Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Exercising Professional Judgment

Back in late May I had the opportunity to attend a workshop by Tom Schimmer (@tomchimmer). The topic of his workshop, Assessment and Grading followed his book entitled 10 Things from Assessment to Grading.  Tom’s presentation has further motivated me to discuss assessment and grading with some of my colleagues.  What follows are some of the thoughts that have been percolating in my mind as a result of Tom’s workshop and my conversations with colleagues.

We all know that teaching is the furthest thing from a linear process. Although we’ve been handed the responsibility of helping our students achieve a multitude of learning targets, we have not been provided a predetermined script or set sequence of steps that ensure our students reach these goals. Each of our students learns in a different way and at a different rate. They bring different strengths and challenges to our classrooms each day. These are just some of the factors that we do our best to account for whenever we work with our students. As we assess our students, reflect on classroom situations and the outcomes of various teaching and learning strategies, we are constantly exercising professional judgment. We then do our best to design learning opportunities that best meet the needs of each of our students. It’s an imprecise science to say the least, but the adjustments and adaptations we make become pretty intuitive.

What allows us to exercise our judgment and make decisions that we believe are in the best interest of our students is professional autonomy. It provides us the opportunity to go faster, slower, deeper and explore learning strategies that we believe will best support student learning. It allows us to design our classroom assessments that we believe will best inform us about our students' learning.

Accompanying the flexibility that is afforded to us through our professional autonomy are the responsibilities associated with exercising professional judgment. This includes the ongoing assessment of our students’ progress towards learning outcomes. Some of this may be summative in nature but much of it will be formative. Classroom observations, dialogue with students, learning tasks and tests provide us snapshots at different points in time that allow us the opportunity to provide descriptive feedback to our students.  What gets tricky is when we must translate our ongoing assessments into grades. 

Is a child exceeding expectations? meeting expectations? minimally meeting expectations? or not meeting expectations? Drawing the distinction between these categories can be challenging. What is his or her current level of achievement? Assigning a grade that takes into account the improvements that a student has made throughout the course of a grading period can be quite challenging.

Again, the process of assigning grades is not a perfect science.  It relies on our professional judgment.  There is a temptation to rely on our gradebook, average scores from the grading period and simply convert them to a grade. This 'seems' like the most objective way of arriving at a grade for each student but in actuality contributes to inaccurate grading. It creates the 'perception' that we are ignoring any form of bias when in fact the whole process of assessment and grading relies on our judgment.  Who designs the assignments and tests? Who assesses student performance on these assessments? We do. 

And when it comes to accurate grading we must ask ourselves even more questions. 

Have we allowed our students to practice without penalty? 

Does our grading practice ensure that we aren’t penalizing students when they 
haven’t learned something by an arbitrary date we selected? 

Does the assigned grade recognize a student’s growth over time? 

Do the grades we assign reflect student learning and student learning only? 

Have we ignored the influence of student behaviours and work habits when assigning grades? 

After all, whether or not a student is pleasant, helpful and hardworking or unhappy, disruptive and lazy should not factor into our assessment of his or her progress towards learning targets.

It’s clear that the process of assigning grades is much less about ‘translating’ our assessments into grades and much more about ‘interpreting’ our collection of assessment data and exercising our professional judgment when assigning grades. This means having the courage to say to a student isn't ready to move forward when the numbers and percentages say he/she should. It also means having the courage to say a student is ready to move forward when the numbers and percentages say he/she shouldn't. 

This is just a small window into some of the considerations we need to account for in the complex process of assessment and grading. It’s safe to say that these are important processes that require extensive thought and have significant implications for our students.  I welcome your comments, feedback and experiences as I continue to dive deeper into these topics.

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