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COVER STORY: Re-making the grade
For many students, the number scrawled in red ink at the top righthand corner of their assignment can be a source of stress and anxiety.
While “summative” assessment through test scores has long been the traditional way of evaluating students, many educators now believe those marks, good or bad, may be holding students back.
Neilson Grove Elementary School principal Bob Thompson says marks-based feedback prevents kids from taking risks, makes them less happy, and is bad for learning.
“I don’t want kids to think of themselves as a ‘C’ kid,” says Thompson. “I don’t want them to think of themselves an ‘A’ kid, either.”
Neilson Grove is the first elementary school in the Delta School district to do away with traditional marking, instead opting for what educators call “formative assessment.”
The pilot project at the school began last school year and Thompson says teachers there no longer give students a numerical score out of 10 or 100 on submitted assignments.
Instead, students are provided with a list of areas which they excelled in, as well as ones in which they need improvement. Future assignments then focus on those areas where the student needs help.
It’s a simple idea, but one that has profound consequences for students, especially at the primary and intermediate levels.
“When you put a number on an assignment, that’s all the kids look at,” says Thompson. “They don’t see the feedback.”
He says formative assessment encourages better dialogue between students and teachers, and gives students a clearer understanding of where they are in their learning process.
That makes students much more accountable, and puts the focus on the learning process instead of a high-stakes end task, like a test or exam.
In the classroom, teachers routinely poll the class to ensure students, who respond with a thumbs up or down, are following along with the lesson.
Students have personalized whiteboards which they can hold up with their answers to questions asked by the teacher, instead of having to stand up and be singled out with a potential wrong answer.
“The students hold the whiteboards up, and the teachers can see instantly who needs help,” says Thompson.
While the school still assigns letter grades on report cards, Thompson says there is plenty of evidence to suggest letter grades don’t serve a positive purpose.
Around the province, a handful of elementary schools have already done away with the As, Bs, and Cs on report cards altogether.
Thompson says Neilson Grove is not at that stage yet, and notes that ditching letter grades won’t solve everything.
“Just getting rid of letter grades is not a fix,” he says. “You have to change your practices.”
Implementing the new assessment practices has been a four-year journey, says Thompson, one that has been based on well-founded research and data.
“Anecdotally, the kids who were unengaged two years are fully engaged now,” he says. “Kids who used to hide in the shadows are now fully involved.
Neilson Grove parent Corrine Sepke has two daughters who attend the school and has seen firsthand the changes that have taken place in the 18 months since the school moved towards formative assessment.
She says the idea initially struck her as “very different,” but she was open to seeing how things would work before making judgments.
“If the girls would get a low mark, they would get really disappointed and see it as a failure,” says Sepke. “Anything that takes that pressure off I think is beneficial.”
She says the changes have resulted in a much more positive attitude towards learning by her children.
“Especially in math,” Sepke says. “It’s gone from, ‘I don’t like math, I’m not any good at this,’ to ‘I understand the concepts and I’m making progress.’”
“It’s been a 180-degree change.”
Sepke says that expectations are clearly laid out with assignments, and the feedback is positive, turning what might have previously been seen as a failure, into a goal.
District Vice Principal Diane Graves notes that many teachers at the secondary level are already incorporating formative assessment practices in their classrooms, and that students transitioning will have a greater chance of success at high school.
“Kids leaving this school will own their learning much more,” she says. “They will be better prepared for high school, and better prepared for life.”
Graves says the formative assessment practices are also closer to what students will experience in the working world, and will better prepare them for life after school.
“What we’re doing is preparing students for the professional assessment that takes place in the working world,” she says. “This is real world stuff.”
Sepke agrees, and sees the new assessment practices as being much more realistic.
“When you manage a project in a workplace, you don’t get a mark out of 100 at the end,” she says. “[The kids] know they are getting better, and they don’t need a mark to tell them that.”