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In my previous post, I detailed my first assessment plan ever that I hatched up when I was 21 years old. It was complex and involved points and half-points and revisions and half credit and curving and some other nuances that I’m probably forgetting about. I’m still proud of it, but I had a gradual revelation – a “lightbulb moment” – via a student we’ll call Sarah that influenced how I think about assessment from that moment on.

Sarah struggled on the first couple tests (mostly around linear functions), but would meet me an hour before school once or twice a week for more tutoring; months and months on slope and intercepts and parallel and perpendicular. Finally, around May, she had a breakthrough and it all clicked. Of course, due to my elaborate test system, it was too late for this to actually be reflected in her grade. Why should that be the case, besides that my elaborate grading system said so? Once I dived a little deeper down that philosophical rabbit hole, I began to question some of the underpinnings of my assessment system. Why is it important that students learn the material in the time I allot rather than the time they need? What messages was I sending about what’s important in my class if my grading system does not reward students for pushing themselves and persevering on topics that are challenging for them? These are dangerous questions, appropriate only for summer.

Sarah knew my system all along, and wasn’t expecting her grade to change when she finally learned September’s material in May. Luckily she was still motivated to dedicate that time to linear functions to reach that breakthrough (i.e. her parents made her). Now teaching public school instead of private, I don’t find many Sarahs out there. What struggling student works overtime on old material for no credit? But we want them to! Surely there can be a system that incentivizes learning material that needs to be learned.

Standards-based grading found me like a missionary finds a grieving orphan. I sipped, and then gobbled up the Kool-Aid. I determined the roughly 30 concepts/standards that would be in my course. I created a short test for each of those concepts, and eventually created about 5 or 6 versions for each. Each kid got a personalized spreadsheet with elaborate formulas that connected them to my gradebook. I charged students with needing to show proficiency at least two times on all 30 standards throughout the year, as demonstrated on these short tests. They got as many tries as they needed.

I carved out minutes from class for “assessment time,” which basically entailed students selecting which tests they wanted to take. There was a normal sequence of the concepts, but some kids wanted to get ahead while others – for instance, the Sarahs of the world who struggle with linear functions – had the opportunity to spend more time sorting out whatever topics they needed. And when they did sort it out (sometimes with my help), they could take the test on demand and show it (and get credit for it).

I definitely saw the magic. Students requesting tests and focusing their studying around what they need to learn is beautiful to witness. I also loved seeing students empowered to work ahead. It was great having a system where every stakeholder – students, parents, teachers, principals, mentors – knew very specifically what a student learned and hadn’t learned yet. In fact, students were using that word that I always forced them to use – “yet” – a potential indicator that they might be buying into my growth mindset sermons.

A major benefit of this system is that it takes all the stress out of testing. That said, this benefit is also this system’s greatest weakness; giving a student unlimited time to learn a skill could easily enable laziness and bad habits. A concept that should take two days to learn could become two weeks out of a sheer lack of urgency. My intentions from the previous year of having students gear up for tests with crazy studying, preparing to be pushed to their limit, is nowhere to be found in this approach. Acclimating to that high-pressure process – as stressful as it probably was for my students – certainly served them well in preparing for college (they’ve told me so). Which system would have better served Sarah? Hard to say.