Assessment and grading are two very different things. Assessment gives students and teachers the understanding of where they are, what they know and what they need to know, while grading is very much about an end-product for parents, administrators, boards and the government. Both serve different purposes, but both are useful, if used appropriately.
I have recently been in twitter correspondence with Rik Rowe (@WHSRowe) while he developed and implemented a Standards Based Grading system for his summer school math class in Massachusetts. He developed a very incredible and detailed system of evaluating students based on the standards (or learning outcomes) required for math. His system allows students to know what they know, what they need to know and how to get there. One of the amazing things about this is his students (some of them very weak in math skills with low confidence) have experienced success in math with a great increase in their confidence. When students don’t know how to improve, or when the language the teachers are using is unknown (like in math), students give up easily and do not become engaged in the process of learning. I have enjoyed my conversations with Rik and hope that he will share his story further.
Assessment, whether formative, summative, or some combination, requires teachers to be flexible with their teaching. It removes any possibility that a computer programme or algorithm can create the ideal environment for students learn. It brings back the relationship side of learning, which creates trust, chance, risk and ultimately, success.
Grading, however, is all about ranking students, placing them on a bell curve, averaging their marks or just plain penalizing students for practice (homework). A few years ago, a group of educators from Wales visited my old district in the hopes of learning how we assess, support and provide learning environments that allow students to learn (as opposed to how we teach). One of the comments that shocked me was their description of an equivalent English 11 and English 12 course. The students are graded (not assessed) on their work in four projects or essays, which are averaged to become their final mark. The first essay was done in the first term of the equivalent to English 11. No matter how much the students improved over the two years, they would still have this first essay count for 25% of their grade. This, to me, is ridiculous and the same as grading based on a bell curve, averaging marks over the year, or grading homework (which is practice).
In British Columbia, we have semi-high stakes testing where, on the graduation pathway, students have exams in grade 10 (English, Maths, Science), grade 11 (Socials or its equivalent), and Grade 12 (English 12 or Communications 12). Although these exams are weighted-averaged with their school based mark, students have the opportunity to repeat the exam to improve their mark (not, to be sure, their learning).
This brings to mind a course from my undergrad where the we learnt throughout the semester, studying charts, fossils, weather changes around the world against the backdrop of evolution. The final exam was a paper (take home) that was worth 100% of the final mark. Everything in the course was practice for this paper. What stands out for me is that it similar to a professional practical exam. I used this example in one of my math classes. The class learnt about finance, area, volume, scale, etc, and then had the final project (which was begun near the beginning of the course) which incorporated all these aspects. I assessed the students along the way with quizzes, tests, and mini-projects that all led to the final project (some call keystone project). Students could revise, correct, enhance their work as they went through. I loved seeing the final work as much as the students seemed to be proud of what they accomplished.
This brings me back to the difference between assessing and grading. The assessment was ongoing, timely and informative for the students and myself to direct the learning and pathway of the class. The grade was simply a way of showing that the students gone through the journey and come out better informed (in math) than they were before the course. Now I don’t believe any of these students became mathematicians (I may be wrong), but they certainly left the course with a greater understanding and confidence in their own abilities to ‘do math’.
As someone, somewhere, once said: A test only shows what a test can do, not what a student has learned.