Saturday, December 5, 2009

More on Sorting

Last week's poll results leaned heavily towards the idea that we are in the business of developing ability rather than sorting students according to the abilities they already have. OK, so only 32 people have responded, but 90%of them agree with the idea that we are here to develop abilities in our students rather than sort them. One is not sure, and two disagree.

It would be interesting to hear more from those who disagree or are unsure, because they have a point. While we may feel we're all about developing ability, many of our structures and practices tell a different story. Report cards are often mentioned as a prime example of this. While most teachers recognize that learning occurs at different rates, all of a sudden at report card time the clock runs out. Those who learn a particular set of concepts quickly are rewarded. Those who need more time to make sense of things - not so much. A sudden sorting of students occurs.

The struggle over report cards is not just about the workload. Teachers also struggle with knowing that some students who are capable of learning will not be rewarded if they are still trying to understand a particular concept when the unit is over and report card marks are due. Teachers are not the only ones who despair at this; students do too.

In this post we'll take a closer look at synthesis of Black and Wiliam's research on assessment posted last week. In particular we'll focus on one of the five "deceptively simple" factors that improving student learning through assessment depends on:

A recognition of the profound influence assessment has on the motivation and self esteem of students.

This knife cuts both ways. Students who get good marks think grades are a good idea, and why wouldn't they? An "A" is very affirming, and a "B" is close enough to it that it holds out hope of an "A". But if you ever got a low report card grade, think about the effect that had on you. Those of you who never had this experience will have to rely on research.

As Black and Wiliam (2001) put it:

Pupils who encounter difficulties and poor results are led to believe that they lack ability, and this belief leads them to attribute their difficulties to a defect in themselves about which they cannot do a great deal. So they ‘retire hurt’, avoid investing effort in learning which could only lead to disappointment, and try to build up their self-esteem in other ways. Whilst the high-achievers can do well in such a culture, the overall result is to enhance the frequency and the extent of under-achievement.

While one experience doesn't make for a large research base, this quote brought back an experience I'd forgotten, or at least almost forgotten. I once got a bad report card mark (and I mean bad) in one subject because I didn't understand what I was trying to learn, and a whole set of responses that seem to support Black and Wiliam's results set in. After the initial disgrace of taking this blighted report card home, it was amazing how quickly I gave up trying in that particular subject, becoming one of those students who wasn't passing and had poor work habits to boot. The poor mark didn't spur me on to improve; it made me give up on myself, at least in that subject. I developed an antipathy for the teacher, and I think she developed one for me too, as I wasn't responding to her teaching or doing my homework.

In case you're wondering how this story ended, I was packed off to a tutor who gave me some extra time to learn and some individual feedback while I did it. I ended up passing the course (just barely) but never took any joy in that particular subject area again.

The story never ends for students who get poor marks all the time. This is all the more reason for looking at assessment and ongoing feed back as a way of helping all students learn more successfully. Along the way, perhaps we can help them start believing in themselves as learners. As something to think about, the video on the right speaks to the power of teachers' belief in students, and the source is Dalton Sherman, a student himself.

This week's poll gets at the idea of using tests as a teaching tool to give feedback and help students learn from their mistakes. Then students take the test again for a better outcome. Some teachers may do this to focus on learning rather than sorting, and others may think it's unfair to other students. Either way it's a hot topic. Weigh in and we'll see what we get.

If you are interested in reading the complete Black and Wiliam's article on assessment it appears below.

Inside the Black Box


  1. Report cards can seem like such a final judgement of a person's performance. Luckily, I started as 'C' student in elementary school anything more than that was a bonus for me and my parents. My first 'B' in Grade 5/6 seemed like such an accomplishment. I wonder when report cards became such a cultural icon? Symbol of a person's standing in life. Being sorted into slots and slides. What do you do if you don't fit in a sort. Like being out of sorts. Left out. Unsortable. Poor fellow.

  2. Sad to say that most of those that started as "barely meeting expectations" in expected learning outcomes in early elementary years are often still "barely meeting" or "not yet meeting" expectations in high school despite all the public school systems resources behind them as support. It takes such exceptional resilience and determination for these students to overcome the negative impact of the constant "F's" and "I's" and still find reasons to stay in school. Despite all the research and professional development activities we still are not getting it right for these kids.