Lessons Learned from Assessment Conferences

The week before Christmas break, I finished up my second round of assessment conferences. This time was a little different than the first round because, we were focusing on the progress students had made towards their individual writing and reading goals for the quarter. We have several different categories in which students have goals, so when we met, there was a lot to discuss. As a result, we agreed upon a grade for each goal, but I decided not to talk about their overall grades in that conference. I thought I needed more time to think about this, and I wanted to make sure I got to every student that week. Over break, then, I went back through the students’ planning sheets and figured an overall grade in writing and reading. Afterwards, I compared my grades to what the student had chosen, and as long as they were close, I didn’t think I needed a follow-up conference when school started back up. For the most part, my grades came out close to the students’, and if anything, they were usually a bit higher.

When I students saw their final grades, there weren’t many problems, but I did hear from one parent whose son was really confused by the grades he got. He had ended up with a B+ in both subjects, and he had given himself a B in both areas, so I didn’t understand where the confusion came from. However, after talking with the student and thinking more about our process, I began to realize something: Even though I based the overall grade on the grades we agreed upon, and even though I made sure my overall grade lined up with what the student had chosen, the fact that I made I made the final call without the student present created the impression that I had made this choice by myself. The whole point of these conferences is to make students’ active participants in the grading process, and while they were, they still weren’t there when the final choice was made. Next quarter, they need to be.

I haven’t figured out exactly how to make this work. Maybe I need to do some of my conferencing about individual goals throughout the quarter and then electronically at the end so that when we meet we can just focus on the overall grade. I don’t know for sure, but I know I need to find a way to make time for that to happen.

This experience, along with others this year, has brought something else into clearer focus: the whole system needs to change. It amazes me and my colleagues how often parents have gotten upset because a child has gotten a B or B+ or yes, even an A-. One of the main reasons I made the change to stop grading assignments and only talk about grades when I had to, because of report cards, is that I want students to not have to focus on a grade. I want them free to read, write, and learn without worrying about getting an A. However, as long as we’re still using traditional report cards, parents are going to put pressure on their kids to achieve a certain grade. And as long as that is happening, any changes I make in my individual classroom will never be enough.

I am fortunate that my school is moving towards a standards-based report card. Our youngest classes made the switch this year, and I am thrilled that my daughters (the oldest is in preschool) might grow up without ever receiving a traditional letter grade. Administration hasn’t made a final decision yet about the timeline for moving this system up through the grades, but at some point, it will reach the junior high where I teach. I, and most of the teachers I work with each day, can’t wait for that day to arrive. Going forward, I am going to do whatever I can to make that day come as soon as possible. I started by bringing up the topic in our junior high meeting this week. The next step is to start talking to administration. I’m hoping that knowing they have a whole team of teachers on board will help convince them to move things along as quickly as possible. We’ll see.

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