What about grades?

In one week, we are all headed into a well-deserved holiday break. AT SGS, adults and students alike are working very hard toward achieving goals that support a thriving teaching and learning community. We are growing our urban garden even in frigid weather. We have engineered contraptions, robot artists, geo-luminescent structures, and Ewok villages throughout our STEAM Surge. From literature circles to number talks, from Mock Trial to physical and mindful challenges in A&W, from “juegos en Español” to ukuleles, guitars, and rock band, from creative work in the Art Studio to exploring science in our labs, we’re taking every opportunity to create a thriving learning community.

With our independent thinkers all engaged in highly collaborative environments, learning at SGS is very joyful as well as very challenging. So what about grades? What about Standards? How do we know that students are learning as well as experiencing? Well, for many years I assigned grades in my classroom based on a fair system where points had been assigned ahead of time, and I was often pleased that the accumulation of points resulted in a distribution that matched up with my expectations and the expectations of the school: a few A’s, many B’s and C’s, and just a few D’s and F’s.

Despite my love of numerical data, I always suspected there were deep flaws in this approach to learning assessment. Ultimately, it was entirely arbitrary! I decided how to assign points so that the overall assessment would match my opinions regarding the relative weight of different assignments. When a student asked about her success or lack of success, I could point to “the system” as flawed. With the very first assessment we started to disconnect genuine learning in the classroom and laboratory from the mutual “gaming” that ultimately took center stage – especially at the end of each term. My students would try to do whatever it took to earn more points, often seeking “extra” points. I would try to do whatever it took to make sure the system was designed to accurately reward points. There was a fundamental dishonesty about all this because it was simply not rooted in what students knew, and certainly not rooted in their passions!

For a perspective on Standards-Based Assessment and its collateral damage from current teacher, click here.

So back to SGS! We will soon provide each of our students with their first narrative assessment of the year. We have identified key reporting categories that we believe best reflect our unique curriculum for end-of-term assessment. They include cross-curricular categories (analytical and critical thinking, communication, democratic citizenship, and work habits) as well as skill areas (mathematics, Spanish, writing, art, adventure & wellness, and music). Goals developed in all these areas inform individual assessments throughout the term as well as end-of-term narratives.

The broad array of Seattle high schools to which our graduates apply and are accepted indicate that our in-depth narratives give them a rich picture of our students’ strengths as well as their challenges. In this way, a more optimal match is achieved for SGS graduates and their high schools of choice.

The exchange of information at Learning Team Meetings, led by the student but also incorporating input from her adult advocates, provides a solid background and context for these narrative reports. Our faculty teams have also provided feedback throughout the term on daily and weekly assignments as well as through their websites, which provide a “big picture” view.

Very few students at SGS are identified as consistently failing to meet goals in several areas. Furthermore, we firmly believe that hard work and a willingness to take charge of her learning will enable a student to make progress in deficit areas so that goals are met by year’s end or by the end of the SGS experience.

Students who excel in certain areas consistently exceed expectations, seek opportunities to go further, demonstrate depth of thought and application, show multiple applications or perspectives, successfully teach peers concepts and skills learned in class, and make connections across content areas. It is very rare for a student to excel in all areas or even most. We seek to identify challenges for all girls so that each will have “learning edges” to encounter. The notion of “straight A’s” implies that learning and growth has reached a limit, and we reject that notion.

The academic year is a journey that each student navigates in a unique way, and the SGS experience as a whole is a multi-year journey. The successes and challenges of each year will inform future success for each student.

For our Dean’s perspective on how narratives support a positive mindset and help us fine tune feedback so that it has the best possible impact, go to Sally’s corner.