Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rethinking the Currency of Marks

In a recent conversation with one of our teachers I was inquiring into our science department’s use of “Essential Learning Outcomes” or ELOs (not to be confused with the cheesy 70’s synth pop band).  Without going into too much detail, the ELO model is based on “mastery learning” with the assessment focus being formative rather than summative and anecdotal rather than numerical/alphabetic.

The conversation moved to where we were discussing how “marks” are too often used a sort of currency to be bartered, with the culmination being that the more of this currency you have upon graduation, the better the spot that you can “purchase” in a post secondary institution.  Part of this conversation was talking about assignments handed in late, and how many teachers still deduct “20% per day” for late assignments.   Such practices break down as non-sensical and even counterproductive under even the simplest analysis. (“If this assignment is worth a mark of 80, meaning supposedly that I know 80% of the material, then how could I only know 60% if I handed it in tomorrow?”).  The teacher with whom I was conversing said simply that he doesn’t accept or assess any late work.  Get it in on time or don’t get it in.  At first blush I imagined this to be the most extreme (and rather draconian) example of the logic I explained above.  Of course I was thinking in the “marks as currency” paradigm.  But when analyzed through a more progressive lens, the lens through which our science teachers see all their ELO based courses, this response made perfect sense.  Rather than seeing “marks” as something to barter, his view was that any missed assessment is actually just a missed opportunity for the student to receive feedback.  Students missing assignments can still get the ‘P’ (for pass) for any given ELO as long as they demonstrate somehow that they know the material.  But too many missed opportunities may well result in failure to master the essential outcomes.

To me this outlook on assessment makes eminent sense.  Students now focus on doing their best, getting assessed and then improving their work according to the feedback rather than handing stuff in to collect enough marks to get a good grade.  It also puts more of an onus on the students to take responsibility for their work and to reflect and continually improve what they're doing.  As this teacher noted, as soon as one puts a number or a letter to anything it brings closure, like it or not.

Looking around I see that an ever increasing number of secondary school teachers are thinking of assessment in more progressive ways (elementary school teachers have been doing it for years).  There are also an increasing number of post secondary programs that are moving to mastery learning based, "pass/fail" systems, especially professional programs such as med. schools.  Yet we still have this transition between secondary and post secondary education where numerical marks tend to be the prime determinant as to who goes where.

To get from good to better we need to collectively start seeing assessment as a cyclical, ongoing dialogue between student and teacher and we need to move away from the "marks as currency" paradigm.  There are encouraging signs that this is happening to an ever greater degree, but the culmination of high school remains a set of "box tops" where the right collection will get a student in to the program of his choice.  Changing this would be a HUGE step forward.