days of us telling parents what we are going to do are gone in most communities. The parents want to have some input into what’s happening.

Tim Goral is senior editor.