Student Assessment and Grades

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Q&A with division heads

Most of us attended schools with report cards and infrequent parent-teacher conferences that may have been convened only when a student was in trouble. Things are different at Catlin Gabel. We asked our division heads, Pam McComas, Vicki Roscoe, Paul Andrichuk, and Michael Heath, to talk about our unique approach to student assessment and grades.

How does Catlin Gabel differ from other schools regarding assessments?

Pam: In some schools, students focus their attention and energies on tests. Getting good grades is then linked to the ability to anticipate what will be on the test. Catlin Gabel teachers do not define learning in this way. As goofy as it may seem to some to not give letter grades outright, the practice helps focus student attention on our instructional goals: depth of understanding, creative thinking, and analytic reasoning. These are the lasting gifts of a good education. In a world in which the fund of knowledge doubles every couple of years, these skills will serve students best.

What do we assess?

Pam: As a progressive school we are firmly focused on the development of more than academics. Intellectual growth and social-emotional health are also fundamental elements of a well-rounded education, and so our assessments include these as well. Teachers are interested in their students’ abilities to reason and their depth of thinking, as well as the specific content and skills they have learned. Creative approaches to problems, resiliency, and interpersonal skills and dispositions (persistence, for one) also figure into assessments. Our goal is to educate good people as well as academically skilled students.

What do written evaluations and parent-teacher conferences tell parents about their kids that letter grades do not?

Paul: Written evaluations tell parents about their child’s learning disposition, motivation, response to feedback, and what engages him or her in school life. The teachers can write and talk about specific challenges, such as a child who seems to know the material but does not hand in homework or a student who does fine in class but is experiencing social challenges. Middle Schoolers are experiencing rapid physical and emotional changes. We want parents to understand how these stressors can affect their children’s learning.

Vicki: We do not give letter grades or standardized achievement tests in the Lower School. We believe that showing parents evidence of learning is much more authentic and powerful than a letter on a page. And if the children themselves take ownership of their learning and are responsible for presenting it to you, and are part of celebrating their strengths and successes and setting their own goals - well, in short, it doesn’t get better than that.

Why do students get grades in the Upper School?

Michael: All in all we do a good job of focusing on the things that grades fail to measure: knowledge, sophisticated self-reflection, the ability to think deeply and communicate lucidly, and the cultivated desire to invest in a community and the world. At the same time most colleges and universities request a transcript with letter grades. While we want our children to earn these “measures” of high achievement so that colleges will recognize our students as the intelligent, engaged learners they are, we do not want to overemphasize the importance of the GPA.

How does our Upper School grading compare with other schools?

Michael: Our grade spread is typical of independent schools across the country. Colleges know that when a school awards 50 percent of its students a 4.0 GPA, then that school’s standards are not comparable to a school like ours. Last year a faculty task force compared Catlin Gabel to other highly academic benchmark schools and their grade distributions. As a result of their work three substantial changes were put into place. We added an A+ for truly outstanding students, giving all students the possibility of earning higher GPAs. We instituted the practice of giving individual faculty members a report on how their grading matches up with others in their departments and with every teacher in the Upper School. Finally, we revamped our school profile that is sent to colleges and universities so that students from Catlin Gabel are viewed in the specific context of our program and standards—including how we grade. These changes have made a positive difference already.

What do you say to parents who just want to know where their child stands?

Michael: We resist what I call the Antiques Roadshow syndrome. On the Antiques Roadshow, participants bring in family treasures from their attics so an expert can assess their value. The experts go into all kinds of interesting detail about provenance, design, etc. The owner feigns enthusiastic engagement—when everyone can see that what he really wants to know is how much the thing is worth. We never want parents in conferences or reading narrative reports to think, yes, this is all very interesting, but what’s her letter grade? We provide useful information about how children are learning and thriving. We do want you and your daughters and sons to fully understand where they stand, as it were. It is vital that in every case where a student is struggling, teachers are clear and honest, and offer ameliorating strategies for the individual. The last thing we want in those instances is for parents to be surprised further down the road.

What is the value of parent-teacher conferences?

Vicki: Teaching is about relationship building. Once healthy bonds are made between the teacher, the student, and the student’s family, there is no limit to the learning that can take place. Conferencing is essential to strengthening this partnership. Sometimes parents see a side of child that is not revealed at home. Occasionally, when parents hear about a child taking personal responsibility for cleaning up or helping others they say, “Are we talking about the same kid?!”

Michael: And in the Upper School, when each student has as many as six or seven teachers, these teachers may see a different side to the child when they hear what their colleagues observe. For example, a parent told me about a conference where her son’s math teacher described a problem the boy had with differentiating symbols. His history teacher leaned forward excitedly and said, maybe that explains why he writes well but doesn’t use proper punctuation! Then all six teachers talked about how they could help her son with his particular learning challenge.

When children work with so many teachers how are assessments shared by faculty members?

Pam: In all four divisions teachers, counselors, and learning specialists have formal and informal conversations about individual students. We continually share insights, anecdotes, and progress reports with one another. This gives us a 360-degree view of the child’s learning from math to art to language to social skills. The net effect is that each teacher’s assessment enriches our collective understanding of each student’s learning style, current challenges, and accomplishments. We do a better job of teaching than we would if we worked in isolation from one another.

How are students involved with their evaluations?

Paul: Our assessment practices actively involve students in their own learning. We help students develop their ability to self-assess and articulate their learning styles. Part of this involves asking students to reflect on how well they understand the material. More importantly, the students develop a better sense of how they think about learning. When students know themselves as learners, they are able to create their own learning opportunities. Research tells us that the closer the assessment is to the student, including the criteria and standards for assessing “quality,” the more value it has for him or her.
Vicki: Students in the Lower School and in 7th grade are involved in student-led conferences. I guess that makes them student-parent-teacher conferences. Children get to report their own progress, which makes them active participants in their assessment. Let’s face it, the adults can talk until they are blue in the face, and set the most meaningful and relevant goals in the world for the child, but the goals will never be realized until the kid is actually involved. Our goal is for the children to be intrinsic learners; we’ll never get there unless they are empowered to be part of the process.

How do the close student teacher relationships and small class sizes affect assessment?

Michael: Our low student-teacher ratio allows for in-depth guidance. Our kids are trained to address the substance of the work. Conversations between student and teacher are educational ones, not bottom-line ones. For example, after Upper School teachers send mid-term reports, each student has a one-on-one meeting with his or her advisor to reflect together on the academic progress students have made. Some of the questions advisors ask are: What surprised you about some of these comments? What are you particularly proud of here? If you were to pick just one thing you wanted to focus on for the rest of the year, what would that be? One of the school characteristics that comes up again and again when I meet with prospective students and their parents is the way we know the students in our classes and C&Cs (advisory groups).