Friday, September 6, 2013

Is this really the answer?

With the start of a new school year, I find myself thinking about assessment. It is a critcal par of the teaching-learning dynamic. In the months ahead, students will submit papers, do projects and sit for tests. Along the way teachers will consider the students' work, and assess it.

But wait. Some want to take the teachers out of the loop. An article at the Chronicle for Higher Education sometime back outlined how at the Western Governor's University (WGU) assessment is not done by the professors, but by a set of assessors. Thus, grading is not done by the teacher, but by someone else entirely. While not a terribly new idea (International Baccalaureate does this to some degree by having samples of a teacher's grades on projects verified by another teacher somewhere else in the world), the WGU model takes this to a new level and completely separates the task of instruction from the task of grading.

The problem with this (and with the first sentence in the lede of the story) is that it assumes somehow that feedback and evaluation are separate from the teaching/learning process. The lede for the story begins "The best way to eliminate grade inflation is to take professors out of the grading process...." There are three erroneous assumptions here: 1) grading inflation exists because teachers are lenient; 2) there is only one way to deal with the problem; 3) grading/feedback is not part of the teaching-learning relationship.

First the article does not establish (nor does anyone else for that matter) that grade inflation is an issue. I have heard for years that it is, but have never seen any data on it. Let's assume, however for argument sake that it is, the next question we should be asking is "Why?" rather than "How can we eliminate it?" The "why" is easier examined when one considers the recent experience of an NYU professor who tried to crack down on plagiarism in his classes. Professor Ipeirotis went from being a popular professor (from an average of 6.0 to 6.5 on his evaluations down to 5.3, considered below-average on the 7.0 scale). What happened was that Professor Ipeirotis became harder in his grading...essentially refusing to take work that was plagiarized or down grading it. External pressure forced him to abandon his effort to demand better, original work from his students. The "why" is that the system is set up to punish teachers who give bad grades.

I heard from another professor at a university (who asked to remain unnamed for this piece) that at a meeting he attended the department chair basically said "None of the students should be getting a C in this program." This was in at a graduate program, and yes, students at the MA level or higher should not be getting a grade that low (if they are, they don't belong in the program). But the professor said the warning was clear: If a student was doing that poorly, it was the instructor's  responsibility. But in a real sense, this is always true. I have long believed that when we give a student an F, the teacher fails the student--both literally and figuratively. If our students are getting Fs, it is because we haven't been there enough, motivated them enough, cared for them enough. We failed them, and in turn, they have failed our expectations. Because in a real sense, grading is about how well we get students to meet our expectations.

And that brings me to point number two, having a separate grader is not the best or only way to address the problem. In fact, the best ways to deal with assessment is for students to do projects and presentations. And the teacher along with the students (in a best case scenario) should develop a rubric for superior, satisfactory and unstisfactory work. The rubric should measure those items that the instructor deems import. Thus, if a rubric does not include any items related to grammar in a paper, for instance, the teacher cannot and should not dock students who write papers with bad grammar. A good rubric should not leave the student guessing what is needed to achieve excellence. Projects mirror more closely what students will need to do once beyond the ivy covered walls of the academy. The person who creates the project (ideally the teacher) should be the same person who creates the rubric. The rubric of course needs to be created ahead of the project and explained in full to the students. Clearly having someone other than the instructor grade the work should not be necessary. True, anyone could pick up the rubric and assess the work and ideally there'd be some pretty good interrater reliability. But a rubric removes the need for a third party to do the assessment. Indeed, students should be able to do it themselves. Clearly, a third party is not the only way to deal with the problem.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, grading/feedback is part of the teaching-learning dynamic. Without some sort of feedback, a student cannot know how they are progressing. The teacher (or learning facilitator) is there to guide the student. Watch for the weaknesses and strengths. Caleb Gattengo once told me that "A student's job is to learn the material, and a teacher's job is to learn the student." Removing the teacher from giving feedback to the student doesn't allow for that. It makes it harder for the teacher to do the job well.

Assessment is an important part of what we do as teachers. Turning correction over to someone who neither knows the student and bases their entire knowledge of the student on the paper they have in front of them is to reduce the student to the test. And our students are so much more than that.

No comments: