Sunday, July 1, 2012

Assessment Confessions & Apologies

Let me begin by making some confessions. When I started my teaching career 16 years ago as a Science teacher, I wanted students to believe that every class was important. So what I did on most days was assign work that counted for marks. I marked a lot of assignments, I entered a lot of numbers into spreadsheets and I frequently updated students with their marks. I sometimes assigned zeros when students failed to submit work and I sometimes assigned late penalties when students submitted work late.  This system seemed to work for a good majority of my students. My most motivated students appeared diligent about completing high-level work and most others seemed to comply to and complete a reasonable amount and level of work. Unfortunately, at least one group of students for whom this approach didn't seem to work for was my struggling learners...those who often appeared to lag behind. The other question that I now realize I should have asked is 'what was motivating my students to learn?'

Fast forward to just over a week ago and I had the opportunity to participate in an online panel discussion using Google+ and share my perspective on the 'no zeros' policy that has recently caught the attention of educators and the general public. While I don't consider myself to be an 'expert' on this topic, the chance to join the panel of Tom Schimmer (@tomschimmer), Tom Hierck (@UMAKADIFF), Joe Bower (@joebower) and Lorelie Lenaour (@LLeanaour) and respond to questions from a PLC organized by Rose Pillay (@rosepillay1) proved to be an excellent learning experience for me. I'd like to thank Rose for inviting me to participate and for challenging me to further clarify my thoughts and ideas on this high profile subject.

In the days following our discussion I have had the opportunity to reflect on my previous assessment and grading practices. I now feel I owe many of my former students some apologies.

I apologize if...

I assigned you a 'zero' when you failed to submit work.
A 'zero' signifies that you knew 'nothing' about the topic in question. If it really was the case that you knew 'nothing' about a given topic after I worked with you, then the person who should have received the 'zero' is me. After all, it was my job to help you learn. Each time you failed to fully complete work on time, I should have asked you 'why?' instead of assuming you didn't care, couldn't be bothered or forgot.

I discouraged you from learning or provided you an excuse not to learn.
If you had truly tried, struggled to understand a concept and consequently failed to submit work, receiving a zero would have been very discouraging. Instead of incenting you to continue trying, I likely demotivated you by signalling to you that you were unable to learn 'on time'. And at some point, when your discouragement contributed to your disengagement, I provided you the ultimate excuse not to continue learning. You probably told your friends and parents that there was no point in completing the work because I had already assigned you a '0'. I should have provided more flexible timelines and more opportunities for you to demonstrate that you could meet the learning outcomes.

If I didn't make learning mandatory for all of you, all the time.
When I witnessed you failing to complete work, I shouldn't have allowed you to walk away without insisting that you learn. Whether it meant spent additional time during class or outside of class, I should have sat with you, supported you and demanded that you learn.

I emphasized point-gathering rather than learning.
So many of the tasks I assigned you had marks attached to them. Each time I told you how many marks each assignment was out of and explained how to achieve those marks, I shifted the emphasis to point-gathering, not learning. In doing so, I used grades as a motivational tool to encourage you to complete work and not to communicate your progress towards learning outcomes as I should have. In some cases I may have extinguished your genuine passion and inspiration for learning and turned you into a desperate and competitive point accumulator. Instead of spending so much time marking your work with numbers, I should have spent the time providing descriptive feedback so that you would have known what and how to improve. This would have shifted our conversations towards 'learning'.

I assigned you an inaccurate grade.
Each 'zero' I assigned for work you didn't submit, was invalid, inaccurate and contributed to a distorted representation of what you actually knew. The zeros may have said more about your work habits and less about your ability to meet some of the learning outcomes. Needless to say, the grade I assigned you was likely a confusing combination that reflected your work habits and your ability to meet the learning outcomes. 

I made you feel like you were being judged and ranked.
Far too often and far too quickly I assigned numbers to your work. I know you compared numbers with your classmates and determined where your mark ranked within the class. For some of you, achieving a  high rank in the class became your motivation (which it shouldn't have) and for others, knowing you consistently ranked towards the lower portion of the class must have been extremely discouraging. Simply put, school should not be about surviving punitive grading practices. It should be about LEARNING!


  1. Wow Aaron, outstanding post! Part of the appeal for me is I felt myself in the role of the author. I could make many of those statements and the apologies myself. That's what strikes me the most in the current debate. We (individually and collectively) have learned so much about effective practice (in assessment and other areas) that to ignore it is akin to malpractice. Thanks for having the courage to voice this and the capacity to learn and lead.

    1. Thanks for commenting Tom. I agree, with all that we now know it often floors me to think that we aren't able to make greater progress in education as a whole. A range of factors can play into why we hesitate to change and move forward. Not being exposed to new ideas, fear of failure, comfort and predictability of doing as we have for a long time, lack of support, disengagement, workload, etc. As you mentioned during our panel, now is the tine to capitalize on the attention that the 'no zeros' issue is receiving and discuss what it really means, the implications and what is best for student learning.


  2. And I'm sorry too for all the lies I told in my math classes.

    The quadratic formula really isn't all that important; nor are the laws of sines and cosines.

    What's important is finding ways to solve problems, not memorizing formulas....