February 22, 2011

Meaningful Assessment Without Grades

I just completed assessing melody composition projects and accompanying critical analyses submitted by students in my Music Theory I class.  The students worked in small groups to learn content-related information necessary for completion of the project, then applied his/her learning in composing a children's "learning" song (similar to that of the "ABCs" song) for a self-selected learning topic (such as days of the week, oceans, months, planets, etc.). They worked for 2 weeks composing, sharing their efforts both with myself and their learning group throughout the time period, revising their compositions, and sharing again. Final projects were taught to the class by the composers, with written critical analyses posted along with the melodies to a class website for all to review and comment.

For the first time that I can recall, the project assessment process was actually enjoyable for me, and I hope valuable for students. No grades were assigned, no rubrics, no points, no percentages (thank you Joe Bower). Rather, I evaluated each melody and analysis in a narrative manner, then met individually with each student to discuss their projects.

The individual meetings allowed me to express my thoughts and offer suggestions, but also helped me to better understand each students' thinking and considerations for the decisions made. In short, our assessment meetings opened a dialog between teacher and student, a conduit for growth and thinking, and established a connection with my students that I haven't experienced previously. Each conversation was different, unique, allowing us explore new creative approaches and possibilities, and to better understand the consequences of certain decisions. Our conversations also gave me the chance to fill in any gaps in student understanding that arose or were exhibited. In short, this assessment approach offered specific, direct, and meaningful feedback to each student in a way that assigning a grade or providing written comments alone cannot offer.

Yes, a grade could be assigned  to each project in addition the student-teacher dialog, but what would be the value in doing so? If the personal assessment already shared through dialog with the student gives the feedback necessary to help the student develop and learn in the future, what added value does placing a number or letter on an assignment have? Grading only serves to make the learning process more competitive and potentially destructive, as students compare their scores with their peers and against an arbitrary measure of learning, and quite likely would stifle individual creativity as students strive to meet a singular view of what is "good."

Instead, unfettered by grades or creative expectations, my students shared some wonderfully creative compositions that were clearly effective and memorable. And, I am very pleased to say, not one student asked what grade they received for their project.

Admittedly, I put forth much more effort and devoted significantly more time to assessing each project in this manner, but the benefit in doing so is potentially greater student learning, creativity, responsibility, and growth. I will use this assessment approach again.

February 4, 2011

Are National Standards Useful?

After a rousing discussion with a few students following our class this morning, I now am forced to consider the usefulness/purpose of national standards in practice. Because I teach music, I thought that the justification of the national standards in Music Education offered by my profession's national organization, MENC – The National Association for Music Education, might be an effective foil for discussing the usefulness and purpose of national standards, in general. I admit that I am not too familiar with national standards and their justifications offered by other national organizations, but I suspect they are quite similar to those shared below.

This is what MENC lists as the "importance" of standards on their website:

The Importance of Standards. Agreement on what students should know and be able to do is essential if education is to be consistent, efficient, and effective. In this context, Standards for arts education are important for two basic reasons. First, they help define what a good education in the arts should provide: a thorough grounding in a basic body of knowledge and the skills required both to make sense and make use of the arts disciplines. Second, when states and school districts adopt these Standards, they are taking a stand for rigor in a part of education that has too often, and wrongly, been treated as optional. This document says, in effect, an education in the arts means that students should know what is spelled out here, and they should reach clear levels of attainment at these grade levels.
These Standards provide a vision of competence and educational effectiveness, but without creating a mold into which all arts programs must fit. The Standards are concerned with the results (in the form of student learning) that come from a basic education in the arts, not with how those results ought to be delivered. Those matters are for states, localities, and classroom teachers to decide. In other words, while the Standards provide educational goals and not a curriculum, they can help improve all types of arts instruction.

Consider the first statement - "Agreement on what students should know and be able to do is essential if education is to be consistent, efficient, and effective." This presupposes that "consistency" is a goal of education. If this were the case, wouldn't all schools follow the same curriculum? Have the same achievement goals? The same instructional methodology? The same materials and resources? Clearly, this is not the case. Issues of educational equity and authority likely would prevent a goal of "consistency" from becoming reality.

How do standards address efficiency? According to my Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, ““efficient” has several definitions, including “productive without waste.” It is possible that efficiency may be achieved by eliminating the need for standard adopters to consider carefully what subject matter they will teach and how the material is taught. However, I believe that careful consideration and revision of curricular content should be an ongoing practice of educators, and that eliminating the need for teachers to think, rationalize, and justify why they are teaching specific content cannot result positively for students. It is doubtful that such abdication of instructor responsibility will ever be held up as a "best practice" exemplar. Efficiency is a term most commonly associated with productivity in business and industry. And so it seems, even here the "factory-model" of education and training workers for the jobs of the future again rears its ugly head. 

Use of the word "effective" in the MENC statement likely is very deliberate in that it implies achievement of a desired result. But, this then requires an agreement as to what the result is or will be. If learning is to be student centered, won't the desired results for students necessarily vary depending on student needs, ability, and experiences? Further, if the standards are not adopted by an educator or institution, can it be said with such certainty that the quality of instruction and student learning is not "effective?" Is, then, standards-based education always effective? A quick look around our schools and the breadth education reform movements that exist throughout all levels of government - local through national - demonstrate that a causal link between standards-based education and "effective" education does not exist.

Moving ahead, the MENC statement identifies two reasons that the standards are important: 1) They help define skills and knowledge essential to understanding the subject matter, and 2) They are symbols of academic rigor. 

By design, standards are written broadly to accommodate multiple instructional approaches and achievement levels. Typically, educational standards do not indicate the specific depth of understanding that is necessary to achieve "essential to understanding the subject matter." Rather, national standards indicate broad content areas only. Doesn't then this lack lack of specificity in fact make standards less useful to educators/practitioners? And isn't it this lack of specificity that work directly against the consistency and efficiency adoption of the standards is purported to achieve? As stated above, "standards are concerned with the results," yet typically standards do not describe how one would know if the desired results are achieved (assessment). 

In regard to adoption of the standards association with academic rigor, rigor itself describes a designed unyielding lack of flexibility and exacting precision. The standards are written too broadly to inform institutions or educators seeking to instill greater rigor in their programs, classrooms, or institutions. Further, the association with standards as an indicator of rigor is a contradiction with the goal of implementation flexibility inherent in broadly-written standards .

Perhaps standards are written so broadly simply because agreement cannot be reached across affected constituencies on defining the depth of understanding necessary for achievement of essential understanding in a subject area and the assessments necessary to identify successful standards achievement. The variability of students, teachers, administrators, educational infrastructures, economics, policies and politics, etc. prevents consensus agreements from being reached without altering the constituencies and/or the authors of the standards themselves. Consequently, what is adopted are those general points on which all sides can agree. This approach to defining standards through negotiated consensus, unfortunately, sounds more like politics and less like education, and moves the discussion away from what is best for the students to what is best for politicians. 

So, if broadly written standards have little practical use in the classroom due to their lack of specificity and assessment guidelines, and if highly prescriptive standards that are capable of achieving the sought-after consistency and rigor are too inflexible to accommodate the everyday variability of those who adopt them, how are standards useful?

Maybe the one thing - the best thing - that can be taken from any group of national standards is the concept of communicating and working toward a shared goal. That goal, however, is not most effectively defined not at the national level, but rather at the local level, at the level of the student and his/her teacher. The student must have a shared voice in defining the outcome for learning authenticity and relevance to be possible. And, this shared vision must be open to review, revision, and reinterpretation as situations and needs change. 

January 23, 2011

Build it and they will...

I had an interesting never-before-happened experience teaching last week. During class, my students and I were discussing a PBL project that is the focus of our entire semester's classwork. Our discussions were lively, focused, in-depth, and highly productive. No lecturing. No handouts. Just a sharing of thoughts and ideas in a deliberative manner.

Then class ended after 50 minutes, but none of the students wanted to leave. They ALL wanted to continue our discussion. So, for 20 minutes more, we continued to deliberate and argue before I told them that I needed to get to my next appointment. Having students stay after class to continue continue our classroom conversation was unusual itself, but it was what happened later that was most unusual for me. The students came back after my appointment and asked if we could extend the class every Friday in order to have similar conversations on class-related topics and others. In short, the students were excited and engaged in their learning, and wanted more. Needless to say, I was thrilled that my students were energized by the class, but more by their desire for opportunities to think critically and creatively, and that they sought out the opportunities on their own accord.

This was my hope when designing the course this semester. I wanted to place more of the learning responsibility into the students' hands, and allow all of us - them and me - to work together on a project. I wanted to create a learning environment in which students were forced to think critically and creatively in solving complex problems. I wanted to create an learning environment in which students must relay on each other, must partner with one another to achieve their goals. I wanted to create a learning environment where they could feel they had control over their own learning, and where I was merely another collaborator. I wanted to create a learning environment in which there was no grade pressure, but only the expectation of each student's best work.

This experience demonstrates for me that if teachers create a learning environment that allows students to have an equal, respected voice in their learning, one in which students are challenged to think critically to solve relevant problems, and one in which students must be tolerant and respectful of others, students will indeed take control of their learning and make it more self-directed, more self-motivated, and more personally rewarding. Students will choose to learn because they want to learn.

This was week one. Now begins the difficult task of nurturing throughout the semester the energy and enthusiasm students demonstrated in the first week of class.