Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Show Me the Data!

A comment on the way I think about a controversial issue: I argue it. I want to hear how my opinion holds up. I want to hear how well I can deconstruct the dominating idea. So just for practice, here it goes on the topic of grading.

Should students who do poorly on an exam be allowed opportunities to retest? Should they be allowed to take the higher grade, rather than an average of the two? According to Ken O'Connor (author of such delightful fare as How to Grade For Learning and 15 Fixes for Broken Grades), teachers should offer retakes to students and record only the score of the second test. I have sat through many frustrating meetings on this topic during the past school year, as revising grading practices is the current priority of my principal. Here is a summary of the reasons WHY O'Connor believes you should allow students to retest:

1. Forcing a student to keep his/her low grades gives the student an "out" in the sense that he or she can stop worrying about the material once the low grade is received. Retesting requires the student to try again to learn the material. (My question: how do you make a student that was originally resistant to learning and studying actually learn and study? Aren't we missing the salient point that students are beings with a will of their own?)

2. We claim that students should be held accountable for scores on their first tests because that is the way of the real world, but in truth, the "real world" allows for retests: think of the driver's test, SAT's, bar exam, etc. (My question: what about performance in the real world that is not measured by a test--which is indeed the vast majority of our professional careers? So, Dr. Smith, you killed your first three surgery patients? Not to worry, you got it right THIS time. Or imagine you totally screwed up your proposal for an architectural project. You lost the commission--no second chances.)

3. Grades should be a reflection of WHAT the student knows, not how long it took to get there. If a student eventually relearns the material, why does it matter if it was not for the date of the original exam? (Rebuttal: I think this is actually his best point. Still, the reality is that schools function on a timeline. Quarters end, grades are due, the class moves on to the next topic. Accommodating individuals is not inherently bad, but in practice, does this mean the teacher has 30 lesson plans per class?)

4. Change is good. Anyone who doubts proposed changes fears change. This one actually comes from leadership at the school. (Now that I've stripped that idea free from the accompanying rhetoric, do I need to rebut it?)

I've started some preliminary research on test retakes. What I've found so far are many advocates of grading systems similar to Ken O'Connor's. They can give philosophical and theoretical reasons for their opinion, but none so far has offered empirical proof. While they cite plenty of research indicating the negative effects of traditional grading practices on learning and motivation, I have yet to see any research that shows improvement in these areas under the proposed changes: I want them to show me that students actually LEARNED more because of this change. Otherwise, all this hoopla about grades is only conjecture. (Disclosure: I need to research this more carefully; I don't recall seeing any research that fits this bill, but I need to check O'Connor again carefully, and there is certainly a lot of research out there that I haven't seen yet).

If I'm feeling bold enough and like it's worth the ensuing unpleasantness, I may suggest in our next meeting that we actually pilot our proposed grade changes by collecting data: to start, what were grades in previous years in identical classes? How do they compare? But grades can't be used alone because the proposed changes could potentially result in grade inflation. What about state exam and AP test scores?

While I realize data aren't everything, I find it comforting that carefully collected, honestly presented data are a powerful tool for convincing people to look beyond their own philosophies and politics. You want me to believe revising grading practices in this manner will have a powerful effect on learning? Show me it works, don't just tell me why it should.

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