There is a moment in education where all the hard work pays off: the moment a student grasps the soul of a literary character or the moment a student “gets” a math problem. The Greeks called this moment “scholi.” We call it school. “Scholi” is an amazingly rich Greek word that means both school and leisure. For moderns this can seem strange, for the ancients it made perfect sense: to learn was joy. Of course, every teacher knows this. Whether you were discussing Hamlet or Blueberries for Sal, we live for that moment when school becomes leisure. Yet, we also know that the moment we pass out a test, it disappears. No longer is the child lost in wonder about the subject. Instead, he is lost in fear. Yet, we must assess. How can we know if a child is learning if in someway we do not assess learning? The problem of course is not assessments: the problem is how we assess. I find three characteristics of bad assessments: first, they do not assess what is truly important. When we assess only the mundane then it is all mundane. If, however, assessments point the child to the essentials behind the “mundane,” then even the mundane will become lovely. Secondly, assessments should be both for the teacher and for the student. A good assessment directs a teacher where to go next. Finally and something we need to develop, the idea of one-size fits all instruments of measurements is wrong. By instruments of measurement, I mean the tools that we use to translate a test into a grade. By one-size fits all, I mean the overuse of averaging of percentages. A child completes an assignment. The teacher assigns a grade based on the percentage of correct answers. Then at the end of the grading period, the teacher averages all of these percentages and the result is the child’s grade for the term. Is though the averaging of percentages method the best instrument of measurement for all types of assessments? Averaging of grades tells us what an average always tell us: consistency. For instance, if you want to know if a baseball player is a consistent hitter you look at his batting average. On the other hand, a batting average tells you nothing about a player’s ability to hit a home run. Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron are remembered for how many home runs they hit-- not the percentage of home runs they hit. The same is true in education; averages are the best measurement for some areas of learning. In others, they are completely unreliable.
With this in mind, Regents has adopted an approach to assessment that allows teachers to use different instruments of measurements. To insure that we are truly assessing where a child is, we must not only think about the types of tests we offer but, also, the instruments of measurement that we choose. To this end, the teachers developed a list of skills that should be mastered in each class. The main categories of these skills are Language Arts, Mathematics, History, Science, Writing, Bible, Latin, and Penmanship. Each of these main categories breaks-down into sub-skills. In other words, these are the skills that must be mastered before the subject can be mastered. As teachers do their weekly grading of work, they will mark whether or not a child is progressing towards mastery. All work will receive the following marks: If the child has mastered the skills that are being assessed, he will receive an “E.” If he has not mastered them but is progressing towards mastery then he will receive an “S.” If the child is not improving at the rate expected then he will receive an “N.” Finally, if the teacher is convinced that a child is not improving and needs some immediate help, the child will receive a “U.”
Now, our task is to match the best instruments of measurement to what we are teaching. One example of this is how we assess the learning of math facts. In the “averaging of percentages” approach, a child may score a 30% on an addition test; he failed. The next week the child may score a 50%. He is still failing. The next week, he might score a 60%. If he then scored the following grades: 70%, 75%, 80%, and 90%, his final average would be a 65%. What though does this mean to the parents of the child? Should they be worried about their child? Even though you might think so, they should not be. Assuming that the tests were cumulative, the parents in fact should be pleased. Notice: the final test grade was 90%. That means he can do 90% of the problems given or 72 out of 80 problems. By any standard, 72 addition problems in 2 minutes is pretty good. For a second grader, it is quite impressive. So, why not use an instrument of measurement that conveys this. Consider the grades using an alternative instrument: the 30% would receive a “24/80”. Now is this a “U” or an “S”? To be honest, I do not know. I would hope that both teachers and parents realize that we have some work to do, yet I see no need for overreacting and slapping a “U” on the page. At the same time, we need to make sure the parents know that we have some work to do. Thus, I would not give this child a grade yet, but instead write a quick note encouraging parents to start drilling at home and to call me if they have any questions. If the child continues to improve as stated above, his grades would have been the following: 48/80, 56/80, 60/80, 64/80, 72/80. What are we saying to parents by this means? “He can do 72 addition problems in 2 minutes: Well done!” To understand the point, consider another example. On the first assessment, a child does very well and makes a 100%. On the second, more information is added and the child makes a 90%. Then, we continue to slide: 85%, 70%, 60%. Again, should the parents be concerned? If an average of percentages approach were used, then the child would receive an 81% on his report card or an “S.” Is this an accurate grade? Is the child truly performing at a satisfactory level? By the Regents’ system, the child receives an “N” or possibly a “U”, depending how serious the teacher assesses the problem. The truth is this child cannot add. The average lies: the other system forces us to see the truth. At Regents, we are proud of the distinctive type of education we offer. This is one distinction.