Now that the school year is over, this blog will probably become less Harkness-focused (though that will certainly still be the main theme of many of the posts) and include other topics that hopefully will be of interest.
Today is the first such post. Over the summer, some of the teachers at my high school have been asked to begin to rethink the grading practices both in our classrooms and in the district. Having read the book provided by the district that will serve as the starting point for our discussion in the fall, the push seems to be toward eliminating any scores that do not directly evaluate how well a student has learned the material for the course. The goal is to have the grade be an accurate reflection of how well the student has mastered the material, and I agree that if we're honest about it our current grading practices do not do this. Among other things, this would mean not giving credit for homework, since homework is intended to be practice and not actual evaluation. It would also mean eliminating extra credit, since it distorts the accuracy of the grade.
In my mind this raises two immediate issues:
(1) Using this sort of a standards-based grading system, the traditional method of assigning letters to certain percentages simply doesn't make sense. For example, let's say that there are five standards the student is to meet during a certain marking period. Throughout the term, the student has demonstrated (through in-class discussions, project presentations, tests, etc.) that they have mastered one of the standards, are proficient in three of the standards, and not proficient on the remaining standard. To what letter grade does this correspond? If we base the letter on mastery, the student is at 20% mastery - a really low F on a traditional scale. If we base it on proficiency, the student is at 80% - a B- on a traditional scale, and very different than the F just mentioned. Or should the letter grade be some combination of the two? These are good questions to which I don't currently have an answer. However, this makes me very curious to see how the grading is done at Exeter - definitely a question I'll be asking during the conference in two weeks.
(2) Any change in the way the letter grades are assigned is going to be met with a lot of questions from the students, the parents, and the community, let alone something as drastic as this. We will need to educate each of these groups regarding not only the new system itself (if we put such a thing in place), but also the rationale and research behind it.
If anyone reading this has comments, suggestions, or ideas, please send them along. I would love to have a good discussion here, and to include the discussion here in the conversation we will be having in my district in the fall.