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“Mom, I got a 96 on the math test. What does that mean?” I had to laugh at my daughter’s innocent reaction to traditional grades and percentages after 11 years of schooling with alternative forms of feedback. Entering a traditional U.S. public school in Grade 10 gave her a bit of culture shock. Traditional quizzes, end of unit tests, homework for points, and percentage based grading policies were completely foreign to her.

In elementary school, she attended a Montessori school, which provided an alternative assessment system. Montessori students receive daily feedback on their progress from the materials they work with, comments from the teacher, and detailed progress reports. These reports don’t provide a letter grade or numbered assessment, but rather a detailed narrative of students’ strengths and challenge areas based on specific skill areas.

In middle school, my daughter’s alternative schooling continued at an international school with the Middle Years Programme (MYP) of the International Baccalaureate (IB). This program provides standards-based reports with detailed written descriptions of students’ progress in each academic area in specific areas based on clear criteria. The rubrics for each class assessment give information on their strengths and weaknesses in writing, math, sciences, language learning, literary analysis, and each elective course. From these reports, my daughter knew what she could do to improve, understood the learning objectives, and pursued learning, rather than grades. With these early assessment experiences, she was confounded by the traditional system of points and percentages.

Her genuinely perplexed responses to traditional grading included:

  • I got a 98/100 on the last essay. When I asked the teacher how I could improve my writing, she told me that I already had an A. She thinks I’m just trying to get two points. I don’t care about the points. I just want to know how to improve, but there are no comments on the paper about what I could do better.
  • I got a 50/50 on the assignment, but I don’t know what the points were based on. This doesn’t tell me anything.
  • I missed almost half of the multiple-choice questions, but the test was scored on a curve so I still got an A. That doesn’t really reflect what I know!

Much has been written about assessment and feedback and many schools that I am working with are trying to move towards a more standard-based system. Unfortunately, I still see too many high school classes with grades based on homework completion, curved test grades, extra credit assignments, and attendance. If a class is truly standards-based, students will receive a grade that reflects their ability to independently meet the standards. In the U.S., much depends on the letters that appear on students’ report cards: scholarships, college applications, and acceptance into honor societies.   My daughter is learning to play the ‘grading game,’ but she would much rather focus on the ‘learning game’.

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Tim Pettengill says:

    As a high school Spanish teacher with a six class class load and 240 students each year I wonder how the teachers using reports in lieu of grades find the time to write 240 reports, lesson plan, read the papers their students write and, at the same time, interact with their spouses and their children for more than a few minutes each day. I have had this same workload my entire 31 year career and do not see how this is mathematically possible. Even at one minute per report it would take six hours.

    • Beth Skelton says:

      You’re right, Tim. Providing feedback in report format that links to specific criteria is incredibly time consuming. The international school where I worked and mentioned in the blog asked teachers to provide such ‘full reports’ only twice a year and they staggered when the different grade levels received these reports. Despite these concessions and some extra paid time to complete the reports, it was always a struggle to complete. However, as a parent of a student receiving the reports, I felt committed to the process. I saw the difference they made in her motivation and learning. Any thoughts on how to make meaningful reports time efficient?

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