Assessment and evaluation conformity woes: a partial solution?

My stance on this subject is about as secret as it is neutral. I do not believe that teachers should have to use the same assessment and evaluation strategies simply because they are teaching different sections of the same course. To say that this practice ensures fairness may be accurate (although probably not) but this practice does not ensure equity. Here’s what often happens with this practice:

  • evaluations are determined well before students’ needs have ever been assessed
  • junior teachers are made to feel that they have to use the assessments of senior teachers because “they know better”
  • little to no differentiated based on student needs, strengths, or interests

In a perfect world, department members would find plenty of time to collaborate and constantly revise evaluations, but we all know how challenging it is to find this time.

So in an effort to please the powers that be who insist on uniformity across sections* I’ve come up with a plan:

Using our computerized grade book program, “Markbook,” we can assign different mark sets. In the past, I created a Term mark set, a Final Exam mark set, and a Course Culminating Activity (ISP, CCA… etc. Choose your acronym) mark set. Each mark set was weighted according to the percentages we use to calculate the final mark.

  • Term: 70%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

(These numbers are determined by our board)

So now, all I’ve done is add one more mark set. Ready for it?

Here we go!

  • Formative: 20%
  • Summative: 50%
  • Final Exam: 15%
  • CCA: 15%

See what I did there? It doesn’t solve all the problems and of course we still need to be striving for at least the “appearance” of uniformity, but… now it doesn’t matter if teacher A records 15 different formative assessments and teacher B records 4 formative assessments; the summative assessments will be worth the same because of their weighting.

See this is where things were getting tricky in our department. We agreed that major assessments would be the same, (well… I didn’t agree but I don’t have a choice in the matter) but we also agreed that formative assessments could differ depending on the class (I did agree with this). But if Teacher A had 15 different formative assessments and Teacher B only had 4, then Teacher B’s summative assessment would be worth proportionately way more than Teacher A. Trying to get all the weightings to line up in Markbook is just ridiculous and doesn’t allow for much freedom in designing formative assessments UNLESS you do what I did.

So is it a perfect fix? No. But at least we can clearly show that regardless of the types and variety of formative assessments (or “rehearsals” if you like), the summative tasks (“performances”) are still worth the same percentage of the overall mark.

The only real challenge with this is that in the very early progress reports, the marks will be skewed (although, the are anyway). So we might have to play around with the weighting of the mark sets in the early stages to give students and parents a more accurate understanding of their progress. By midterm, however, we should be able to use the actual weightings.

We’ll see how this goes! Let me know what you think of the plan, or if you’ve tried something similar.



*… for perfectly understandable reasons, I should add: Students and parents complain when there is a perception that one teacher is “marking differently” than another teacher. The perception is that students in one  class are not receiving the same treatment as students in another class. Now, having students complete the same assessment doesn’t alleviate this problem; it just helps with the perception.

The Grade Inflation Debate


Actually, I’m not so sure this is a debate. In order for it to be a debate one would presume that you have differing opinions on the topic and I don’t think I’ve spoken to a single teacher who doesn’t think that grades are “inflated”. When I think back to my grades (for all you Ontarians–when I say grade, I mean mark, but we’re the only people who call them marks apparently) in high school, my highest grade in English was probably a 93%. That was considered to be a very good grade. One might say exceptional. I wasn’t the best student, but I was a very good student.

I’m not a total packrat, but I did keep my old high school essays. When I look at my Hamlet essay now from the lens of a high school English teacher and consider how I would assess it, the grade is much higher than the grade I received 13 (eesh….) years ago. True, I’m a little biased, but I think there is something interesting we can learn from this.

My teachers didn’t use rubrics. They didn’t assess using a balance among different categories of learning , eg/ Knowledge, Thinking, Communication, and Application (I kept the marking schemes–where they existed). I had one teacher whose strategy involved giving you a grade of 100 and then deducting marks for each flaw. I had another teacher who believed that no student would ever receive 100% on an essay because it could never be perfect.

These seemed like valid marking schemes/philosophies to me at the time, but now, I have a different perspective.

A student could (and did) receive a grade of 100% on a culminating task in my class, because we don’t use norm referenced assessments; we use criterion referenced assessments. I don’t think an essay (and I’m just going to stick with this example for the sake of argument, not because I think the essay represents the pinnacle of human achievement) needs to be perfect in order to get 100%.

Now, hang on, here’s why:

I don’t construct a rubric for an essay using expectations that students can’t meet, and then assess the degree to which students almost meet the expectations. That would seem pretty unjust to me.

I don’t assess the other students in the class based on how they compare to the strongest student in my class.

So it’s possible that I could have two students in my class: one who writes an excellent essay, meeting every expectation, and one who does that and then some. But I’m not going to go back and dock marks from the first student’s essay because the next student’s essay was better. So they might both get 100% even though the second student has an even stronger essay.

Some people might say that’s not fair, but I think those people are assuming that the reward for demonstrating your learning is a corresponding number. And as far as I can tell, that is not the purpose of assessment and evaluation. Grades are not payment for services rendered.

I can’t speak to grade inflation in other subject areas, but that’s my take on why grades are higher now in English than they were when I was in high school.

I know that guidance cousellors and universities are finding this frustrating because competition is so high for scholarships and if more and more students are getting higher grades, well, you get the picture.

But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Maybe what colleges and universities have to realize is something that we teachers are already realizing: a numerical value does not provide an accurate picture of a student’s achievement.

Anyone have a time machine to spare?

I’ll explain in a moment, but before I do that me FIERCELY state that I will NOT be that teacher. You know that teacher. The one who sits in the corner of the staff room hunched over and broken by years of bitterness and regret, wishing they still allowed corporal punishment, and thinking that fear and intimidation are better teachers than praise and compassion. The one who resists every change and thinks that “these kids today” are never going to amount to anything. She looks like this:


That will never be me. I mean, look at her shoes.

I still refuse to believe that deducting marks for not meeting deadlines is an effective strategy (see yesterday’s post). And yet here I am with seven instructional days left and here’s the situation. I handed out markbook print outs today so that students could see where they stood before the final exams and culminating tasks. And then the floodgates opened up. Suddenly students cared about missing assignments, or assignments that had not been completed to the best of their abilities. Suddenly I had a swarm of students who didn’t care a month ago asking me what they could do to improve their marks.

“That teacher” would have uttered a dry chuckle and said “You know what you can do? Get yourself a time machine, go back to February, and do your work.

But I didn’t say that. Instead I said yes.

“Can I still submit this?”


“Can I redo this?”


Why? Because if I say no, their marks would be lower–not because they weren’t capable of meeting the expectations, but because they didn’t meet the expectations within a given time frame. And mostly I say yes because a big part of me believes that while they have a responsibility to meet the expectations within a given time frame, I have a responsibility for teaching them that not meeting deadlines results in consequences, and I didn’t hold up my end of the bargain.

Why? Because I know what I’m good at and I focus too much on that. I’m good at designing engaging lessons (not all the time… but still good), I’m good at designing meaningful assessment tasks. I’m good at relating to my students (maybe too good). I am not good at staying organized, and I’m not good at coming up with meaningful consequences for poor academic behaviour. I’m also a sucker for a good sob story.

So what ends up happening? I end up stressed out with more work on my plate than they do, and I’m furious. But after an intense run that left me feeling exhausted I realized I wasn’t furious with my students. They’re students. They’re still learning. I’m furious with myself because I’m a teacher and I should know better. I think a part of me felt that having good rapport with my students should be enough to motivate them to submit their work on time.

I really need to get a solid policy in place for September and be consistent with that policy.

The only catch is, our board will be working on developing its own policy in response to the policy document from the ministry that I wrote about yesterday, and there’s no way that will be in place in September. So for now, I’ve got to try to make a policy that is still aligned with our current policy and does not contradict the new policy. Oh, and I probably have to run it by my department head and my principal. But both my principal and vice principal will be brand new in September.

My head hurts.

I think I need another run.

My thoughts on “Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools

Confession time.

I am a nerd. I love talking about assessment and evaluation. I love reading about it, debating about it, writing about it, thinking about it, planning for it, and sometimes doing an interpretive dance about it. My favourite A and E guru is Damian Cooper who I had the pleasure of meeting last year thanks to my good friend Heather Jakobi. I like him because while his philosophy is grounded in all the best research into good assessment and evaluation practices, he is practical enough to recognize the challenges and limitations that teachers and administrators face in their day to day lives.

My basic assessment and evaluation philosophy is this:

  • The primary role of assessment is to promote student learning
  • Assessment should inform and drive instruction
  • You need to begin with an idea of what students must know and determine what sufficient evidence of this achievement will look like.
  • There are many different ways to demonstrate learning and students need to be exposed to a variety of assessment tasks and when possible and appropriate, be given choice.
  • Students need to develop an awareness of how they learn best and should learn how to effectively self-assess.
  • Students should have multiple opportunities to demonstrate they can meet expectations
  • We should not use academic penalties (deducting marks) for behavioural/learning skill issues

I could go on. And I often do. But I think those points cover most of my thoughts about this topic. The last point on that list is a contentious one, and one that I have not always believed. I used to say, as many teachers and parents do, if teachers don’t deduct “late marks” then students won’t be properly prepared for the realities of college/university or the work world. But here’s the problem with that:

The college/university argument: Our students do not all go on to post-secondary education. Also, educational philosophies and mandates of post secondary institutions are not the same as those of elementary and secondary institutions. We shouldn’t emulate practices that we don’t feel are beneficial to students in order to “prepare” them for bad pedagogical practices they might encounter in the future. That’s like saying to a hockey player, “I’m not going to give you pointers for improving your slap shot because in a real hockey game, you’re not going to have me there to coach you.”

The work world argument: The previous analogy that I used works for this too. But also consider this: While it’s true that you may get fired for not submitting a project to your boss on time, it’s a faulty analogy to compare this to school. In the work world, you perform a service, and in return you receive money. In school, completing assignments is not providing a service, and grades are not money. The purpose behind completing assignments is to learn and demonstrate your achievement of specific curriculum expectations. Grades are not rewards, but an evaluation of how well you’ve achieved those curriculum expectations.

So here’s the problem: many students and their parents view grades as rewards for hard work. Parents praise students for high grades. Grades are requirements for admission to colleges and universities. Until we have a society that values descriptive feedback over percentages, I really don’t see how this can change. So, in many cases, the only penalty that is meaningful to students is the deduction of grades for what is in reality a behavioural problem.

Now some might argue that we need to have meaningful behavioural consequences then for failing to submit assignments on time (or at all!). The aim of these consequences would be to help students learn the importance of meeting deadlines. Unfortunately, when you are dealing with disruptive behaviour and other types of classroom management issues, it might be a tough sell to tell teachers that they also have to assign lunch hour detentions to the students who didn’t submit their homework assignments. Don’t get me wrong. It makes perfect sense to me to say the consequence of not doing your work is that you will sit with me until you have done your work, but it’s just not always practical. That being said, I am considering assigning a lunch hour detention early on in a given course to students who fail to complete a homework assignment or other small formative task to see if it sends the message that “not doing the work” is not an option.

All right, so now that you know where I’m coming from, let’s get to the point.

The Ontario Ministry of Education has just released a document called,“Growing Success” Assessment, Evaluation and Reporting in Ontario Schools. The policy document is meant to guide school boards in developing their own A and E policies. The biggest thing that I think teachers are going to jump on and perhaps do a happy dance about is page 43. On page 43 at the end of a long list of suggested interventions for late and missing assignments it suggests:

deducting marks for late assignments, up to and including the full value of the assignment.

This calls for a dramatic chipmunk moment

Now let’s move on.

That strategy is at the bottom of the list for a good reason, and since many teachers will laugh gleefully at that final strategy and ignore the next page, I would like to add that the document has a very interesting bit of text after the list, where the ministry seems to try to justify the change of heart. Here’s what it says:

There are strong and often divergent opinions on the issue of how to deal with late and missed assignments. Many stakeholders, including many parents and students, believe that marks should be deducted when assignments are late and that a zero should be assigned when a student does not submit an assignment…. Proponents of this view believe that unless students face academic consequences for non-performance in school, they will not learn to be accountable to themselves and others and will not be prepared to meet the requirements of employers or of postsecondary educational institutions.

But wait! There’s more!

On the other hand…

See. You had to know that was coming.

…many experts in the field of assessment and evaluation discourage deducting marks or giving zeros for late and missed assignments, arguing that such measures do not make students change their behaviour or help them succeed in the long run…

You get the picture. So here I am reading between the lines: “People who argue that we should deduct late marks don’t really know know what they’re talking about because they’re not experts, but they are taxpayers so we need to listen to them.”

Hmph. I’m not so sure how I feel about that wording.

Here’s what I think:

Until we have a system that does not require teachers to report within strict time frames, and until post-secondary institutions value learning skills as much as grades, we will have an imperfect assessment and evaluation system and teachers will have to do the best they can and use their best professional judgement when it comes to determining grades. I think sometimes that will mean doing things that don’t always jive with what the best educational experts promote as best practice.

What is most important is that we remember that as teachers our primary goal should be to promote student learning. We’re teachers, not evaluators.

One more time!