October 31, 2010

Results only evaluation

At the end of our first quarter in a Results Only Learning EnvironmentTM, the time came to assign a letter grade to my students, who had seen no points, percentages or grades on any activity or project for the first nine weeks of the school year.

It took only about two weeks for questions about grades to disappear. This was a truly transformative experience. For the first time in 18 years of teaching, my students were less interested in a grade and more enthusiastic about producing something and receiving meaningful feedback on the activity or project.

Sadly, I was forced by district policy to assign a grade, and this left me in a quandary. Of course, I could do it, based on the students' production and my feedback and how they handled the feedback. I was reluctant to grade them, though, because grading is so contrary to the environment that we had created -- one of self-pacing, production, feedback and change. The students had bought in, and now I was going to do what I had told them all quarter that I was so against -- assign a letter grade.

After much deliberation, I decided that it would be best for us to agree on the final mark. I emphasized that the report card grade was a product of school policy and that in the second quarter we would return to no grades and a system of results followed by teacher feedback. Then, I told the students that it was their grade and they should have a role in deciding it. Needless to say, they were shocked; this had never happened to them.

I instructed students to spend a night self-evaluating. "Go home and consider what you've produced during the first quarter," I said. "Look at ProgressBook (our online grade book), and review the comments I've left on every activity. Also, look at the feedback I've left about your performance in general." Several times weekly, I placed a comment on each student's online record that they and parents could see. For example, I might write, "Excellent small-group discussion, demonstrating understanding of the concept of flashback in a short story" or "You contributed very little today, and these small-group discussions are critical to my evaluation of your reading comprehension."

The following day, my classes met in our school learning commons -- the library and media center. While they did project work on laptops, I met with each student individually for 2-5 minutes and we looked at their results and my feedback. After several minutes of evaluative comments from me, I asked students for their feedback; then, I said, "Now, you assign a letter to your work for the first quarter."

There were roughly 80 of these meetings and, remarkably, there was not a single disagreement on the final grade. Several students, some on the brink of tears, admitted that they had produced very little and assigned themselves a grade of "D" or "F." Can you imagine a student saying I deserve an "F?"

Admittedly, there were more "A's" than I've had in recent years, but this was more a product of eliminating useless homework and jaded summative assessments, which serve only to damage grades, than it was students misrepresenting their work.

My students and I agreed on a final grade, based on overall results -- two major, month-long projects, much feedback from me and from peers and their handling of that feedback.

After one quarter, I believe my students are learning more than ever -- both about language arts and about how to be better life-long learners.