How do you derive meaning from a number? Should a parent or student respond differently to a 97% than to a 99%? What about a 75%? How do you know what number to assign to a student created product you’ve never seen before? As a 5th grade teacher at the Charles Townes Center for highly gifted students in grades 3-8, I felt these questions were a constant thorn in my side.
My students qualified for invitation to the center in Greenville, South Carolina based on scores in the top percentile on nationally normed tests. The current, numerical grading system has always presented quite a challenge to me as a public school classroom teacher—how do I push my students to strive for excellence without encouraging the crippling effects of perfectionism? In giving students and parents a true measure of learning, personal achievement, and goal-setting, the numerical grading system always seemed to me ineffective at best. Since I began teaching gifted students, I have been in a constant struggle to find a more effective way to provide accurate feedback about their current performance while motivating them to continue to give their best effort on whatever challenges are presented next.
The assessment issues faced in our school were exaggerated versions of the problems caused by the numerical grading system in schools across the country. The nature of our students simply intensifies the problem. For example, the vast majority of my students can ace a grade-level multiple-choice test before I even engage in the first lesson. Should they just receive “A’s”? Is that what they earned? And, if I – instead – increased the depth and complexity of my instruction to provide the appropriate intellectual challenge and a student then only mastered 92% of that material—is it “fair” to assign a less than stellar grade?
This issue becomes even more important as students begin to move into high-school level courses. How does a 92 affect their GPA when they are enrolled in high-school and honors courses beginning in 7th grade? Should they be scored less than their peers who attend mainstream schools? Teachers of gifted (and all) students face these types of problems again and again as they are asked to differentiate to meet the needs of diverse learners. How does a teacher maintain some sort of equity and still challenge students appropriately? Some schools have attempted to rectify this disparity by offering higher grade points for honors or AP classes. This does not remedy the problem—it simply magnifies the spectrum of an inaccurate ruler and introduces an additional disadvantage for college applicants whose schools do not offer this option. The issue of quality feedback and appropriate challenge remains.
For a while, I thought the solution to the problem was that I needed to design better rubrics. If I could just break assignments down into more concrete sections, the students would see what they needed to do and would be able to demonstrate mastery in a way that provided equal access to all while challenging students appropriately. (And I could still put a number on it and feel good about it.) Unfortunately, there were still roadblocks.
In a subject-integrated inquiry-based classroom, how do you quantify “delightful,” “sophisticated,” “clever” and all of the other descriptors that address the work of students who clearly went above and beyond the scope of the assignment? The scale model in gingerbread of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the original musical composition in response to a Langston Hughes poem received a 100% that was “worth” exactly the same amount as the student who ploddingly met the minimum requirement for each element. So, the rubric was a start, but it still lacked the depth I was seeking to truly communicate effectively with my students (not-to-mention their parents) about the quality of their work. Truly authentic assessment with feedback that can guide students into becoming independent learners still seemed out of reach.
Then, our principal brought back the idea of using continua from a school visit in Seattle. These reading, writing and math continua are based on the work of Bonnie Campbell Hill and provide a system to analyze student skill and progress over many years. The lists are simple and concise. They do not include every possible state standard but instead provide an overview of the crucial skills students need to be successful.
I jumped on these tools and piloted using them with my students almost immediately. My students completed self-evaluations, rating themselves at the “beginning,” “developing,” “proficient,” or “independent” levels described on the continua. I then added my own assessment of their skills. We used these in our student-led conferences, and I could see the beginnings of evidence-based discussions in their conversations. Students were using their writing portfolios and math assessments to provide concrete support for their evaluations. This represented a terrific shift in the way students and parents thought and talked about student work.
Instead of parent comments like, “What did you miss?” or “Great job!” I was hearing, “How did you decide you were proficient in reading fluency instead of independent?” One parent asked his son, “I didn’t know you should be reading different genres. What are you reading right now? Is that the kind of book you always read?” These conversations were so much richer than the previous years’ event which basically consisted of students proudly showing their work while their parents made appreciative mumbles and nodded their heads. I was excited by the beginnings of the give and take that marks a truly thoughtful discussion, but something was still missing. There was still not a way to communicate the truly exceptional or the gifted student who was playing it safe.
After musing on this initial success and talking repeatedly with a middle school colleague struggling with many of the same frustrations, we decided that we needed to create an additional continuum. The difference between the “minimum doer” and the outstanding student in our school was based not only on the ability to demonstrate skill mastery, but on the willingness to strive to apply critical and creative thinking skills. With this in mind, I pulled together a number of resources and began to hammer out a draft of a critical and creative thinking skills continuum. (I still haven’t hammered out a shorter name, though.) Dr. Richard Paul’s mini-guides on critical and creative thinking, Torrance’s work on creativity and Van Tassel-Baska’s writing on application of these skills in the classroom were all of great benefit to me as I worked. My hope was that this document would bridge the gap between the seemingly arbitrary nature of a number grade and the lightning strike of truly outstanding work. I ended up with a scale more rooted in psychology and child development than pedagogy and standards. This was initially surprising, but it became more satisfying as I realized that perhaps with this tool we might finally get to the roots of why one student was clearly outperforming another and more importantly—what to do about it.
The purpose of this creative and critical thinking skills continuum is to provide specific feedback for students and parents about the students’ current progress as well as to communicate in a straightforward way the next steps in their educational growth. Numeric grades are loaded with judgment, both objective and subjective, as well as academic stigma. Students feel that a 100% means that you are perfect while a 67% means that you are a loser. I’ve even had students tell me that even numbers are better than odd numbers (a 99% means that I am a point away from perfect—the most frustrating thing—but a 98% means that I’m solidly in the high “A” category). The focus on the number rather than what the number represents is a bizarre, yet true manifestation of the problem with attempting to quantify something as variable as knowledge and learning. Students become so focused on the number and what it “means” that they completely lose sight of the true purpose of assessment– reflection and growth. A continuum has no numbers—hence, no judgment. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to evaluate oneself with this method.
On first executing the continua in my classroom, I did not ask my students to provide evidence to support their evaluations. (That came later…) It was absolutely fascinating to see students read through and begin their self-evaluations on the critical and creative thinking continuum. I only allowed one hour of the class period for students to complete their analysis of this one-page document. However, most of my students took much more time than that. The room was silent. My students were incredibly focused on their reading and analysis. As 5th graders are still fairly ego-centric at this concrete operational stage (thanks Piaget), they seemed to feel that an assessment all about them was well worth their time. The questions students asked about concepts like “intellectual humility” and perseverance got to the core of what I had been trying to teach for years. Why is it important to continue to try to find a solution to a difficult problem? What does it mean to demonstrate originality? How do I know if I am taking an intellectual risk? These were the questions that I wanted my students to ask—and this was finally a document that set the stage to ask them.
Another revelation occurred when I reviewed these documents individually. I began to get a much more relevant picture of how each child saw him or herself. It was striking to compare the self-assessments with the list of test-score data that my principal had just sent out. (Yes, we are still in a public school. And yes, we still have to do things like set learning goals based on the number of points students “should” improve on certain tests.) Those standardized test scores have been relatively meaningless to me in the past. However, coupled with the information from the continuum self-assessments, a fascinating phenomenon was revealed. By and large, students in the top performing test score group had consistently given themselves the lowest evaluations on the continuum while the students with the lowest (comparative) test scores had marked themselves as having mastered all or almost all of the critical and creative thinking skills. The Dunning Kruger effect in action! We had a tremendous class discussion about this effect—in which less competent people in a field tend to overestimate their abilities. We analyzed how it applied to their attitudes and approaches to learning. I began to see a shift in several students’ attitudes and performance following this one illuminating discussion.
This initial work was very inspiring. I was surprised and pleased at the effort my students put into their evaluations. The vocabulary from the continuum was popping up in our discussions again and again. Instead of “I don’t get it,” I was hearing comments like, “I need to clarify this—do you mean…?” The students were beginning to look at learning through this alternate lens. I continued to have students review the continuum and reflect on their progress as we completed units of instruction. They documented their growth and reflected on their struggles.
We also used the continuum to decide on areas of focus for the next units. I previewed with the students what I felt were the “big ideas” for learning while they made choices about skills they thought it important to develop. The quality of our communication continued to improve. Our goals were aligned—I was attempting to provide opportunities for them to improve in areas that THEY had identified as needing work. This method gave them a sense of control over their own learning.
Other teachers in my school are currently working to apply the math, reading, writing, and thinking skills continua in their classrooms. In the middle school, students are expected to provide support for their analysis as they complete their initial evaluations. In the lower grades, teachers use the continua to shift the focus from what students can’t do to what students COULD do. These continua are shared between teachers vertically to provide a long-range picture of the student’s development over time. This is something that a numeric grade based on grade-level standards fails to communicate.
At first some teachers struggled with how to make the continua relevant to their students, and all teachers recognized that the thought and effort needed to accurately utilize the continua required more time than typical “grading.” However, the value of the knowledge gained far outweighs the extra effort the analysis requires.
The next breakthrough came when I began to use the critical and creative thinking continuum in one-on-one parent conferences. For years, my conferences followed a fairly typical script. First, I would go over the previous year’s test scores. Then, I would discuss grades. The parent(s) and I would discuss any issues or “concerns,” and then I would try to end on some kind of positive note. For the parents of my highest achievers though, this was not a helpful meeting. While I’m sure they enjoyed hearing me list all of the delightful adjectives that described their child, I’m not sure that they felt that they were getting a clear picture of what their child could do to continue to grow.
The use of the continua has changed our discussions. My conferences conducted this fall focused on which elements their child was clearly demonstrating as well as areas their child could continue to develop. I was able to explain the Dunning Kruger Effect to parents who thought their child was practically perfect but who in reality was barely making an effort. I described to the parents of the perfectionists what intellectual risk-taking was and how their child could begin to do it. The conversations were so much richer than in the past, and parents did not feel that I was judging their parenting, or their children.
Instead, the focus was on attributes and evidence. Parents were surprised and fascinated when reading their child’s reflections. The conferences now were a detailed conversation about the whole child and how he or she interacted with the world. Even more importantly, parents were now able to support our classroom objectives with greater accuracy. One parent commented, “We were delighted to discuss and learn about the Creative Continuum. The Continuum is visual and the skill sets are clearly presented…Our meeting was one of the most informative conferences I have attended.”
Shifting our focus from a numerical grading system to a continuum-based evaluation has started to address many of the assessment issues I was facing. My students have stopped asking, “Is this for a grade?” as though that alone determines the value of an assignment. I continue to work to provide more opportunities for students to develop those critical and creative thinking skills. Knowing that I am going to be asking them to evaluate their growth—I am very conscious of the need to design learning experiences that require students to demonstrate those skills.
Most importantly, the students themselves feel a sense of ownership over their learning, and now they are making the effort to ask accurate, insightful questions about what they can do and what they still need to learn to do. Removing the focus from the number grade and putting it back on the evaluation of skills and attributes improves the quality of instruction, performance and communication. The end result is a focus on authentic student learning and success.
Davis, G.A., & Rimm, S.B. (2009). Education of the gifted and talented (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
Dunning, D., Johnson, K., Ehrlinger, J., & Kruger, J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence (PDF). Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12(3), 83–87.
Elder, L., & Paul, R. (2005). The miniature guide to critical thinking concepts & tools. (4th ed.). Dillon Beach, CA: The Foundation for Critical Thinking.
Hill, B. C. (2008). Retrieved from http://www.bonniecampbellhill.com/support.php
Van Tassel-Baska, J., & Stambaugh, T. (2006). Comprehensive curriculum for gifted learners. (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Pearson.
For Further Reading
Kohn, A. (2006). The trouble with rubrics. English Journal, 95(4), 12-15.
Wilson, M. (2007). Why I won’t be using rubrics to respond to students’ writing. English Journal, 96(4), 62-66.
Wilson, M. (2006). Rethinking rubrics in writing assessment. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Liberating Grades/Liberatory Assessment, sj Miller