Education as a Cut Sport
Basketball is a “cut” sport—players try out and not everybody makes the team. We don’t usually think of our classrooms as places where learning is a cut sport; nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I need to exclude a few students.” Yet some of our traditional assessment practices structure the rules of success so that education becomes a “sport” many students choose to drop. How does assessment do this? Three typical classroom causes are not allowing students sufficient time to practice, grading for compliance rather than learning, and using assessment practices that distort achievement.
Not allowing sufficient time for practice: Let’s assume that the reason we as teachers have jobs is because students don’t already know what we are teaching. It follows that we can expect a need for instruction accompanied by practice, which will not be perfect at the start. We can expect that we’ll need to monitor the practice to intervene with correctives so students don’t spend time in learning it wrong. If practice time is cut short by a pacing guide or other directive about what to “cover,” only those students who need a minimum of practice to improve will succeed. The others will tend to conclude they aren’t very good at the task or subject. But that is the premise we began with: they aren’t good at it. Our job is to give them sufficient opportunity to improve through instruction, practice, and feedback. If we cut learning short by assessing for the grade too soon, we have in effect decided to exclude a few students.
Grading for compliance rather than learning: The practice of awarding points for completion tends to cause students to believe the aim of their effort in school is to get work done. When learning is not the focus of points received, it matters less who does the work and whether growth has occurred. This is often done to get students to do the practice, but it miscommunicates the true intention—to practice in order to improve. When done is the goal, rather than improvement, growth is often marginal. When we don’t look at the work, we can’t use it as evidence to guide further instruction, so we are shutting our eyes to students’ learning needs, thereby shutting a few more students out of the game.
Distorting achievement: Including scores on practice work in the final grade is a common grading procedure that distorts achievement. When students need practice to learn, their beginning efforts are not generally as strong as their later performance. Averaging earlier attempts with later evidence showing increased mastery doesn’t accurately represent students’ true level of learning, and some give up trying altogether when they realize that they can’t overcome the hit to their grade caused by early imperfect trials. This also reinforces the damaging inference that being good means not having to try and that if you have to try, you aren’t good at the subject. If one of our goals is to get students to try, then trying shouldn’t engender the consequence of a low grade assigned too soon.
A less common but equally damaging procedure used when students don’t do well as a group on a test is to “curve” the grades by reapplying the grade point cutoffs at lower levels, so for example, what was a “C” becomes an “A.” This distortion of achievement masks the cause of low performance: were the results inaccurate because of flaws in certain items? Were items too difficult for the level of instruction preceding the test? Were there items on the test representing learning that wasn’t part of instruction? Each of these problems has a different solution, and each of them leads to misjudgments about students’ levels of achievement–the most harmful perhaps being those judgments students make about themselves as learners. Or did the results accurately represent learning not yet mastered? When we engage in practices that misrepresent achievement, we cut more than a few students out of learning.
All of these customs are continuously justified in terms of the results they yield, but if learning suffers we have created a more serious problem than the one we intended to solve. They lead us to ignore students’ learning needs, and they discourage students from seeing themselves as learners.
So what is the antidote? Some key places to start:
Emphasize that learning is the goal of education and focus instruction and activities on clear learning targets.
Ensure that your classroom assessment practices treat learning as a progression and mistakes as a way to learn.
Offer penalty-free feedback during the learning that helps students improve.
Use assessment as a means to know your students and to guide your own actions with them.
And finally, strive to implement assessment practices that help students see themselves as learners. If learning is truly the intended goal of the education game, all students can participate successfully.