Assessments are a part of every day at school. Simple ones are used in class to check the pace of students’ learning; are my kids “getting it”? Am I going too fast? Is this the level, or depth of understanding, that I want them to achieve at the end of the day? Exit cards, handheld dry-erase boards, thumbs up or down, “OK, prove it” situations, are only a few of the many ways a teacher can determine if he’s meeting his learning objective. This is the formative assessment; the “test-close” of education. Your lesson plan has these sprinkled through it like chocolate chips in a cookie. Are grades making them participate in these activities?
Now go to the end of the unit. You have another kind of assessment: several short answer questions, a couple of short essays, maybe a graph or a word problem, whatever your pleasure. You expect, based on their behavior of the past few weeks, namely class participation, or all those formative assessments, or maybe a couple of short quizzes, two things: a) they understand the material to the level you designed; and b) that they have studied their class notes, asked you questions about things they didn’t understand, and are focused and motivated to do their best. Are they thinking about grades right now?
Do they take notes in class? Are those notes detailed, orderly, and easily referenced? Do they read the handouts or the chapters in the text that you’ve assigned? Do they underline, make notes in the margin, or notes in their subject notebooks? Have they come to you with their questions? Did they prepare a study guide? Do they ask their friends, or the “smart kids” (not mutually exclusive sets) what this or that mean? Do they study? Are they actively engaged in trying to master the material? Do they see a link between this activity and success in class? Have you clearly and repeatedly demonstrated such a link, and then assessed their awareness of this link? Are grades a way to make these desirable behaviors happen?
Your subject, your demeanor, your teaching style, your prior responses to a student’s presence and participation in your classroom, a student’s morning, their breakfast, their relationship with their parents, their siblings, their prior success or failure in school, the weather, time of day, time of year, time of school year, their prior knowledge, are all factors in how they will perform during this one class period. This list is not exhaustive.
How do grades fit into this matrix? How does their influence on student effort wax and wane over the course of the school year? What do they think of the frequent opportunities you give them in class to demonstrate how they can make something new and interesting for themselves out of the material? What do they think of the periodic tests and papers that you require? Do they want to demonstrate an understanding and mastery of the material? Are they anxious to be validated, and validated by you? Are they enjoying this activity; are they having fun, and how do assessments fit into that fun? Do they want an “A”? Is that performance relative to themselves over time, or to their peers, or to your opinion?