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Assessing Assessment
Mat McLeod

To assess a situation is to make a judgement. When you take an assessment in school you are being tested to determine your current level of performance. There are two main types of assessment in schools. Assessment of learning is a snapshot of student performance. It reports on the current state of learning, often in the form of unit tests or exams. It is a benchmark and happens infrequently—once per study topic for instance. Assessment for learning provides information to students that will help them to improve and progress. It may include homework and short tests but also conversations, idea sharing, self-assessment, and anything that would allow a student to develop their understanding of the learning process. Assessment for learning takes place very frequently and is the main method by which students are informed of their current progress and pathways for further progress. The question is, how do we develop a grading system that supports assessment for learning?

It’s not an easy question to answer. Everyone likes traditional grades. At the simplest level a grade could just be a yes/no statement—for example “Can you rearrange equations?” “Yes”—great! “No”—oh dear. At a more advanced level a grade scale might be used—a percentage scale, letter grades A to F, or even GPA. These grades, however, are usually associated with how much of an assessment task has been completed. They do not always help explain where the grade came from. And, if applied to all assessment tasks, they do not always assess the same thing. For example, a student is given a 10-word vocabulary test in a French class. They get 9 out of 10—an A! They must be doing really well! They then complete an exercise that invites them to use those same words in context, perhaps writing a descriptive paragraph. This time they only get a C, they are not very good at using their vocabulary. So what is the overall grade? A? C? The average score—B? Which of these tells the true story? Which of these will inform the student of what they do well and where they need to focus in order to improve?

A different grade scale is needed: A standards based grading scale.

Standards-based grading involves more than just grading based on overall score. Each level of the grade indicates a particular level of skill. In order to progress to the next level a student cannot just study harder, they need to understand what level they are currently functioning at, and what is required to reach the next level.

The International Baccalaureate uses a 7-level standards-based grade scale. Each level corresponds approximately to a level of thinking complexity. A higher grade does not just mean ‘knowing more,’ but also working at a higher cognitive level. This is loosely based on Bloom’s taxonomy—a hierarchical ordering of cognitive skills.

Let’s look at the student learning French again. They have very good recall skills. They are able to memorize key vocabulary. However, no matter how much vocabulary they remember, they are still unable to use the words correctly to form sentences—they need to move from a basic level of recall to a higher level of application, the ability to use their knowledge in context. On a scale from 1 to 7, the highest level of recall would be level 4. Level 5 indicates good beginnings in applying their knowledge. Level 6 would indicate the ability to use their knowledge effectively. But what of level 7? Level 7 is the highest cognitive level and indicates synthesis—the ability to evaluate, compare, and create new ideas in unfamiliar situations.

By using a 1 to 7 grade scale, a student is gaining information not only about their current progress, but also the pathway to improvement. If this grading scale is used across the entire school, that student will be able to transfer their skills between subjects, it will be clear to the learner where they stand and where they will go next. It will be assessment for learning.

As we enter the 2019/2020 school year, we are very excited to be implementing standards-based grading at LAS. A traditional grade for a student records their ability—but it does not help them learn. Standards-based grading shows what a student’s current abilities are and gives them direction for future growth. We are confident this system will assist our students in their journey to become independent learners and develop important skills that they can carry with them into university and beyond.

 

 

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