The ‘New Normal’ is Not Normal – So Let’s Stop Pretending that Grades Matter!

The most important thing we can do to help our students – and their families right now is to encourage them to take care of their physical and emotional health. We talk about hand washing and social distancing – but what if we gave emotional distancing from grades a try!

Whatever precision we believe we have created with our assessment plans, grading practices, and online reporting systems, none of that is relevant now. In the quest for the perceived accuracy of a percentage grade, we must be completely sure that our distance learning and assessment practices are not causing additional stress for our students, their families, and our teachers. Surely the Hippocratic oath of medical professionals to “first do no harm” is transportable to the teaching profession.

We are dealing with great disparities in the resources and supports available to our students. Some have devices, some do not, some are sharing with parents and siblings, and some have insufficient bandwidth to accomplish their assigned tasks. Some have parents who are fortunate to be able to work at home, some parents must leave home to go to work, and many have lost employment. Some of our students are caring for younger siblings while parents work. Some children are home alone long before they really should be. Any pre-existing family stress will be multiplied during this time of isolation. If our students’ mental health was a priority prior to this pandemic, it is exponentially relevant now.

Our online reporting systems, as amazing as they are, have one key limitation. They can’t think. Now more than ever we require teacher professional judgment to mediate whatever limited evidence they are able to obtain about what students know and can do. Professional judgment is so important that it is even listed within the TQS. Now is the time to highlight its value, and to help teachers understand that the grade book isn’t the sole determiner of student grades.

Grades are always an inaccurate representation of what students know and can do. Dylan Wiliam reminds us that measurement error is present in every form of assessment – even large scale assessment, but that’s a conversation that most people don’t want to have. Right now, grades are even more inaccurate than they have ever been, so stop grading! That’s the best advice we can give right now for K – 9 distance learning classrooms.

For high school where a percentage grade is required, please, please, please don’t ask your teachers to mimic the diploma format. There is no diploma this year. This is the opportunity for your teachers to create a relevant, engaging summative task that will allow students to use those higher order thinking skills. The entire world is focused on a rush for a cure, for a vaccine, for a testing protocol. The skills that our students will need to address the needs of their future don’t come from cracking the code of a multiple choice exam.

And let’s be clear that just because we are using technology doesn’t mean we are engaging in 21st century learning. Worksheets delivered by email or through an online learning portal that are focused on low-level recall and comprehension are not proxy for rich curriculum – even our current curriculum.

We may have touched a nerve with this column, and for that we will channel Dylan again. Dylan shared a poster he observed in a teacher’s classroom, which stated: Frustrated? Confused? Good! It was worth coming to school today!

So if we have touched a nerve, may we humbly say, “Good! We’re glad you read to the end of this column!”

Please, for the sake of your students’ – and your teachers’ mental health, please carefully consider, and be prepared to rethink, the assessment practices that you have put in place during this pandemic.

In fairness, we believe leaders have been doing the best they can. There was no warning, no time to prepare. But now that we are in this, and it looks like it will be this way for a while yet, let’s take a moment to rethink. Let’s be sure that all the great things we’ve learned together over the years about formative assessment don’t go out the window. An over-reliance on things that are easy to measure soon translates into us valuing those things. And once that happens, it will be very difficult to stop that train…

Teachers are bound to follow the directives they receive from you as their leaders. If Alberta Education is giving school principals discretionary authority to award high school credits in the absence of the usual evidence of learning, then surely we can work with our teachers to adjust what appropriate evidence of learning looks like. In the absence of the typical provincial accountability framework, let’s not rush to create one of our own.

For our AAC members, we are always available to talk with you about ways to adapt assessment practices. Now more than ever we are available to help.

What if this was the ‘watershed’ moment that placed the research on formative assessment front and centre – for the sake of our students? What if this extraordinary moment in time gave us the opportunity to reimagine our assessment practices? What if you were the leaders who were able to champion that movement?

Let’s talk!

Hey Leaders! Do you know how important your work is?

Hey Leaders! Do you know how important your work is?

Seriously! It’s true.

In a review of the research, Leithwood, Louis, Anderson and Wahlstrom (2004) determined that “…leadership not only matters: it is second only to teaching among school-related factors in its impact on student learning…”

With the new TQS and LQS officially in place, AAC has a fabulous new resource to support you as leaders in having important conversations about – what else but classroom assessment, of course!

This new resource has been developed especially for busy school leaders – like you! This resource:

  • is based on 32 AAC videos that show real teachers and real students engaged in effective classroom assessment – in real schools – like yours.
  • contains background information to help you lead conversations about assessment with your staff.
  • provides a suggested framework for creating a school-based assessment team – a bonus to help broaden the conversation about assessment within your school.

Click to Download PDF

Now that the first round of reporting and conferencing has finished, this is a perfect time to reflect on any assessment questions that were raised throughout that process.

Yes, you can be an instructional leader in assessment! And the reason that matters, is so that we can reach all the students under our care – even the ones who seem difficult to reach.

Check it out! This work was funded through a development contract with the Alberta Teachers’ Association to support implementation of the TQS and the LQS. It’s available to everyone!

Want more information? Contact us and we can help with ideas on how to make the most of this resource.

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