10 Must-Haves to Lift Us from the Grading Quagmire

Those of us that were at least moderately successful in the old system may find it challenging to participate in the design and development of competency-based environments.  As challenging as new school development is, converting existing schools to a competency-based environment can be a monumental challenge.  At the top of the list of controversial items is grading—the old A-F system imprinted in our brains.
During my first year as a public school superintendent my state introduced new standards.  My team immediately began planning for a standards-based grading system.  It seemed only logical that if the state was going to test our kids against the new standards, we should provide similar feedback on a regular basis.  The introduction of new standards-based report cards resulted in a teacher revolt and a ton of parent complaints.  Fifteen years later, the district is still fighting this fight.
Part of the problem is that the toolset still sucks.  Current student information systems (SIS), assessment systems, and gradebooks still reflect the old system. Student and teacher access to technology is, in many places, still poor.  Traditional learning management systems are clunky and based on cohorts and classes.   Most comprehensive platforms (i.e., content and tools) are still flat, sequential, and closed, but a few are getting better.  There are some good adaptive math sequences (see math apps) and web 2.0 tools.  It is just too hard to stitch them together into an easy to use system.
To facilitate progress at scale, we need to make progress on progress monitoring (See #3 in 10 Elements Towards Eliminating the Batch-Print System).  Here are 10 advances that would signal significant progress:

  1. Super gradebook that captures teacher and content-embedded assessment observations—this should be automagically simple to use.
  2. An SIS that is as robust as the best customer relationship management (CRM) system that helps a broad team make informed contributions.
  3. Learner profiles that capture keystroke paradata to build motivational profiles.
  4. Smart social systems that surface experiences/content that appear to be successful (i.e., a curriculum app similar to Yelp).
  5. Smart recommendation engines that queue learning experiences likely to produce persistence and performance (i.e., an iTunes Genius for learning).
  6. Micro-standards for assessment so that we can build pretty-good comparability of assessment data sets.
  7. Badges (and other data visualization and recognition systems) that recognize achievement, facilitate parent-teacher-student conversations, and manage matriculation.
  8. Planning tools that help students and advisors make smart choices about the next few weeks/months of learning.
  9. College and career awareness tools and decision support systems that drive smart decisions about the next year or two.
  10. Portfolio that store ‘personal-best’ artifacts.

This stuff is technically, politically, and academically challenging.  I appreciate the folks out front taking the arrows for trying to do the right things for kids.  I appreciate the 25 companies in the Learn Capital portfolio that are making contributions in this direction.
This shift is not an option—it is how education will work in the personal digital near-term future. Most schools will continue to make some use of performance cohorts (and interest groups, and project teams, etc) but the underlying architecture will be based on the demonstrated mastery of individual students.
Here’s the good news: After the transition, life is better for everyone.  Competency-based environments will work better for students and teachers.  It won’t cost more—in fact, for the same money we should see a significantly higher percentage of students leave high school with college credit.  In the mean time, I’m glad we can collaborate at CompetencyWorks.
This blog first appeared on CompetencyWorks, an iNACOL project sponsored by Nellie Mae Foundation.  Tom is a Learn Capital partner and an iNACOL director.  

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

James Caras

Great article. Badges, social activity, personal achievement metrics on effort and improvement, and college/career planning are absolutely the way to get students motivated and engaged with the class for reasons other than grades, and will motivate a brader base of students beyond those lazer-focused on grades.

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