This post is also crossposted on Medium.
Okay, how do we blow it up? There’s always a way to do that.
— Han Solo, The Force Awakens
One of the more awkward scenes in The Force Awakens is when Admiral Statura (Ken Leung from the television show Lost) hypothesizes that, because the Starkiller Base sucks in so much energy from stars, it must have a “thermal oscillator."
“If we can destroy that oscillator,” he theorizes, thinking out loud, “it might destabilize the core and cripple the weapon.”
“Maybe the planet,” Major Ematt chimes in.
If this is true (and it is all true), the Starkiller Base will be the most easily destroyed galactic superweapon in the history of galactic superweapons.
Just shoot the thermal oscillator. Boom.
Like the interplanetary weapons developed by the Empire and its evil offshoots, poor assessment and grading practices mostly suffer from the same, predictable fatal flaws. All take their eyes off learning, preferring instead to use assessment and grades as levers to achieve behavioral ends. Grading and assessment experts like Ken O’Connor, Thomas Guskey, and Rick Wormeli first helped me recognize these shortcomings in my own approach. Awareness of these ideas is becoming increasingly widespread.
Still, in many schools poor grading and assessment practices persist. Here are three of the worst:
Practice #1: Penalties within the academic grade
Compare, if you will, the stiff, regimented fashion sense of the Empire with the tousled, shabby chic of the Rebel Alliance. In the Empire, you probably get force choked for wearing your hair too long or adding too much flair to your olive grey tunic. If you’re a Storm Trooper, you’re forced to trot about in hot, clumsy armor that provides exactly zero protection from laser blasts.
The policy is no fun allowed. How long would it would take for Han and Chewy to get booted from the Imperial Academy for bad behavior? But in the Rebellion they’re a valued resource: the Millennium Falcon is like a perpetual genius hour project.
Did worthless armor and a penchant for force-choking its up-and-coming talent contribute to the Empire’s demise? It certainly didn’t help matters. The Empire’s toxic culture has a few things in common with classrooms that incorporate punitive practices into the letter grade.
First of all, a zero can be likened to force choking someone academically for falling short behaviorally. Anyone who doles out zeroes on the mathematically disproportionate 100-point scale (10 points for grades A-D, 60 points for E) knows how it can destroy a student’s grade. Almost always, a zero is given for some behavior-related reason: plagiarism, cheating, not turning in an assignment. Same with late penalties. The lowered score is not intended to reflect lower academic ability, but rather a failure of punctuality.
None of this nonacademic tinkering is clear to anyone who sees the final grade.
More importantly, like force choking, penalties don’t reliably lead to improvement. While they don’t usually result in death, neither do they spur motivation. Over time, you end up with kids who laugh about getting zeroes. Often these are the same kids who go on to get detentions and suspensions. It’s not hard to see how these early “interventions” can be gateways to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Often, the behavior is outside of the penalized person’s control. As I discovered in my first placement, an alternative school, penalties often reflect the stability of your home life, the education and income levels of your parents, your own mental and physical health.
Compounding all this are ostensibly neutral policies like participation points, extra credit, and one-shot assessments with no possibility to redo or retake. Not only are these options more accessible to students with a foundation of affluence, privilege, and stability, they blur achievement within the academic subject, tacitly rewarding compliance, employability skills, and speed of learning. While some of these nonacademic competencies are indeed important, they should be reported and supported elsewhere.
Blow it up.
Practice #2: Group grades
The Emperor directs Luke to finish off his fallen father. Luke refuses and the Emperor proceeds to riddle him with Force lightning. As he looks on, Darth Vader seems to be having second thoughts about his master.
In addition to being a pivotal moment in the Galactic Civil War, these are some pretty poor group dynamics. But even with the best groups, group grades are problematic. When the galactic chips are down, who can tell who demonstrated what?
Two problems here. First of all, the obvious problem of the go-getters and the hangers-on. The hangers-on demonstrate little or nothing, drawing the ire of the go-getters. Maybe you can build in lots of deterrents to prevent this sort of behavior, but in the end, we want all students to demonstrate the learning. We can’t have people hiding out in groups.
This leads to the second problem, the fact that teachers often aren’t entirely clear what skills kids are supposed to demonstrate, in part because the ability to work in groups is such an important skill in and of itself. The question is whether it is an actual learning target for Biology or Pre-Algebra. If it isn’t, then it becomes just another nonacademic skill clouding student achievement in the subject area.
Group work is a good thing, even an important thing. It can be a great step leading up to an individualized assessment. But if we are going to assess students in the midst of group work, we need to first of all be especially clear about our learning targets, and second of all find ways of identifying what each student demonstrates — independent of the others.
For example, I use fishbowl discussions as one way to assess a Common Core State Standard: Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions. Academic discourse is a legitimate Language Arts skill that requires group work to assess it. By video recording these sessions and assigning each participant a partner to take note of evidence related to the target, I can make individual determinations as to what each student has achieved.
Other group work configurations could involve specific tasks, with each student demonstrating different learning targets within his or her role.
But a single grade to represent each group member’s effort or lack there of?
Blow it up.
Practice #3: Random projects that don’t demonstrate anything
Kylo Ren, in my opinion, is a poor excuse for a Sith. Like Luke, he probably would have benefited from a lot more training, even if it was the Dark Side kind of training. He’s got a lot of passion, but he needs more skills, especially in the area of lightsaber combat. In The Force Awakens, he manages to strike down two unarmed people and this helpless control panel.
Right now, there’s a lot of excitement around alternative assessments, choice and voice, project-based learning, passion projects, and genius hour. That’s a wide spectrum of ideas, but I’m putting it all under the same umbrella because they all seek to unlock intrinsic motivation through autonomy, real-world tasks, and authentic audiences.
And I’m getting swept up in it as well. I’m convinced these concepts are going to play a huge role in the future of education. It only becomes a problem when the alternative assessment uses style (or effort, enthusiasm, passion) to cover up a lack of substance (or skill, ability, higher-order thinking).
Some of the projects I’ve seen in this vein are very impressive from a style standpoint. But when I look beyond the bells and whistles, the passion and enthusiasm, I realize that the thinking is sometimes on the very bottom of Bloom’s taxonomy, regurgitating facts in a fancy way. In my own subject area, English Language Arts, I have a lot of latitude regarding style; it is part of the very substance of my subject area. Learning the defining standards of blogging, vlogging, and video creation, for instance, all relate to publishing standards — firmly within the realm of English Language Arts.
The same cannot be said of courses in the other core areas, like Calculus or U.S. History. Students may very well enjoy creating a claymation movie of Paul Revere’s ride, but the process won’t in itself demonstrate any higher-order thinking in the subject area. Strip away all the Playdoh and video editing and you may find nothing more than a Wikipedia page. Lots of passion, but not much aptitude vis-à-vis the standards.
This is what passes for poster boards in the 21st century. Blow it up.