Parenting students in a world without grades
Proficiency reporting is a set of legal requirements that all Vermont high schools must meet before 2020. In essence, we’ll report only on what a student knows and can DO, with no ultimate judgement about how well they can do it. A? B-? C+? Out the window.
Here’s a primer on four of the biggest concepts around proficiency.
The idea is relatively simple, but the execution will be much trickier.
Proficiency-based reporting represent a departure from the way public schooling has been done since the days of John Dewey (a proper Vermonter!). We haven’t made a change this large to the way school has been done since the mid-1800’s! Seriously.
My home SU, Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union, has been getting ready for the shift for a number of years, and we are now making preparations for the final push, with proficiency-based reporting being formally rolled out during the 2019-2020 school year.
1. Failure is no longer an option: retakes are a-okay!
The adult world offers unlimited retakes. The BAR exam, for lawyers, for example. Take it as many times as you like. NCLEX too, (nursing), NREMT (EMT/paramedic), PRAXIS (teaching), FAA (pilots), CPA (accountants), MCAT (medical school), LSAT (law school), and ASE (mechanics) exams. Even your driving test! You can just keep taking the exam until you pass.
And after retaking any of these exams, your final result is the only result that counts.
You know what they call someone who passed the BAR Exam on the 5th try? An attorney.
But in our students’ world, if there’s a Chapter 7 Science test on Tuesday, they usually only get one pitch and a swing to get it right.
Except… the goal is for your child to learn how to speak intelligently about climate change and support their arguments with current, accurate, vetted information. And that takes time, and iteration.
At Edmunds Middle School, Spanish language educator Sarah Wright offers her students unlimited retakes on exams, based on the idea that becoming proficient in an acquired language takes repetition. And repetition. And repetition.
One-off assessments presume that all students come to school with the exact same background knowledge, and that they learn at exactly the same rate. Students who can learn at the teacher-prescribed rate and perform on the day of the test are going to be in good shape.
Students who haven’t learned as quickly, or started in a different place, will fall behind. What’s worse, they’ll remain behind if the teacher assesses them and then moves on.
Instead, reporting on students’ most recent attempt at mastery reflects the adult world.
And this leads to the next great thing about proficiency-based learning…
2. Proficiency is the goal, not grades
In most cases, the when doesn’t matter.
I have no idea what age I learned how to decode multi-syllabic words, and that fact has no bearing on my life. What matters is that I did learn how to decode multi-syllabic words, and I can apply that skill to my ex-pos-i-tor-y writing.
The goal of education should be for students to learn and apply knowledge, right? So the timing of a “Unit Test” should not be assigned to a specific date, like next Wednesday.
Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t learned by Wednesday, then we’re moving on and your window of opportunity has closed. Sorry kid. What’s worse, your learning gap will widen over time as we pile on new concepts, and your one area of non-mastery will become many areas of non-mastery. Small gaps become big gaps, and kids who can’t master the school game will become frustrated with their experience, and will lose confidence in their abilities.
Does that sound like the way school has always been to anyone else? When you think about it, does that make any sense at all?
There’s exciting new thinking coming our way. Students will be able to take unit tests when they are ready. Teachers will still set deadlines, but there will be multiple opportunities for students to re-do and re-learn along the way.
What’s more, grades become kind of immaterial.
Anyone ever grade you on your shoe-tying skills? Would it have helped you learn to tie your shoes if they had?
3. Assessment needs to reflect the learning, not the teaching
Assessment (testing, quizzing, projects, or anything to which we would traditionally assign a grade) should have clear goalposts. It should describe exactly what a student can demonstrate as areas of mastery, and should not be based on the preferences of the teacher.
Put differently, we should be asking kids what they know and can do, and should have a system of reporting to parents on exactly that. Our current system of education reports what percentage of questions a teacher can ask on a certain topic that your student can answer.
And those are not the same thing.
Say a teacher writes a 50-question test on The Cold War. Fifty years of history and four weeks of learning gets distilled to just 50 questions. And those teacher-created questions necessarily belie the educator’s unconscious biases, interests and emphases.
What your student knows about The Cold War may be vast and deep, but if 3/5 of the questions don’t reflect your student’s expertise or interest, they could be looking at a D-. They could walk away feeling like a big ol’ failure. Then you (and your students’ advisors or college admissions officers) might think they didn’t learn anything about The Cold War, even though what they do know is vast, deep, and reflected in a non-test way.
Let’s find out what your student actually knows, not whether or not they know the things the teacher decided to test on today.
This leads me to my final point about the awesomeness of proficiency-based reporting:
4. As often as possible, students should have opportunities to demonstrate their learning in their own way.
The goal is for kids to learn. Check.
The goal is for kids to learn at their own pace. Check.
The goal is for them to get multiple chances to show their learning until they get it right. Check.
So then how the heck do we actually assess that learning?
If we report on what a student can demonstrate mastery of, at first, this is going to be a little challenging for parents. We’re not giving your student a 60% / D- anymore. If we assess your student and they only know 60% of a core concept, we’re going to make a plan for them to keep at it.
But how are they going to show mastery?
As often as possible, students will be allowed to choose how they want to show their learning.
It will, of course, be a sliding scale of responsibility for younger students, but as they get older students will be encouraged to show what they have learned in a way that makes sense to them.
Some kids may show their learning in a simple report, while others may choose to make a graphic novel, an animated short film, an interpretive dance, whatever.
That demonstration of learning will be assessed using a series of proficiency standards and rubrics that the students have had the whole time, which means the target has been clear from the outset. No hidden agendas.
Instead, here’s a clear list of exactly what you need to learn on this topic, and what you need to demonstrate. Then the teacher and student will sit together and decide how that interpretive dance or graphic novel demonstrated their mastery of that target skill, and that mastery will be reported to parents.
What’s your role as a parent?
Needless to say, proficiency-based reporting is a really big change. And parents will need to change how they view the education of their child. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be quick, but it is going to better prepare students for the adult world. There will be lots of opportunities for parents to learn more about how education is going to change in the next five ears, and I encourage you to be a part of the conversation.
Thoughts? Share them with us!
How would proficiency reporting have changed your own experience with school?
An earlier version of this post originally appeared at Neal McIntyre’s personal blog.
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