Self-Reporting Grades in Maths

I like this quote from Dr Nathan Lang. On the face of it, I agree with what he is saying.

C/- Dr Nathan Lang

Waiting around for high stakes, one-and-done, summative assessments to inform practice is a bad idea for any educator. The inference, I believe, is advocating for positive relationships, formative assessment, exit slips, feedback, student conferences etc. Take my money. I’m totally buying what the good doctor is selling. My only problem with the quote is this; I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly where all of my students were at all times. I’m a generalist primary school teacher with eight distinct subject areas to cover in a class of 26 students You do the maths, that is a lot of knowing. I realise this quote is not meant to be taken literally; but are we lying to ourselves if we believe we know where our learners are at all times? What if we didn’t have to? What if we trusted students enough to be able to know and communicate where they were at?

Show me how you can…

Last year I wrote about why our class moved to gradeless learning in all subjects, including maths. The challenge since then has been deciding how to facilitate voice and choice, collect evidence of understanding, and most importantly, create opportunities for authentic assessment in maths. When reflecting on what I want students to achieve, I wrote:

I want to eliminate the learn and burn mentality and replace it with slow, deep thinking and increased understanding. I want all students in our class to become more confident, skilled, creative, resilient and flexible in their thinking. I want to meet students where they are with their learning and be able to provide productive feedback that drives individual learning forward beyond percentages and scores. I want to develop and maintain a culture where mistakes are valued and used as opportunities to learn. I want students to see the value in collaboration and take opportunities to “share the wealth” of knowledge that exists within our class. I want students to enjoy Maths and see themselves as Mathematicians!

Taking grades, scores, percentages, and competition out of our maths lessons has had a significant impact. And I’m not just talking about growth and achievement; I’m talking enjoyment. The majority of students tell me that they actually like maths now. There is less fear of failure, in fact, we embrace it. We rely on it. Failing forward is the common factor in our room; if we aren’t failing, we probably aren’t learning. Problem is, I’m mandated to report a letter grade twice a year in end of semester reports, which begs the question; How do we report it?

I have spent significant time assessing what I value, as opposed to my previous practice of valuing what I assessed. Essentially, I have pulled apart the Australian Curriculum achievement standard for each year level and reduced it down to the following 16 success criteria:

I considered using “I can” statements but settled on “show me how you can” stems instead. Students use a select and defend framework for arriving at a grade, which means that they are tasked with collecting learning evidence that best shows their achievement and growth. This evidence can take many forms including formative/summative/diagnostic assessments including oral explanations, observations, and other authentic means. But at the end of the day, I’m the one with the expertise in the curriculum and responsible for signing off on reports, so I’m the one who needs to be convinced of the legitimacy of the grade. Using Robert Kaplinsky’s Levels of Convincing graphic, I constitute a supportive, one man jury.

Levels of Convincing c/- Robert Kaplinsky

It irks me that, despite my best efforts, I remain the gatekeeper of the grade. The requirement to measure and sort students remains as we are forced to reduce an incredibly complex year-long learning journey of creativity, growth, critical thinking, and application into a single letter grade. What exactly does that communicate again? But within our public system, this remains the price of admission at this time, so we will continue to play the game, albeit by our own abridged rules. Are we just gaming the system? Maybe. But perhaps this is a system that needs to be gamed.

As teachers, we generally only need to convince ourselves of the appropriateness of a students reported grade to sleep at night. According to Kapinsky’s measure, this is the easiest Level of Convincing. Can you imagine the anxiety-inducing scenes if every teacher’s grading system was held accountable to convince a “jury” of colleagues of its legitimacy and equity? Is our system of self-reporting subjective? Absolutely. It requires a professional on-balance judgement to be made based on a body of evidence. It’s just, in this case, the professional happens to be 11 years old.

Can a student be trusted to self-report a Maths grade? Is it fair to expect them to? Yes and more yes. My own brief experience and the collective knowledge of my gradeless PLN suggests that students are in fact, extremely capable and accurate in predicting and evidencing grades. Anecdotally, nine out of ten students select grades that are in the ballpark of my own gut feeling when entering a grading conference. If anything, students tend to lean towards under-grading themselves.

Can this use of authentic assessment and self-reporting be easily moderated to accurately and repeatedly identify the difference between A-E grade? I very much doubt it. I see the irony in this statement as in recent times our district partnership has literally spent days discussing how to moderate grades accurately. One size fits all assessment and reporting does not work, it isn’t fair and certainly isn’t equitable. Why do we continue to pretend that grading is objective and measurable? This question reminds me of Arthur Chiaravalli’s article It’s Time We Hold Accountability Accountable which is well worth a read if you haven’t happened upon it. So how will we discern levels of achievement?

We constantly discuss Depth Of Knowledge (DOK) during lessons. We cycle through all DOK levels at different times, and students have come to understand and be able to identify the difference. DOK 2 & 3 problems tend to require an interdependence of student collaboration and support, which means working slowly and methodically together to overcome complex problems. DOK1 tasks tend to be more shallow, and rote-based which allows for greater voice and choice over tasks and are also far more easily completed with little to no collaborative assistance. So rightly or wrongly, evidencing DOK and application and evidence of critical thinking is how we will arrive at A and B level achievement.

Image C/- Alice Keeler

I have noticed that, for someone that doesn’t use any grades in day to day teaching and learning, I sure do spend a lot of time talking about and planning for grades. The irony on this is that what I teach this year really won’t change much at all. How continues to receive ongoing tweaks, and why remains largely untouched. My master plan isn’t to use this system to just arrive a a single letter grade for reports, it is to begin to find a better way to communicate learning with stakeholders i.e. students and families. We will be trialling SeeSaw to create digital portfolios to store and share evidence of learning. Hopefully, this framework which is only in its infancy, will help us start taking steps towards our next do better.

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