By Sharon Kunde
It’s now week five of my school’s pivot to online instruction. We’ve weathered the chaos of week one, the understated pleasures of weeks two and three (no commute! teaching in ratty old slippers! baking during intervals!), and the tedium of week four. The time for soothing words and procrastination is over: it’s time for assessment.
If hearing those four words make you feel like this talented music teacher, take a deep breath. As traditional assessments – from pop quizzes to the SATs, from oral examinations to student presentations – become increasingly untenable in terms of both logistics and equity, we can use this moment as a chance to reflect on big-picture pedagogical outcomes. I, for one, want my students to cultivate an ability to engage with the world. I want them to develop critical consciousness, which involves curiosity about why things are the way they are and how they could be different. I want them to realize commonality with disparate people. I want them to develop the capacity to concentrate and to notice, along with the technical skills to develop meaningful responses to what they see. Grades merely index those nebulous capacities – grades are a language I use to communicate the extent to which I see particular habits of mind and technical capabilities manifesting in my students’ work.
As I feel my way forward into assessing student work in our homebound situation, I am adjusting how I use this language in order to accommodate the constraints we face. Here are my goals:
1. Give fewer assignments. This guideline has pedagogical merits, but I formulate it for logistical reasons. Assigning work in this environment first of all simply takes longer; either I have to write out extremely detailed instructions or I have to devote significant synchronous classroom time (laggy and multi-directional, as I toggle between chat box, slideshow, and grid of student faces) to orchestrating the assignments – and usually I have to do both. Secondly, the shift to online assessment has left me coordinating three different gradebooks: the official online gradebook I’ve been using all year, the Google Classroom into which students are actively uploading assignments, and a paper gradebook that feels like a necessary placeholder while I strategize what goes into the official online gradebook. It doesn’t take an AP math teacher to figure out that three gradebooks are harder to manage than one!
2. Grade in a less granular fashion. While I normally evaluate essays on a hundred-point scale, I’m shifting to a series of categories – introduction, historical research, mechanics, timeliness – which I’m scoring from 1 (needs improvement) to 4 (excellent). This system will let me acknowledge student effort while targeting particular areas in need of attention.
3. Give credit for completion. I want to help students establish and maintain critical intellectual habits of mind in a complex and uncertain situation. If they manage their time and complete assignments, they are exercising an orientation toward academic work that I recognize as valuable.
4. Experiment with student-driven evaluation. Students might evaluate their own work, writing a rationale for their score or grade. If it seems appropriate and/or manageable, students might evaluate each other’s work in pairs or groups. Whether or not the evaluation is reliable in and of itself, the mental processes students undertake when they evaluate someone else’s work helps them develop their critical abilities.
Like words themselves, grades are embedded in an ongoing social context. They do not reflect a concrete, empirical reality “out there” so much as they emerge from (and shape) ongoing relationships. Teachers hope that grades reflect mastery and deep ability, but in the end they most reliably indicate a student’s technical or strategic facility with the systems that produce them. In the end, a grade is a catachresis, what the Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms describes as “the use of a borrowed word for something that has no name.” Grades stand in for educational outcomes that will manifest directly and indirectly in students’ lives. Grades gesture toward but cannot delineate the myriad capacities that allow a person to discover what they love to do, or to locate the generosity and drive to create something new and original.
In fact, our present crisis might help us break habituated ways of thinking and devise our own evaluative innovations, perhaps by grading with a lighter touch, perhaps by involving and empowering students further in evaluating their own work. Going forward, the difficulties we face now serve as potent reminders that assessment is part of a conversation, always subjective, ongoing, and open-ended.
Greene, Roland and Cushman, Stephen, editors. The Princeton Handbook of Poetic Terms, Third
Edition. 2015. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review. Dr. Kunde teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/. Find her website at https://www.sharonkunde.com/.