Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Points are Pretend...

... or ... How I Discovered the Usefulness of Proficiency Scales

I’ll just come right out and say it.  Points are pretend.

I had this realization about five semesters ago.  Like most epiphanies, it dawned on me suddenly, but in hindsight it seems glaringly obvious. To be completely truthful, I have to thank my students for being willing to talk with me honestly and frankly about what it meant to them to receive a “grade.”

O.K. wait, back up a little bit.  If I’m really going to be honest, it started out of frustration.  Frustration that conversations with my students about their progress in my classes was centered almost exclusively around how many “points” they felt they deserved, and rarely, if ever, around the material (i.e. standards) that I was attempting to help them learn.
“Mr. Phillips, can I ask you a question about yesterday’s assignment?” a student would ask me after class.  My hopes would raise and my inner teacher would start to get excited.  This is the kind of stuff we live for. Here comes a teachable moment!
“Um, yeah, well I was just wondering how come you took off those two points.”
AAAAARGH!  Seriously?!  How about, “I don’t really understand the concept of a floor plan,” or “What do I need to do better on my video if I’d like a higher grade?”  Heck, I would have settled for anything remotely connected to the subject matter of the assignment.  O.K. Phillips, be calm - just a student doing his best to figure out what he’s supposed to learn.
“Which points?”  I would inevitably ask.
“I don’t know.  I just need two points to keep my B.”
“Well,” I reply as calmly as I can, “why don’t you get your assignment, and let’s look at what you could do better?”
“I’m not really sure where it is, but what can I do for extra credit?”
AAAAAARGH!  Seriously?!  

I may be exaggerating a bit (but not much).  Why were all of my conversations with students about points, and not about the material that I was trying to help them learn?  I couldn’t take it any more.  “Points are pretend,” I would tell my students.  “We just use them as a measuring tool to help us keep track of what we’re learning.”  
We limped along like this for quite some time until one of them finally said to me, “Mr. Phillips, it seems to me that points are a good system for keeping track of how much we do, but not really how well we do it.  I mean, why would we use a quantitative measuring system when we want to measure something qualitatively?” (Insert sound of screeching record here.)

That single piece of student feedback delivered offhandedly during some individual work time on a random school day, had more impact on me changing my grading philosophy than any professional development session, or any book on standards-based education that I’ve read since.

The next semester, I asked my students how they would like to be graded and recorded the following web chat (with myself):

It took me another two semesters of trial-and-error before someone showed me what we are now calling a “proficiency scale.”  At that point, for me, it was an easy sell.  

“Mr. Phillips, can I ask you a question about yesterday’s assignment?”
“Shoot.” (here we go...)
“Well, I don’t think you’re right.  You gave me a two on the proficiency scale, but I feel like the dimensions on my floor plan were clear and easy to understand...”

Now that’s a conversation I would love to have…

Got a conversation you would love to have?  Has student feedback ever shaped your practice? Please feel free to comment below.

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