Evaluating students' work or activities can be a challenge, especially when--like me--you've never really liked summative assessment scales like A-F or 0-100%.
Last year, for the first time, I experienced an evaluation system that was remarkably simple compared to anything I had come across or used before. Student performance was either S (Satisfactory), NS (Non-Satisfactory) or NYS (Not Yet Satisfactory).
This scale, based around the central idea of whether elements or performance indicators had been met or not as part of general competence, was really quick and easy to apply.
Black and white, with no other colours whatsoever when it came to illuminating student performance.
Of course, formative assessment can help to add a lot more colour to the evaluation experience, but it tends to become rather like a weak watermark when the overall summative assessment process is simply heaven or hell.
Here is a typical exchange from my teaching experiences last year:
S: "So, get my final draft for that essay? Did I pass?"
T: "Yes, I've got it. It's not too bad, actually, but I think you could have supported your arguments with some more convincing real-world examples."
S: "Right... But does it pass?"
T: "Well, yes, technically--but I know you could probably improve it a lot by--"
S: "But it's a pass, right?"
T: "Erm... yeeeeees, but--"
S: "Great! Too easy."
Too easy indeed.
This is the real risk with simple black-and-white competency-based assessment. It creates a highly visible bar set perilously close to mediocre and erodes what I think is fundamental to any educational and evaluative process: creating incentives and illustrating clear pathways for improvement in one's performance.
As my boss recently quoted some famous educator as saying: "Education is 90% encouragement." When your assessment system only encourages a pass, 90% of the time that is the goal you're likely to foster in your students.
If I had to evaluate this sort of system using its own grading criteria, I would have to award it an NYS. Not yet satisfactory.
So I started a bit of an experiment this year by basically expanding on the S/Satisfactory element in the equation. Instead of S/N, this year I am using:
S1 = Satisfactory/Excellent (80-100%)
S2 = Satisfactory/Good (65-79%)
S3 = Satisfactory/Pass (50-64%)
N = Not (yet) Satisfactory (< 50%)
The Excellent/Good/Pass and 1/2/3 terms are important for adding some texture to the overall 'satisfactory' grade. You can pass something, but that doesn't necessarily mean it was "good", and two students can get a satisfactory result but at different levels or layers. The percentages included in the mix are there to create an alternative frame of reference which can also translate numerical results (from things like online reading activities or quizzes) into the simple S1-3/N scale.
Having applied and explained the scale to students, after three weeks' study I'm now in a position to sit back and reflect on what impact (if any) the different evaluation process has had.
In short, it's worked miracles.
The majority of students are now specifically aiming for an S1, not an "S". They are asking questions, when awarded an S2, about what they need to do to raise their work to an S1. Some students are still satisified/relieved with an S3, but they are also asking questions. Across outcome categories (which generate an average based on a group of related activities) in their gradebooks, students are noticing an average of S2 or S3 and seeing that it was on account of one or two poor performances across the category alongside some S1 assessments. This creates a basis for clear comparison between two similar tasks with different evaluations. Again, some students are asking if they can re-do the poorer work to help kick the overall category outcome up to an S1.
Once I have students coming up with questions, I have the positive rhythm I need with learners to create forward movement. Even aspiration.
And I'll be prefectly honest, there are some students who are still content with S3 and may even be limiting their efforts to get to that bare/mediocre pass level. But I somehow feel more comfortable knowing that the grading system is rewarding those who try to do better and doesn't just lump them in a colourless 'heaven'/satisfactory category with anyone perfectly happy with a mediocre performance.
For those still happy with or specifically aiming at the bare pass end of the scale, I think special factors are at play. At least now I can see those performances and students more consistently and really think about what we need to try in order to transform the way they see their education.
'We' is an important word in that equation. I have to be very careful about identifying when satisfaction with mediocrity isn't facilitated by my instructional design, classroom interactions or one-on-one relationships with particular students.
In other words: If my teaching and teaching material is only realistically geared towards an S3 result (using my own assessment scale), then I deserve what I get from the students and they don't get what they deserve from me.