Mirror Image: What the Accountability Debate Can Teach Us About Grading
Here's a riddle for you:
What is inaccurate, incomplete, has been feared by students for generations, and is now beginning to terrify teachers as well?
The answer: "F."
The imperfection of the traditional grading system has few detractors. Yet there is no true consensus about workable alternatives. Efforts to overhaul the means by which we measure and interpret student achievement continue to force us to re-evaluate long-held conceptions.
More recently, though, teachers have had the opportunity to experience the assessment debate from a different perspective: as those being assessed. As teacher evaluation systems gain widespread political attention and public support, we must look beyond our frustrations and fear to see that we are being granted a unique and unexpected opportunity. We face a genuine learning moment, as we try to understand not only what it means for us to be assessed but what it means for us to assess others as well.
Teaching and Learning
Our concerns and complaints regarding accountability systems tell us a great deal about our collective philosophy of learning. For example, one oft-expressed frustration regarding teacher evaluations has to do with the complexity of our profession. "Teaching is an incredibly complicated task," we say. "It simply cannot be easily measured."
It seems unlikely, however, that the act of teaching could be so indescribably subtle and complicated, and that the act of learning could be basic enough to be stripped down to a series of easily observed events. If anything, an internal event like cognitive growth should be recognized as infinitely more complicated and mysterious than the acts that encourage it.
It would be hypocritical of us, then, to say on one hand that teacher measurement systems need to be carefully designed, fluid, and fair, and to say on the other that student achievement can be measured in simple and concrete ways. And yet how often have we as professionals drawn the conclusion that a student has not learned the concept as presented, simply because he did not complete a graphic organizer correctly or because she performed poorly on a series of quizzes?
If teaching, which may appear to outsiders to be a singular act, is in fact an elaborately layered collection of skills that combine to promote learning, then surely learning must be its mirror image. It, too, must be complicated. It, too, must require that we be both delicate and dedicated in how we go about assessing it.
Differentiation and Adaptability
Most people are already aware of the differences in achievement levels between, say, upper middle class and low income students, or between native English language speakers and ESL children. But variations in achievement aren't limited to just external variables. They exist within subject areas as well. Quality teaching in math, for example, produces greater and longer lasting gains than in well-taught reading classes, according to W. L. Sanders, who presented research at the Governor's Education Symposium in Asheville, North Carolina in 2004. So does that mean we have to differentiate our expectations for math teachers compared to others?
It's such a simple statistic, but it brings to mind dozens of new questions. Is there a way to address that discrepancy? Is that even appropriate? And how will our chosen response affect those who teach social studies, science, or even art? Does it mean that measurable gains should be reduced to a minor role in future accountability efforts, to avoid handicapping teachers of a particular subject as they try to adapt to intense new levels of scrutiny? Or does it mean that we need to evaluate those gains differently?
All of this without even touching on the biggest question of all: how reliable is the data? Reliability and validity of standardized tests is a debate all its own.
Suppose we decide to reduce our emphasis on gains and focus instead on pedagogy. We would have to accept that a set of universally applicable skills can be said to fit under the label "effective teaching." And we'd still be trapped by measurement—or at least by observability. Adaptability is a great example of this: it's a skill not all teachers have, and it is essential for optimizing a learning environment, according to researchers, yet it can be hard to identify. Arguably, when it is at its most accomplished, adaptability is invisible.
Flipping the Coin
In the end, "What constitutes good teaching?" is not an independent question. It is functionally inseparable from other questions, like "How do we learn?" "How can learning be measured?" and "What outside influences affect student motivation?" Therefore, we cannot find adequate resolution on the topic of grades or teacher evaluation until we intentionally connect them to a re-examination of how we evaluate learning.
This is not a topic without urgency. In the face of the several emerging evaluation systems, many teachers fear being labeled as failing, although we can reasonably assume that most of them do not actually perceive themselves as failing. Do we all, on some level, believe the term "failing" is easy to misuse and harmful?
Being defined as "failing" puts people at risk. Students have understood the consequences of the label for years, and we have all seen it play out before our eyes: it is the act of surrender. Students don't try harder when they think they're failing. They simply disengage. . It's true for students, and it's true for teachers.
And after you have defined measurable learning, pinpointed quality teaching, and found an adequate way to determine the abilities and achievements of all individuals, how do you acknowledge success without also acknowledging failure? People understand failure as a label, and they are aware that any situation involving the potential for achievement also involves the potential for its absence. You don't have to actually call a person a failure to make your point. You only have to avoid calling them a success.
What we have been viewing and treating as two separate lines of discussion are in fact two sides of a single issue. Teaching and learning are interlocked. We must acknowledge that how we wish to be evaluated as professionals affects how we choose to evaluate others. After all, labeling a student as failing is, in a way, also labeling ourselves.
Cory McMillen, a former middle grades educator, is an instructional designer at Bellevue University in Nebraska. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2012 Association for Middle Level Education