#87 – Exploring the Crossroads of Assessment, Student Choice, and Grading: Stories From a High School Science Class

Unpacking Education April 13, 2022 36 min

We live in systems, and those systems continually change and adapt to an ever-evolving environment. This is true in society at large and in the ecosystems of our classrooms. Three key aspects of an academic learning system are assessment, student choice, and grading; these elements sometimes conflict with each other in practice. To build a better system for learning, we must continually rethink how these three components work together and how we can leverage them to empower students and maximize learning.

In this episode, we are joined by veteran science teacher Mark Peterson. Mark is committed to living a life in beta, always seeking to improve his craft as an educator. In our conversation today, we explore the crossroads of assessment, student choice, and grading. We ask the hard questions, look for solutions, and reflect on Mark’s experiences as a science teacher striving to empower his students and make learning meaningful.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

For life in permanent beta, the trick is to never stop starting.

 Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn and author of The Start-Up of You

Rethinking How We Implement Assessment, Choice, and Grading

It’s not hard to find examples of classrooms that still look much like they did 30, 50, or even 100 years ago. A teacher stands in the front of the room lecturing new content to students who scribble down notes that they will use to study for an end-of-unit test. While this system is safe and comfortable for many, it often does not maximize learning, empower students, or equip them with the life skills they will need in an ever-changing world. Instead of this traditional model, we need a system that offers students a voice in the learning process as well as opportunities to engage in authentic learning experiences.

During our conversation, Mark shares how he has grown as a science teacher and how he has shifted from a content-driven classroom to one that values process and student choice. There are still assessments and grading, but these tools look different in Mark’s classroom and are used in ways that empower students throughout the learning process, rather than simply summarizing progress when learning has concluded. He reminds us that we “go to school for our students” and describes the role of a teacher as the hero’s journey. Students are “going to fall into the abyss, and we need to be there to help them out,” he says. The following are some highlights from our discussion:

  • Living in Beta: If we’re not in beta, we are no longer growing and evolving. We need to continually adapt to changing circumstances. If we don’t, we will be doing our students a disservice. We must focus on continual improvement. Part of the process of living in beta is learning to find the joy in figuring something out and working through the ambiguities.
  • Choice and Assessment in a Beta World: While content basics must still be learned, Mark has structured his classroom largely around student curiosity. He has them generate the questions that will drive their learning. This empowers them with choice and ownership in the learning process. Part of this includes assessment, too. Standards are converted to proficiency standards, which clearly detail learning objectives. Throughout the learning journey, students join in collaborative dialogues with the teacher to determine where they are at in their learning. Students must defend their progress and justify a grade.
  • A Shift From Content to Process: When Mark began teaching, he often lectured content in front of the classroom. That is no longer his classroom, and he is not “hung up on content” anymore. Instead, he has shifted his focus to processes. This allows students to experience an authentic scientific process and to think like scientists. This process is driven by curiosity and questions, and he has discovered that when students are allowed to ask the questions, they almost always ask the same questions he was hoping they’d ask anyway. This process also allows students choice in developing authentic learning experiences. He shares some examples of this, such as a student developing a phone app to solve a science problem or another student exploring ways to save coral reefs.
  • Continued Beta: Mark has shifted his processes over the years in his attempt to best meet student learning needs. He shifted from standards-based grading to depth of knowledge (DOK) to his current practice of proficiency standards. Just as he continues to iterate his practices, he calls on students to continually self-assess. He provides constant feedback if they are “not there yet” and probes students’ thinking to understand their own progress. He admits that it is hard for students to answer this question at first. Many will respond with, “What do you mean, where am I at?” However, this is an essential skill that will empower them their entire lives and something worth striving toward, and they eventually learn how to become skilled at it in his classroom.
  • Standards-Based Grading: Standards-based grading can work at a secondary level as it does in classrooms at earlier grade levels. Implementing standards-based grading requires a good deal of work and collaboration to develop agreed-upon proficiency statements that will lead to consistent scoring among teams of teachers. This type of grading is also more accurate in that it eliminates “responsible citizen” elements, such as extra credit and late-work penalties, that may not accurately reflect academic achievement.
  • Authentic Assessment: In real-life science, there is constant failure. That is an authentic experience not rewarded by test scores in a classroom. To bring in more authentic science, Mark has flipped his classroom. Students learn core content outside of class time, freeing up the face-to-face class period for more authentic science experiences. He uses this time for labs, exploration, inquiry, and conferencing. He states that if the focus is on the process and not the content, it becomes “real science” and a real science experience. He wants students to wonder, explore, and question, rather than memorize 100 terms for a Friday test.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your teaching team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • Share an example from your own life or someone else’s about living in beta. What is this experience like, and what are the pros and cons?
  • How do you define grading and assessment, and what is the difference?
  • What role can, or should, student choice play in assessment?
  • How can student questions drive the learning in your classroom?
  • How can you effectively implement formative assessment in a student-centered way?
  • Which is more valuable: content or process? Explain your thoughts and how this shows up in your classroom.
  • How do you grade students, and would a standards-based system work for you?
  • How can you make assessment authentic in your classroom?

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