100% won’t be enough

I have written about using qualitative assessment, rather than quantitative assessment before. Since giving up numerical scores, I have become increasingly critical of percentage grades. This post is adapted from an article I wrote for my school’s newsletter last fall about.

The purpose of school has traditionally been to ensure that students gather a certain set of knowledge and skills, but the rapid expansion of human knowledge is changing what students need from their education. In a world in which information is growing (and changing) quickly, a conceptual understanding, supported with specific facts and details, will last longer than the facts and details themselves. Moreover, the ability to organize and synthesize information at a conceptual level will help students to make sense of the plethora of facts and details that are readily available to them.

When teaching is taken to a conceptual level, a different approach is required to assess student learning. When instruction is geared towards teaching specific content and skills, assessment seeks to measure the amount of that content that students have learned. This is most obvious in percentage scores, where a student’s learning is expressed as a proportion of the total amount of knowledge deemed necessary. In concept-driven instruction, the goal of assessment is to measure the depth of understanding. A deep understanding could be demonstrated in the ability to apply knowledge in a novel situation, by making connections to other subject areas, or by raising ideas beyond what was explicitly taught. Because the deepest understanding requires transfer to a new situation, or an extension or connection beyond what was explicitly taught, percentage grades are inappropriate. In order to give students a percentage grade, we would first have to define what 100% is. By defining the whole, either as the maximum possible depth of understanding or the minimum amount of content knowledge required, we either limit student achievement or our ability to accurately describe the extent of their understanding. So, instead of quantitative measures, qualitative measures such as anecdotal feedback or descriptors in rubrics allow teachers to describe the full range of student achievement.

In order to provide accurate and detailed qualitative measures of student performance, assessment tasks have to be designed to give students the opportunity to show different depths on understanding. Specifically, tasks should be structured so that students state specific facts or details, describe those details, explain how the parts are connected and then justify an opinion with valid reasons. For example, students might state several facts about the French revolution, describe the contributing factors, and explain how those factors resulted in a revolution. They might then analyze recent events such as the Arab spring, and discuss whether these events could lead (or are leading) to revolution, justifying their opinion with valid reasons.

In a rapidly changing world, the transfer of knowledge and skills is essential. Today’s world is different from the one for which we adults were educated, and the world our students will face as adults will be even more so. By developing an ability to transfer prior knowledge to new situations, our students will be better equipped to meet the challenges and opportunities of the future.

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