A de-grading message

Tommy is my eleven year old son who has just moved from a highly rated Church of England primary school in Winchester to the wilds of the Elementary in the American Embassy School in Delhi, where the 'uniform' is shorts, t-shirts, a cap and sneakers. At this early stage in the transition, he is a keen observer of the two different systems. "Mom, what I like about this school is that you don't know who they think is clever or not so clever, because the whole way it works is that you are competing against yourself, not each other. In Winchester, I knew exactly how clever they thought everyone was because it was so obvious: "This group is getting the really difficult homework... this should be nice and easy for this group etc". At Parent Teacher evenings, his well meaning teacher would lean over a spreadsheet, speaking to me in numbers "Now Tommy - he's a 5 at Maths, a 5 at English and a 4 at Science". He likes the new way, he finds it motivating, and he is learning to get better at stuff, not for sake of a mark or a nod from the teacher. He is learning for learning's sake.

What grades do to kids

My older son, Jonty, is 13, and in the Middle School, where the system's wheels are oiled entirely by the grade point average. Several times a week summative judgements are posted onto his electronic record card which I can access online. There are no comments except "homework missing, not turned in" and only grades, grades, grades. Initially I thought it was quite a potent motivator for a slightly indolent teenager, because it promotes working through grades, implicitly through competition, public shame and humiliation. Boys and girls flick onto their online record cards several times a day instead of shooting hoops in the playground... so Jonts comes home saying things like "x is just brilliant. He is so lucky - so talented, just a really gifted kid. I'll never be like that". The message of the grade point average is the one contested by Dweck in her fabulous research on motivation and identity, that ability is fixed, hard-wired into the DNA, and that there's not much you can do about it. Testing kids to the hilt, high stakes, summative, and often trivial tests, sells them this message, and brands them with a searing iron for life - "thick" "mediocre" "you'll never amount to anything" "brilliant".

TESTA's message

It's taken me a while to connect my sons' recent educational experience to my own work on TESTA. The other day it dawned on me: TESTA is all about this. Programmes of study need to speak a different language from the 'final vocabulary' of summative judgements, which belong at the end of courses of study. They cannot subscribe to a normative worldview when research tells us that people do learn, grow and develop. In any event, the whole higher education endeavour is built on the view that our assessment is criterion- referenced, not norm referenced. Unlocking the keys of growth through an assessment system which helps people to grow in confidence, motivation and ability, is what it's all about.

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Friday, 21 July 2017