A grade book is intended to help keep track of student learning. But I wonder sometimes about this. The very design of a grade book is--whether digital or analog--to record symbols intended to represent a certain quantity of learning. Every piece of evidence a particular assessment vehicle provides has to be evaluated--measured, quantified, and scored--in order to be recorded in a grade book. Grade books are generally not designed to capture rich, holistic information. They are designed to capture tiny bits of information distilled and consolidated into symbols--points, scores, percentages, letters--that are easy to record in the tiny boxes that make up the grade book.
|This is a photo of one of my first grade books. Look at all those "10's!"|
And...there's the problem, I think. The technology of a grade book dictates how we use it. (And make no mistake, it's a technology, whether it's in digital or analog format. Curious about that idea? Here's another post that might help you understand my thinking on this concept of non-digital tools being technologies.) As the quote attributed to Marshal McLuhan puts it: "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us."
In other words...because we have little boxes to fill in...we look for things to fill in those boxes. Things like points, scores, percentages, and letters, usually. Symbols that will fit into those little boxes.
|Another of my grade books. This must have been in my "red pen" phase...|
My ongoing wondering and concern: how sure are we that those points, scores, percentages, or letters really reflect what a student knows, understands, or is able to do?
I mean, really?
When you put a "B-" or "8/10" or "82%" in a little box in the grade book, what does that symbol mean to you? Does it mean the same thing to your students? To your colleagues? To parents?
What does "82%" really mean? That the student mastered 82% of the material? That the student correctly answered 82% of the questions you asked? That the student was able to guess correctly 82% of the time? That the assignment came in late and partially incomplete, so you only assigned 82% of the possible points for credit? That you only taught 82% of the material well enough for this student to understand? That you wrote questions that only covered 82% of the material you actually taught?
And how about that common practice of "averaging" these symbols? What are we really averaging? Are we averaging learning? Because...let's think about that for a minute. So a student got 8 out of 10 on a particular assignment, say a science lab activity. And she got 4 out of 10 on the next assignment, a written response to a reading on the same topic as the lab activity, but using a completely different set of skills. And perhaps she gets 10 out of 10 on the third assignment, which is written response to a reading on a completely different topic, but using the same set of skills (reading closely, analyzing the text, and writing a coherent response) as the second assignment. So, taking an average, we could add up 8 + 4 + 10, giving us 22 points, and then divide by the 30 points possible, yielding 73.3333333...% But what does this 73% mean? Does she really understand 73% of the material from this science unit? Does she really have capability of using the appropriate skills 73% of the time? What is this mark really assessing anyway? Is this 73% an assessment of learning?
|Still another of my grade books. I think this was the last year before I began|
using standards-based assessment in my science classes. Notice the shift to
purples and blues instead of red...
Perhaps this level of thinking about learning is beyond the pale for the teacher intent on filling in the boxes of the grade book. What is the purpose of assessment anyway? Is it intended to collect information about what students have learned? Or is it simply about justifying whatever mark you decide to give the student at the end of the term?