Point/Counterpoint: Standards based learning

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Nadia Sawiris: 

Failure, without a doubt, is crucially beneficial to our learning and growth – whether it be in the classroom or our day-to-day lives. It helps us gauge how we need to change our approach to certain actions and gives us the drive to improve in the future.

In terms of academics, the times I’ve moved on from my failure and truly learned from it was when I received a bad grade on an assessment. It was a testament to my lack of understanding of the material and effort I could have put in beforehand to do better.

In my Advanced Placement (AP) United States History course last year, we had short “notecard assessments” in which we would be graded on a question pertaining to material in the previous few classes. If I received a good grade and positive feedback, I would have felt proud of my work and saw it as a reward for the effort I put in. When I performed badly on the note-card assessment it gave me the determination to  study harder during the rest of the unit in order to improve for the end of unit assessment.

With the school’s recent move to a standards based assessment method, most departments, including the social studies and world languages departments, have reformed their grading policies, emphasizing summative assessments.

I have found various flaws in the increased weighting of summative assessments. The first being the fact that removing the weighted grading of formative assessments disincentivizes students to stay on top of their work throughout the unit as they can get away with not working until the night before their assessment. This defect is one that the American educational system previously prided itself with not having – unlike the British educational system, in which students work all year round to prepare for final exams.

This reformed system is also an inaccurate representation of a student’s understanding and mastery of a class’ work. It no longer encompasses a student’s overarching skills and knowledge, but rather a student’s ability to write an essay on one particular topic in a language course, or analyze one set and only one set of documents in a history course. Though by the end of the academic year, the variety in assessments will equate to a more accurate representation of a student’s mastery and level, for a senior, who must send his or her first quarter grades to colleges, one summative test should not count for the majority or in some cases entirety of that person’s grade in a class.

I have personally struggled with this change. As English is my third language there are certain methods of testing that I perform better in – most of which are considered formative methods of assessment. For example, in previous years, discussions and debates in social studies classes would be weighed as heavily as in-class essays; however, this year, such an assessment will count as “formative” and will count in a category that equates to 10 percent of my overall grade in the class.

Standards based learning fails because it allows someone who could have only done minimal work throughout a unit and studied the night before the summative exam the potential to get a better grade than someone who consistently worked hard in a class yet did not feel confident with an essay topic on the assessment, or has testing anxiety.

I do not think that the day-to-day mastery, effort and work put into a class throughout the unit is represented by our grade with standards based learning.

Zack Longboy: 

There is a reason we have the saying, “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again.” Learning is making mistakes and correcting them. Learning is perfecting one piece at a time and then building them together to form a well-oiled machine.

The Standard  has covered it in the past – it is undeniable that this fear of failure mentality is pervasive at competitive institutions like ASL. And now, standards based instruction and the strict division of formative and summative assignments presents us with an academic structure that might be our way out from under the pervasive fear of failure.

While standards based instruction is a vast and complicated beast, the part that I want to focus on – and really what I would champion as the most important development of this structure  – is the formative versus summative assessments.

While over the past few years many teachers at our school have loosely had some concept of skill-building and ungraded assignments, this year, in the social studies and languages departments, it has been taken to a new level. In AP Economics or AP European History,  for example, we often have a “notecard assessment” – a one question assessment answered on a notecard that the teacher will then grade. This doesn’t count in the gradebook, but the mark gives us valuable, individual feedback on a very specific, building-block concept.

By removing “formative” assessments from the grade book, the stakes of failing are lowered, allowing us to truly put our ability to the test without long term ramifications. Our failure is not officially recorded – except in our heads, where it truly counts. And, instead of being just another grade, it becomes a vital measuring stick.

Formative assessments, and this process of building to a summative assessment, takes the emphasis away from grades and places it on learning. When the burden of a grade is lifted from a student’s back, their energy can be solely focused on attaining a better understanding of the material.

I understand that it’s hard to see – I was also incredibly skeptical when I first heard about the idea. And, as a senior currently applying to college, the importance of grades is not lost on me. But buying into standards based learning is a decision between selfishness and the true meaning of learning. We as a student body need to decide what is more important: The grade or our learning experience.

I understand the drawbacks – this system seems to put an inordinate amount of weight on the few and far between summative assessments. However, when broken down, that is not the case. Summative assessments are a compilation of all of the formative work that the student has done to prepare. The formative process provides ample opportunities to highlight red flags or concerns in preparation for the summative.

Beyond this, standards based learning, at least in the form it currently manifests itself, is a way to keep the integrity of the grade. It can be argued that grade inflation, another topic The Standard has covered previously, occurs at ASL, and standards based learning is a response to that. In this system, we are being properly tested and grades have to be earned, not faked.

More importantly, learning is not about a grade. Learning is about expanding your knowledge and your skills. How can we learn, or grow as learners, if we aren’t allowed to fail? The short answer is, we can’t.