Grading is where the rubber meets the road. We can talk about how and when to assess, but at the end of the day we need to give the kids some feedback. What form should that feedback take?
I do not believe that we can talk in universals when we talk about feedback/grading. We deal with different populations of kids and different administrative policies. There may also be subject specific influences on evaluation policies. Therefore, I am going to limit myself to my experience in math and show why I arrived at the feedback system I use now.
First, the population of kids that I deal with is probably neither the best nor the worst. What is however a constant, is the fact that all kids (from failing freshmen to college bound seniors) will try to get away with as little work as possible. Anecdotally, this is as much a teenager characteristic as it is due to the lack of demanding and rigorous teaching in the middle schools. (Again, I can only talk about the district that I teach in). I have had many seniors in my AP Statistics class telling me that this was the first time they had to study seriously. These kids have gotten away with not doing too much homework and not doing very demanding work until the AP courses (and even then some of them are pretty lackadaisical about doing sustained, high level work).
A deeper discussion as to why we have students like this is for another time. For now, given this particular population of students, my feeling is that there is no way I am going to evaluate these kids by giving them “written feedback” or making homework, exams and so on voluntary. Neither am I going to evaluate their work through “collaborative projects”, a poster or a Power Point presentation. At this point in their lives these kids do not have a sense of responsibility for their education – sadly, they have not been trained for it. Besides, evaluation in math is very simple – can you solve math problems on your own?
I know the argument that in the real world we do not work as individuals, but as members of teams and therefore evaluation should consist (at least partly) of group projects and so on. To a great extent this is a specious argument. We may well work as members of teams in the real world, but our evaluation – in that same real world – is by what we as individuals bring to the table. Our peers and our bosses evaluate us by what we contribute as individuals to the team. It may well be that a cohesive group is more than the sum of its parts, but there have to be parts to begin with.
Therefore, my evaluation of students is based on individual numerical grades in exams, quizzes and on homework assignments. Period. I do recognize however, that as important as it is for a student to be able to solve a problem (individually), life necessitates that we communicate our results. Therefore, especially in AP Stats, a well written paragraph – succinct, clear, logical and correct – is another metric for evaluation and grades.
The second reason why I give numerical and letter grades is that such evaluations are part of the common currency of college admissions. Sure, college admission officers look at essays and recommendations, but first and foremost in their decision process are grades and SAT/ACT scores – basically numerical evaluations. For better or worse, just like with the dollar, numerical/letter scores are a rapid, more or less accurate way of establishing worth, of weighing performance. A numeric/letter grade, just like a dollar sign, is a signpost that catches our attention.
I want to underline that this discussion is limited to how to evaluate not what. As I said in a previous post I am very much in favor of assessing conceptual knowledge, not just algorithmic one. I want the kids to stretch; I want to evaluate them on problems they have not seen before. This discussion is how to evaluate that stretching.