Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Tyranny of Undertesting: Why Underreliance on Tests Helps Kids Fail

The grading policy for Baltimore County High Schools goes like this:

Classwork - 60%
Homework - 15%
Tests/Quizzes - 25%

For those who don't see the problem with this, let me explain. Under this schema, it is entirely possible that a student can pass a class with a 70% C having done all classwork, some homework, and have gotten 0%s on assessments. As most teachers' policies is to grade classworks and homeworks (primarily) on completion rather than accuracy, this means that it becomes possible for students to pass a class without having demonstrated any real mastery of the material.

What made me think about this today was a meeting I sat in about a student who recently got placed into a less intense math class than the one he previously in. While the student passed algebra I last year with a C, the guidance counselor explained to me that she and the math teacher feel that he did not at all master the Algebra concepts, and thus, they could not keep him in Algebra II. We wondered - briefly - how it was possible that he passed Algebra I with a C and it did not take long to spot the reason.

As an educator, I see it all too often: students "skirt" by with C's and D's under a system where this grade ignores whether they mastered content, and only attests that they have done the majority of the work put in front of them (correctly or incorrectly). Thus, students are passed on without any obligation to really learn the material, and as a result, are ill-equipped for the next grade.

If it were my decision, I would place test/quiz grades at about 40% of the grade, so that a student who may not be a good test taker can pass without brilliant scores, but to eliminate the overly large possibility of students passing classes without demonstrating mastery of the content.

Critics would certainly tell me that this simply raises stakes too high, and that classworks and homeworks can do the job of assessments in testing students knowledge of the material while not penalizing poor test-takers or boiling the class down to one's ability to regurgitate facts. My response: first, ability to regurgitate facts is not per se a bad thing (unless that is ALL that is measured); second, homeworks/classworks cannot fully do the job of assessing student knowledge because they are more often graded on completion (and generally done when students have access to books/internet/peers.

I am fully aware of the dangers of TOO MUCH emphasis being put on tests, but I am not sure others are aware of the dangers of TOO LITTLE emphasis on tests. (Most of my graduate special education professors talk of the 'tyranny of testing' but never talk of the 'tyranny of undertesting.') As a result of Baltimore County's thoroughly misguided grading policy (where tests/quizzes count for 25% while classwork/homework counts for 75%), we are failing students by allowing them to pass into classes without having demonstrated adequate mastery of the subject. In other words, not making tests a bigger part of the grade ensures that they can dig themselves into bigger and bigger holes the further through school they get.

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