Now that institutions are starting classes again amid the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 crisis, instructors will need to reconsider the fairest ways to assess student learning in these unusual circumstances. Last semester, many of us had to shift how we taught as classes moved online. In my own courses for teachers in training, our lively discussions were replaced by online threads, students’ group project planning took place via GroupMe and we missed demonstrating lessons face-to-face.
But my approach to assessment remained stable. Several years ago, frustrated with traditional grading, I began moving toward a method centered on equity, self-direction and standards-based assessment for learning, in which students demonstrate mastery of various competencies instead of earning points on assignments. Therefore, I could easily adapt to my university’s decision last semester to allow students to take courses pass-fail and the directive to be flexible with deadlines while focusing on core objectives. Likewise, I feel ready for whatever changes in format and policy this semester brings.
This approach may not work for all instructors or disciplines. But I share it as we move into the new semester in hopes that it finds wider application both in times of crisis and normalcy.
I developed this system by learning from educational research, noticing my own discomfort with traditional grading and listening to my students -- 75 per semester, divided between three sections -- who often found their grades arbitrary and unfair. After I switched to this method, my workload went down, because I no longer had to agonize or negotiate over points. It helps that my students are preservice teachers who think deeply about education. I model the methods I hope they use with their students, which makes assessment more meaningful to all of us.
My approach foregrounds equity, which doesn’t mean treating all students equally but rather responding to each of their distinct needs. Some students arrive in my classroom well prepared by their high schools; others, through no fault of their own, do not. Some are financially supported by their parents, while others work multiple jobs, have children or relatives to care for or face racism and other forms of discrimination daily. Some struggle with physical or mental health problems or learning disabilities.
The COVID-19 crisis magnified such differences in students’ situations. When classes went online last semester, some students were comfortable in their families’ spacious homes while others were cramped in with friends or relatives. Those with precarious finances were under increased pressure, trying to complete schoolwork without reliable internet access or adequate devices. Many students with physical or mental health concerns had trouble accessing their providers.
That’s why, in the first week of every semester, I ask each student to let me know about anything that might affect their performance in class or help me understand how to support them. Because I have a sense of who is likely to be struggling, I can reach out to those students, offering encouragement and flexibility with deadlines.
This flexibility is easier to implement because I take an assessment for learning (as opposed to assessment of learning) approach. I give students feedback on whether their performance on assignments is developing toward, meeting or exceeding learning targets (e.g., adapting a lesson plan to meet the needs of emergent bilinguals/English learners). If they are meeting or exceeding learning targets, their work is complete. If it is still developing, it is incomplete, and I give them the opportunity and support to revise it. I also welcome students to revise and improve their work into the exceeding range.
In other words, my evaluation is geared toward figuring out what instruction students need next, rather than penalizing them for not having mastered the material yet. This isn’t being easy on students. Instead, it keeps all of us focused on the ultimate goal of learning -- and the fact that my job is to teach them, not just tell them what to do. My assumption is that all students can meet learning targets, although they may need different amounts of time and assistance to do so. In practice, they are as motivated as I am to move through the process in a timely manner.
The learning targets are meaningful because they are standards-based -- aligned with competencies required by the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and by our own program for teachers in training. Our activities, from discussion boards to quizzes to lesson plans, are tools to help them acquire the skills and knowledge they will need in their careers, rather than ends in themselves. I assess academic standards separately from those related to work habits (punctuality with deadlines, professionalism in communication) so students know exactly where their strengths lie and where they need more work.
Of course, final grades are necessary -- students’ GPAs are an important signal to future employers, besides being linked to financial aid. I use a final grade rubric that aligns their performance with A through F grades. Basically, exceeding learning targets aligns with the A range, meeting with the B range and developing with anything lower than that.
My students care about learning, which is where self-direction -- more specifically, goal-setting and self-evaluation -- comes in. At the beginning of the semester, they name the grade they hope to earn, anticipate which standards will be hardest for them to master, set goals in those areas, outline strategies for success and tell me how I can help them. Some are confident they can plan lessons, but they worry about connecting with their students’ families. Others struggle with time management but excel when cooperating with peers. Student-teacher relationships can be adversarial, but it feels so much better to help my students improve in ways that are important to them.
Midsemester, I check in with each student, and we discuss how their progress aligns with their desired final grade. I clarify what they will have to do in the second half of the semester to achieve their aims. These practices have dramatically improved my relationships with students. It’s much easier to establish trust and positivity with “You’re not there yet” than “You have a C.” I am still tweaking my system every semester in response to student feedback, but I feel confident I’m on the right track.
At the end of the course, students justify what final grade they think they deserve. I don’t set specific weights for assignments, but for an A or B, they need to have met or exceeded all standards. In the three years I’ve been using this approach, I’ve only had a handful of students initially assign themselves a grade I don’t think matches their performance. In those cases, we discuss further to find a solution acceptable to both of us.
The self-directed nature of my grading process is even more important this semester. So much is beyond students’ control right now. So many decisions have been made without their input.
In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and an ongoing uprising for racial justice, the fact that students can make as many tries as necessary to meet expectations has reassured all of us. So often, rigor and compassion are defined as mutually exclusive; I strive to make them go hand in hand.