Rethinking Assessment: How to Maintain Objectivity

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rethinking assessment

Assessment of learning needs to be objective. Teachers should attempt to eliminate as much subjectivity as possible.

Calling student activities “good,” “bad,” “weak,” or “nifty” brings opinion into the assessment process, which isn’t to suggest that opinion is not important. However, the most important opinions are the ones teachers often ignore–the opinions of  our students.

For a long time, I thought assessment was about grades–which also meant my opinion played the most significant role. After many years of assigning numbers and letters to students’ work, I spent an important summer researching the practice and realized that grading and assessing were two completely different things.

This excerpt from Role Reversal summarizes what I learned about grades and made me rethink assessment.

Whether it’s intentional or preconditioned, most teachers think of grades as measuring sticks. Students become labeled by a letter. “He’s a C student in math but a B student in social studies,” a counselor may say. A parent asks, “How did you do on your science project, honey?” The child says, “Oh, I got a B+.” Most parents will respond with a simple, “Oh, that’s great.” That is, unless the student has previously been labeled as an A student. Then, the parent may angrily shout, “Well, that’s not good enough. You know we expect nothing less than A’s from you.” In this case, a student who apparently performed well above average, at least according to traditional grading scales, on what may have been a very difficult project, is attacked because she’s less than perfect, in her parents’ eyes.

Why do teachers feel obligated to collect assignments and attach points, percentages or letters to them? A quiz has 20 questions, so it has to be worth 20 points, unless 20 points do not put enough weight on the quiz, in which case the teacher may double the value to 40. A health essay on the deleterious effects of cigarettes on the body is randomly assigned a value of 50 points. Where does this number originate? Why isn’t the paper worth 100 or even 1,000? More perplexing is the 5-point bell work–formerly one of my personal favorites. Complete a page in this vocabulary workbook for 10 minutes and receive 5 points. This and similar brief activities provide, in effect, nothing more than participation points–another crutch that many teachers use primarily as a classroom management tool.

If grades are nothing more than tools for measuring performance, one must wonder what 5-point bell works or, worse, participation points, are measuring. Do we really want to grade participation? Isn’t the real goal to simply have students learn? If the latter is true and we measure learning with grades, then taking points from a student because she does not speak during a discussion or raise her hand at least once a week is detrimental to the actual goal, as the zero only punishes her. Furthermore, if something like participation is lumped in with all other activities toward an overall grade and if grades are, in fact, measuring sticks, and if a non-participating student gets a C in a marking period, is she really only average?

One might argue that including participation in grading creates a subjective aspect; however, upon close examination, it is logical to say that grading, in general, is subjective. “Even the score on a math test is largely a reflection of how the test was written: what skills the teacher decided to assess, what kinds of questions happened to be left out, and how many points each section was ‘worth’” (Kohn, 2000, p. 41).

In fact, formal assessments, whether purposely or inadvertently, are routinely manipulated by teachers to generate a particular outcome. Study guides ask for rote memorization of skills and concepts taught throughout a learning unit; rubrics are nothing more than subjective checklists students can use to create what they believe the teacher wants to see. Weighting assignments punishes students perceived as lazy and rewards those considered to be hard working. All of these tools and methods affect grades. None is objective, though, and not a single one provides meaningful feedback about learning.Role Reversal (ASCD, 2013)

The word “objective” is debated often in the Teachers Throwing Out Grades Facebook group. Some people feel that teacher opinion is necessary. While I don’t want to de-value the opinions of educators, I do hope to emphasize that while we may often use the phrase “I think” with students, when it comes to providing narrative feedback, it’s best to use the phrase, “What if.”

When teachers make assessment a conversation that engages the learner by offering detailed observations about what has been accomplished, followed by “What if” questions, students become their own biggest critics. Plus, they appreciate the teacher as a guide, rather than someone who opines about what they have or have not done.

When educators rethink assessment and realize that students’ opinions are the most important, real learning happens, and this is a beautiful thing.

Barnes, M. (2013). Role reversal: Achieving uncommonly excellent results in the student-centered classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Kohn, A. (2000). The schools our children deserve: Moving beyond traditional classrooms and “tough standards”. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

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Mark Barnes is the Founder of Times 10 Publications, which produces the popular Hack Learning Series -- books and other series that provide right-now solutions for teachers and learners. Mark is the author or publisher of dozens of books, including Bestseller Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School. Barnes presents internationally on assessment, connected education, and Hack Learning. Join more than 150,000 interested educators who follow @markbarnes19 on Twitter.

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