Alternative Assessments: How I Took the Dread Out of Grading—and Replaced It With Fun

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Ten years ago, I was a decade into my teaching career and ready for early retirement. I was cooked. When the word came that our district was planning something new, I leapt (without looking). Then I looked.

What came to pass was the beginning of a grand adventure that was utterly transformative for me. Making the transition to Project Based Learning (PBL) was, at first, cathartic; then it was confusing, frustrating, then cathartic again. I was instantly charged with a new zeal for my work. I became more collaborative as well as a better leader and communicator. I started taking more risks, and began to relish the unknown aspects of daily teaching instead of fearing them. The one change that I didn’t see coming was a shift in my curiosity about assessment.

In New Tech Network schools, grades are weighted according to five categories. At my New Tech high school in Columbus, Indiana, content accounts for 60% of a grade and the other categories (written and oral communication, collaboration, and agency) each garner 10%. With the revelation that we would have weighted categories of grades, my first reaction was, “Why wouldn’t we have weighted grades? How else would we do it?”

Earlier in my career, my daily grading process amounted to little more than trading beans; on any given day, points were given or taken away for arbitrary reasons. Points equated to the number of blanks filled in or correct guesses made. I knew none of it mattered, so I used to allow my students to do as much extra credit as they wanted. I actually didn’t care what grade they got, because I didn’t believe in the system (or my ability to wield it accurately.)

Perhaps I sensed a tremor from the other side of the educational spectrum—the workforce. The business community knows what they want in their employees: work ethic, the ability to communicate and function as a team, flexible thinking, etc. In Napa, California, business leaders were dissatisfied with the workforce skills their employees were bringing with them out of high school. They wanted more, but just weren’t sure how to articulate what that looked like in school. From that gap, Napa New Tech High School—and eventually the New Tech Network of schools—was born. Our schools use PBL in almost every class in order to immerse students in authentic learning and the mastery of workforce skills. Today, a typical graduating student has presented his or her project work more than 100 times, many of them in front of community members, business professionals, and civic leaders.

Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned in the last nine years is that, as Spiderman says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” If we say we’re going to assess students on a wide array of competencies such as collaboration, agency and communication skills, we have to also teach them these skills. The country is grappling with the implications of Common Core, presumably because there does not seem to be enough time to do all of these “extra” things with students.

At New Tech Network, we refer to our work as facilitation. This is different from teaching because, in a nutshell, we work on authentic problems that do not already have well-defined solutions. Though we are experts in our content areas, we do not always have the answers—because the problems we tackle don’t have easy answers. Thus, we are more like coaches than teachers.

I learned quickly that just because we are expected to assess something doesn’t automatically mean that we know how to facilitate it. Perhaps the most raw (and effective) lesson I learned came at the end of our first project in my first year as a PBL facilitator. Ninth grade students in an interdisciplinary Global Science Perspectives class were asked to explore the themes of the course and find correlations between culture and science. A particular group of students had rampant cluelessness, underachievement, and a toxic group culture. My co-facilitator and I encouraged them to “figure it out” and be ready to present something the next day. One young woman in the group responded by casting aside the entire presentation—slides, script, and cues—and instead delivered a presentation about why her group failed.

It was clear that these students had never been coached on how to collaborate, so it should be no surprise that they couldn’t do it successfully. If ever there were a time that I wished I could slide under a desk and disappear through a trapdoor, that was it. But it taught all of us a very important lesson: we should never presume that our students can master expected skills without having the quality instruction and assessment tools to measure their progress towards those goals.

Working with categorized grades for almost a decade has totally transformed my view of assessment. I realize that I no longer dread grading. It’s simple, really. We break up a skill such as oral communication into many measurable sub skills, such as use of evidence, clarity of ideas, avoiding filler words and distracting gestures, use of visual aides, and more. Then we add meaningful metrics for measuring proficiency in those skills. The result is that assessment now resembles something of a scavenger hunt. It’s actually kind of fun. Well, sometimes.

It is worth emphasizing that it took some time (years, in fact) in order for me to feel confident in my ability to assess the different learning outcomes emphasized by the New Tech Network. For a long time, “work ethic” and “agency” were simply other terms for “turned in on time.” Being able to provide specific, meaningful feedback about student performance in these learning outcomes came after a lot of failures on my part. A favorite failure occurred while facilitating a wellness event for second graders. I falsely assumed that each of my students would be “mentor material” for the younger students. Of course, some of them did not possess those skills, nor had I taught them.

Many years back, I heard Alfie Kohn, an outspoken critic of assessing with grades, speak to a group of hundreds of New Tech educators. He served as a devil’s advocate for us, questioning the need for rubrics and correctly remarking (and I paraphrase) that “life doesn’t have rubrics.” That comment never left me; in fact, it has challenged my thinking ever since.

Here’s where I’ve arrived: School is the scaffolding we provide for adults-in-training. I see our assessment tools as the crib sheets we were sometimes allowed to have on physics tests in college. (Even with them, the tests were still really hard.) Someday, students won’t have rubrics to clarify what their bosses are looking for in their work or skill sets. In the meantime, it is our job to support students and help them better prepare for their future.

My life as a New Tech Network facilitator doing Project Based Learning has been a grand adventure, and for many more reasons than I expected. Preparing students for the craziness that is adulthood is exhilarating, and also a big responsibility. But it is not scary anymore. I attribute that to growing up in the New Tech system, which I believe is the best way to prepare today’s students for a complex world.

Andrew Larson is a science and language arts facilitator at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School in Columbus, Indiana.

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