100 Learning?

100 Cute?

For my son, 100 is the biggest number in existence. If you ever want to express the idea that something is truly superlative, just label it with 100. For example, if you had a really great time at the park today, you had “100 fun.” If I am eagerly awaiting a weekend birthday party, I’m “100 excited.” You get the idea.

Of course the idea of using a quantitative measurement for an abstract concept is ludicrous. But he’s four years old, so we give him a pass. After all, he’s cute!

As I think about the way we treat assessment in our classrooms, it occurs to me that we might do the same thing. I teach a unit. I give a test. A student takes that test and gets a 92. He now has 92 learning.

We have attached this type of quantitative measurement to teaching and learning for so long now that it doesn’t even strike us as being odd. We never ask the question, “what do these numbers mean?” Are we measuring what we think we’re measuring? Are we even using the right unit of measure?

The fact that we’ve been using this method for so long should suggest that a) something about it works, b) its too hard to do anything else, or c) we’re afraid of what a better assessment might reveal. I suppose there is also a third option – a combination of the first three.

I am willing to admit that there is a correlation between a student’s grade in a class and his ability to show mastery of the concepts. But when we use those grades to rank and sort and determine important life decisions like college entrance is correlation enough? And when we also use factors like “neatness” and “class participation” in the equation, does that not lessen the correlation?

All this to say, I find myself more and more on the student portfolio bandwagon. Not just because it is the latest fad in assessment and not because it gives me another opportunity to use technology to solve a problem. I am in favor of the idea because in a world where the number we assign to a student can make or break him we owe it to that student to be as comprehensive and transparent with the grading process as possible. A cumulative portfolio of student work gives us a tool to attempt just that.

Of course no single classroom teacher can change the entire structure of academic assessments. But just because you still have to give a grade doesn’t mean you can’t also provide a portfolio. If what people like Tony Wagner (of Harvard University) and others say is true, colleges and universities are slowly starting to see the value of a portfolio in their admissions process, while simultaneously devaluing standardized assessments.

How can you do this in your classroom? Here’s a simple two-step solution:

  1. Assign meaningful work
  2. Archive the products of that work

Step one is really the hard part. Keeping an archive is easy. There are a variety of ways to do this, including just taking pictures or making recordings of the student’s work. You can then save it to a hard drive or post it to a blog so that there is a lasting record of what that student has done. Use standardized file formats so that they are easily accessible across platforms, and you’ve got an invaluable tool for that student to give an authentic account of what he or she can do.

We can argue all day about whether the educational system will ever change to fully adopt methods like this for assessment. The answer to that question, however, is irrelevant. If we can see the value in the endeavor and know that it is technically possible, why not start now?

We 100 owe it to our students.

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