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A modest proposal…

I’m worried about the term “formative assessment.” The term refers to an important idea – using assessment data DURING learning to make a change. But so many people use the term so differently, I fear that the important, core idea got lost.

In my district a decision was made quite a while ago to include the term formative assessment in on-line gradebooks. I understand why that decision was made, and well-meaning folks did it for good reasons. But one of the side effects was that the term “formative assessment” now means “an assignment that is worth fewer points” to students.

Dylan Wiliam is one of my favorite education researchers, and one of the people who “originated” the term formative assessment. A while back, someone asked a him “What’s the biggest mistake you made as a researcher?” on twitter, and his reaction was fascinating:

I like this idea: maybe including the word “assessment” in the term “formative assessment” wasn’t a great idea in the first place. Here’s my modest proposal: let’s replace the term formative assessment with two terms: responsive teaching, and student practice.

Responsive teaching could refer examples of teachers using assessment data (exit tickets, short quiz results, etc.) to make a change in their teaching. Student practice could refer to any time students use feedback to revise their work, try again, etc.

I don’t expect many folks to really stop using the “formative assessment,” but I think the terms Responsive Teaching and Student Feedback might be more descriptive and clear in most situations. Below is a slide I’ve used during discussions about all this – please feel free to steal!

(Note: thanks to Alex Bahe for letting me swipe a couple graphics)

 

 

I Only Have One Question…

[Note: this blog post original appeared on the Noba Blog]

In a 2006 article Wylie and Ciafolo describe a technique called “single diagnostic items” that may be a great tool for teachers to use to gauge the impact of classroom demonstrations. Single diagnostic items focus on one important concept and “diagnose” student misconceptions about that concept. Imagine using a single item to determine what your students are learning! Wylie and Ciafolo define these items as “single, multiple choice questions connected to a specific content standard or objective. They have one or more answer choices that are incorrect but related to common student misconceptions regarding that standard or objective” (p. 4). The incorrect responses indicate a specific misconception about the concept, so that student responses identify specific misconceptions.

I wanted to see how single diagnostic items worked in a real classroom so I asked an instructor of an introductory psychology class at a local small liberal arts college for permission to work with one of her classes. She and I decided to focus on the topic of working memory. The text for the course did not cover this topic thoroughly and the instructor had not yet discussed this topic with the class.

My experience with single diagnostic items in the classroom

After introducing myself and explaining the goals of the research project, I asked the class to respond in writing to the prompt: “In a few sentences, please briefly describe working memory.” Then I conducted a working memory demonstration: Students closed their eyes and mentally counted the number of windows in their house. After they finished, they closed their eyes again to “count the number of words in the sentence I just said.” After they finished this task, students indicated whether they had to use their fingers to count when I asked them about the number of windows in their house (none of the students raised their hands). Then I asked how many used their fingers to count the number of words in the sentence (almost all the students raised their hands). Then I projected a single diagnostic item on the screen:

Why do most people use their fingers when they count the words in the sentence, but not when they count the windows?

  • A. Windows are visual, and visual things are easy to process.
  • B. Most people are visual learners.
  • C. The windows are in long term memory, but the words are in short term memory.
  • D. Familiarity – I’m more familiar with my windows than I am the words in that sentence, so that task is harder.
  • E. I can picture the windows but I can’t picture the words, and that has something to do with it.
  • F. Working memory must process words and pictures differently.

Students then indicated their response to this item (using their cell phones and the website Poll Everywhere: http://www.polleverywhere.com/). We briefly discussed the diversity of their responses, shown here:

In our discussion the students pointed out that at least one student in the class chose each of the possible responses. We discussed the frequency of the different responses : most students chose answer C (“The windows are in long term memory, but the words are in short term memory”) or answer E (“I can picture the windows but I can’t picture the words, and that has something to do with it”). We briefly discussed the diversity of responses and concluded that the data indicate that the class doesn’t yet have a common explanation for why the word counting task required almost everyone to count on their fingers and the windows counting task did not.

Then I explained the origin of the task: Baddeley and Hitch (1974) established that working memory is an active system made up of separate elements that deal with different kinds of information differently. To complete the “counting the windows” task, first working memory determines that the windows need to be pictured and then counted (“central executive” function). Then working memory activates the element that handles words and numbers in order to count the windows (“phonological loop”), and the element that can picture each window visually (visuo-spatial sketchpad”). When faced with the “count the number of words in the sentence I just said” task, the central executive encounters a problem. The phonological loop has to repeat the words in the sentence, but the visuo-spatial sketchpad can’t count, so most people have to use their fingers to complete the task.

After explaining the working memory research and terminology to the class, the students again wrote answers to the writing prompt “In a few sentences, please briefly describe working memory. “ They also again used their cell phones to vote on the correct answer to the diagnostic item:

The class discussed these data and agreed that the memory demonstration and explanation changed their conceptions and understandings about the nature of working memory. Almost everyone in the class agreed in the end that answer F “working memory must process words and pictures differently” was the most correct answer. We discussed the two previous most common answers (C and E) and the class was able to describe in what ways those responses were correct and incorrect.

Later I analyzed the students’ written responses to look for other evidence of changes in understanding of the working memory concept. I created a short rubric to use to score students’ pre and post writing responses:

Each student response was scored by me and a colleague who did not know which responses were “pre” and which were “post.” These scoring data also indicate changes in understanding the working memory concept.

Single diagnostic items like this one could be used to assess the effectiveness of the classroom demonstration about operational definitions. These “effectiveness data” could be used to make decisions about which demonstrations are most effective and which need to be modified. These same data could have multiple formative purposes: Teachers can regroup students into discussion groups based on their responses and ask groups to process the rationale behind their answers. Heterogeneous discussion groups might be useful, each student discussing their different answer with the goal of the group moving toward a consensus conclusion. Teachers could use the two most common answers and use other classroom demonstrations/activities to focus on those misconceptions directly. All these formative uses of the assessment data share a common characteristic: data from this one item are used to focus specifically on student misunderstandings about this important concept. This focus on the misconceptions these students demonstrate address student thinking actively and directly. The assessment data informs instruction by the teacher and metacognition by the students.

How to develop Single Diagnostic Items

Developing single-diagnostic items does require teachers to invest time in the item development process, but can save time in the classroom by efficiently providing valuable information about student misconceptions. One item-develop process is described below

  1. Gather teachers who teach the same/similar content. Writing single-diagnostic items requires “deep” content knowledge, and is best done with a group of experienced teachers.
  2. Choose a “big idea” to focus on. Single-diagnostic items take a while to write, so the group should spend its time focusing on an idea/concept/etc. that is a “big deal.” Some authors call these “hinge” or “threshold” concepts: ideas that students need to understand well in order to make progress in the discipline.
  3. Ask the group to list misconceptions about the “big idea” (another way to phrase this task is to ask “How do students go wrong about this idea?) List all the misconceptions the group develops, then look at the list and collapse any similar ideas into appropriate categories.
  4. Write a stem for the single-diagnostic item that will require students to use the “big idea.”
  5. Write options for the single-diagnostic idea, one option per misconception and one possible correct answer. Note: multiple correct answers can be included, and the group should end up with one (and only one) option for each misconception. Ideally, if a student chooses an incorrect option, teachers should be confident the student did so because they are laboring under that specific misconception.
  6. Test the item with real students. Participating teachers should use the item in class, and ask students who choose an incorrect response WHY they chose that response to test the relationships between incorrect options and misconceptions.
  7. Revise based on feedback.

References:

Baddeley, A. D., & Hitch, G. (1974). Working memory. In G.H. Bower (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol. 8, pp. 47-89). New York, NY: Academic Press

Wylie, C., & Ciofalo, J. (2006). Using diagnostic classroom assessment: One question at a time. Teachers College Record, Jan. 10, 2006, 1-6.

 

Let’s try to Intentionally Override…

This quote from Yana Weinstein (@doctorwhy) is important , I think. But I’ve been having trouble talking about it.

Rob_McEntarffer___rmcenta____Twitter

There’s a lot in this quote. Piles and piles of cognitive (and developmental) psychology indicate that humans use concepts and categories to understand the world. We just do. Our brains are meaning making and pattern finding machines. And it’s not a bad thing: generally making categories is an efficient, adaptive way to operate in the world.

BUT when we deal with other people, our categorization habits can get in the way. Badly.  Categories quickly lead to stereotypes, which can easily become prejudice, and if we have even a bit of power over someone else, prejudice becomes discrimination. And this all might happen without our awareness.

My favorite part of the quote is the last part: “The moral solution is to intentionally override the tendency to categorize individuals in the same way that we characterize other items that we encounter.” That sounds very matter of fact and clear, but underneath that statement is something profound, and inspiring, I think. When we deal with our fellow human beings, the other folks in our human family, we need to try to consciously “override” what our brain wants us to do at first: categorize someone. We should try to NOT judge their actions based on the categories and expectations built up based on our past experiences. We need to stop those immediate thoughts, remember that we’re thinking about another human being, and do our best to resist the influence of our internal categories (and stereotypes).

I expect there are many, many studies that show how unlikely this is. I’m certain that it’s difficult, and it may even ultimately be impossible. But I don’t want to think about that yet. Maybe it’s worthwhile thinking and talking about how we might at least try. What can help us interrupt the quick flow toward judgment? How can we try to override?

You keep using the phrase “Honesty Gap.” I don’t think it means what you think it means…

Stumbled across this site recently. Argh.

http://honestygap.org/what-is-the-honesty-gap/

The site is well designed, professional, and the statistics and analysis look convincing. And they get their NAEP score analysis almost exactly wrong. The purpose of the site is to argue for this claim:

“Frequently, states’ testing and reporting processes have yielded significantly different results than the data collected and reported by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The discrepancy between NAEP, the Nation’s Report Card, and a state’s claim is what can be described as an “honesty gap.”

They go on to provide state by state evidence for this supposed Honesty Gap:

What_is_the_Honesty_Gap____The_Honesty_Gap

The implication is that states are lying about student proficiency because their proficiency rates are so much lower than the NAEP proficiency rates. BUT this analysis, and this website, doesn’t include a crucial detail (and I suspect they know about this detail and they purposely fail to include it): the way the NAEP developers use the term “proficient” is VERY different from the way that term is used on the state achievement tests they are comparing NAEP scores to. Here’s a summary (from this Washington Post article) about this important difference:

“Oddly, NAEP’s definition of proficiency has little or nothing to do with proficiency as most people understand the term. NAEP experts think of NAEP’s standard as “aspirational.” In 2001, two experts associated with NAEP’s National Assessment Governing Board (Mary Lynne Bourque, staff to the governing board, and Susan Loomis, a member of the governing board) made it clear that:

‘[T]he proficient achievement level does not refer to “at grade” performance. Nor is performance at the Proficient level synonymous with ‘proficiency’ in the subject. That is, students who may be considered proficient in a subject, given the common usage of the term, might not satisfy the requirements for performance at the NAEP achievement level.'”

So the “Honesty Gap” argument falls apart before it begins: you can’t compare “proficiency rates” between the NAEP test and state tests, because the term “proficient” is defined very differently. I’ve seen this same argument on other sites (often promoting charter schools) and it’s just wrong wrong wrong. The only Honesty Gap the site argues for is their own dishonest use of NAEP data. Knock it off, please.

Your Summer Reading List: 5 Psychology Books To Add To Your Bookshelf

(originally posted at http://psychlearningcurve.org/summer-reading-list/ )

Your Summer Reading List: 5 Psychology Books To Add To Your Bookshelf

Your Summer Reading List: 5 Psychology Books to Add to Your Bookshelf

The summer is a great time to catch up on psychology reading! Here are five books that provide information teachers can use to update, add to, and “enliven” research from your textbook. And as a bonus: they are filled with entertaining stories and details to keep us all reading this summer!


Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (Brown, Roediger, & McDaniel, 2014:) Organized in a way that takes the reader through a “course” on cognitive psychology applications for learning (e.g., distributed practice, retrieval practice, and interleaving). If we all read Make it Stick and How we Learn, I  think we’d all be better teachers and students. 

How We Learn: The Surprising Truth about When, Where, and Why it Happens (Carey, 2014): A summary of cognitive science research that SHOULD impact the ways we teach and study! Many non-intuitive findings, explained clearly and with great stories and practical examples. This is the “missing manual” for students and teachers, with explanations about how our memory system works, and implications for teaching and learning.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (Eagleman, 2011): I  think Eagleman is one of the most effective communicators of biopsychology research out there. He combines effective story-telling about early brain research with summaries of his and other current findings, and extends these discussions by explaining the implications of the research (his writing about how brain research should/could influence the legal system is challenging and provocative). Great examples and background for the Biopsychology chapter. 

Thinking Fast and Slow (Kahneman, 2011): I admit it: I’m not done with this book yet. I’m working my way through this very ambitious book slowly. Each chapter deserves quite a bit of time: Kahneman pulls together decades of research about cognitive biases, framing, prospect theory, and his overall metaphor of “system 1” and “system 2” thinking. 

Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche (Watters, 2011): Excellent background for the disorders chapter. Provides background on cross-cultural research regarding psychological diagnoses, including multiple examples of what happens when American attitudes and thinking about psychological disorders gets “exported” to other cultures.


If you are looking for more suggestions about psychology books, TOPSS members Laura Brandt and Nancy Fenton have a great Books for Psychology Class blog where they share books that would be useful in an introductory psychology class.  The Psychology Teacher Network newsletter also has regular book reviews.

Do you have other psychology books you recommend for summer reading? Please feel free to list suggested books in the comments below.

 

Evaluating research claims about teaching and learning: Using the APA’s Top 20 to think critically

(originally posted on: http://psychlearningcurve.org/evaluating-research-claims/)

Posted By: Rob McEntarffer, PhD February 15, 2016

What teachers and administrators need is a clear and concise way to evaluate claims made about teaching and learning before teachers are asked to implement “research findings” in their classrooms.

Picture a group of teachers at a professional development session. The speaker, a hired consultant who flew in for the presentation that morning, shows the teachers a graphic of what he calls the “Learning Pyramid.”

(source: Washington Post article, ” Why the ‘learning pyramid’ is wrong” )

The speaker uses this graphic as evidence to prove that teachers should change their instructional techniques, decreasing the amount of time they spend lecturing (since it is associated with a 10% student retention rate) and toward more interactive teaching strategies, like “teach others.”

Some teachers in the professional development session (which is, ironically, mostly a lecture) nod enthusiastically, but some teachers are troubled. Does this research really support the conclusion that all lectures are “bad” and all discussions are “good?” Based on this research being presented by this speaker, what are teachers being asked to accept and do?

In most professional development sessions, these teachers are left with such lingering concerns and doubts. The professional development might end at that point, with some teachers making changes while others ignore the advice. Teachers might be asked by administrators to explain how they implemented the “lessons learned”. But the underlying claims wouldn’t be questioned, just how they are put into action (or not).  Fortunately, the Center for Psychology in Schools and Education, within the American Psychological Association’s Education Directorate, produced a useful summary of the most important (and most supported by multiple research studies) principles related to teaching and learning: the Top 20 Principles from Psychology for K-12 Teaching and Learning. Educators can use this resource as a starting place when evaluating claims about teaching and learning. If a claim seems to contradict one or more of the principles, if it doesn’t “fit” with the 20 principles described in this document that can serve as a red flag for teachers and administrators. The claim would need to be looked at carefully before accepting it as valid and useful for teachers to implement.

Let’s take the “learning pyramid” as an example. The claim underlying the pyramid is that the method of delivery is the primary or major factor determining whether students retain the intended knowledge/skills. The first step in examining that underlying claim could be to check the Top 20 document.Principle 2 is the most immediately relevant body of research:

“What students already know affects their learning.”

The research summarized for Principle 2 indicates that one of the most important factors that impact student learning is their prior knowledge and conceptions/misconceptions (not a specific delivery method, like lecture or audiovisual presentation). The field of educational psychology extensively supports the determining of students’ current thinking about a topic, and using that information to help them grow in their understanding/skills. If the claims of the pyramid of learning were true, the method of delivery would have to “trump” the influence of students’ current thinking about a topic, and that’s not what research in this section is pointing toward. If teachers in this professional development section had access to this Top 20 document, they might have been able to question the consultant’s claims about the pyramid, which could have led to a more useful discussion (instead of a puzzling and disturbing experience). Teachers could discuss how they typically learn about students’ current thinking and conceptions/misconceptions regarding key concepts from their classes, and what they do with that information. The discussion might eventually include how they make choices about presentation methods based on what they know about students’ current thinking about a topic, and what presentations methods might be more appropriate or effective given students’ current conceptions.

I suspect that most school’s goals include some language about how we all want to help students “think critically” or “analyze information” independently in order to prepare students to be active citizens and consumers of information as adults. As educators, we need access to resources that empower us to think critically about claims made about teaching and learning. We encounter a large, constantly changing universe of advice about teaching and learning, and it is difficult to keep up with education research while doing our full time jobs in schools. The APA’s Top 20 document can serve a vital role as an initial “filter” or “check” regarding claims made about teaching and learning.

We would love to hear about teaching and learning claims you’ve encountered in your educational contexts. How do you evaluate these claims when you encounter them? Do you see a role for the Top 20 document in “testing” claims about teaching and learning?

 

How complicated CAN we make grades?

Had a long conversation with a curriculum specialist today about grading. I

from http://www.memegen.com/meme/blhwa9
from http://www.memegen.com/meme/blhwa9

get a bit nervous now when someone asks me about grading in middle schools or high schools. Our department hasn’t been involved in grading conversations for a while in secondary school because, I think, our contributions annoyed people after a while.

The curriculum specialist asked me about some questions he heard from teachers about some of the grading categories available to them in their online gradebook. They have “summative” and “formative” categories they can use, and the summative categories account for 80% of the grade, and the formative 20%. This curriculum specialist’s teachers weren’t sure how to use the formative 20% category, and the curriculum specialist asked me for advice.

What in the world can I say that’s useful about this? The phrase “graded formative category” gets thrown around – what the heck? How much time should we spend talking about “fixes” that will help teachers put anything useful into a category called “formative” that ends up weighing in to 20% of a cumulative grade? I don’t know where to start.

Poor formative assessment. I feel bad for the term, and I wonder how we strayed so far. Originally, all it was supposed to mean was something close to “practice” – an opportunity for students and teachers to USE some assessment information to change something about their teaching or student learning. Teachers figure out what to work on next (or what other experiences or practice students need), and/or students figure out what they should study more or differently, or use feedback to improve.

How does that fairly simple idea of formative assessment combine with the idea of a category that “counts” for 20% of your grade? How should teachers decipher a requirement that they record “scores” for some assessments, put them in the 20% formative category, and then explain what that all means in terms of learning and the final cumulative grade?

I don’t even know where to start.

Reducing Diversity

Right now, a book called Classroom Instruction that Works by B.J. Stone is popular in my district. I’ve seen B.J Stone present on concepts from the book, and she’s a very organized, poised speaker. Many of the ideas in the book are familiar to teachers, like reinforcing effort and cooperative learning. B.J. Stone (and the Robert Marzano “system” of books) are good at organizing ideas and research and presenting them in understandable, easily digestible chunks.
But one concept/suggestion stood out to me during the presentation. Stone suggests that buildings should strive to “reduce diversity” in instruction. The idea is that if all teachers in a building converge on a set of common teaching strategies, this consistency and unified effort will help students succeed.
I’m not sure why this is, apparently, an attractive idea, but I am sure that it’s a misguided one. The idea that a group of teachers (like a PLC) might choose to all use the same teaching strategy makes some sense (although there are downsides to that idea too), but the claim that reducing the diversity of teaching strategies in general is a GOOD thing for students – that idea needs a lot of support before I’d buy it. It’s a complicated and odd idea, I think. It assumes that teaching strategies are distinct, categorizable behaviors that can be labelled and categorized. Stone’s book depends on the idea that I can use the same “strategy” as you are using. That’s true in a surface way – we can share ideas and both try them in our classrooms – but on a deeper level, we are going to incorporate them in unique and important ways in our classes. Teaching and learning are very contextual, and I question whether or not it’s a good idea to even try to “reduce diversity” in instruction.

Put the Fun Back in It!

I think we have a bad habit of stripping the fun/soul/grit/funkiness out of cool ideas as we transform them into “education-ese.” For example: Many, many, many teachers, schools and districts use “performance labels” for rubrics and report cards. Even the term “performance labels” is darn unsexy and antiseptic, but I want to focus on the labels themselves.
In my district, 4 level rubrics are common, and the elementary school report card uses four grade levels (side note: I love our elementary school report card in general, and some day, we will wise up and implement a similar report card in middle and high school).
1 = “beginning” or “does not meet district standards”
2 = “emerging” or “approaches but does not yet meet district standards”
3 = “proficient” or “meets district standards”
4 = “advanced” or “exceeds district standards”
Can’t you just hear the students now? “Oh Hooray! I’m … proficient? Seriously? I worked THAT hard, and the best you can come up with to describe me is ‘proficient’?”
Compare those labels with this poster (from @Meffscience on Twitter)
You’re not “proficient” kids – you’re a Jedi!
or this one:
(side note #2: I think I’d like to change the above example and really go for the “medieval” theme – maybe “Novice, Apprectice, Journeyman, Teacher”?)
Why not use “fun” terms with students? When else can we do this? What other “edu-babble” terms could we throw out in favor of some terms with some more life in them?

Bell Curve Zombies

submitted as a letter to the editor, Lincoln Journal Star, Aug. 18 2014

 
The August 17th edition of the paper reprinted an editorial Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wrote titled “A’s for Everyone: Grade Inflation Lives On.” Judging by her biography on the Washington Post website, Catherine Rampell writes about a variety of important topics, but this editorial demonstrates a limited understanding of how teachers currently talk about teaching, learning, and grading.
The premise of Rampell’s argument is that “a pandemic of meaninglessly high grades” swept through colleges, and only “brave Princeton” University tried to resist this tide of “grade inflation.” In her analysis about why this “pandemic” occurred Rampbell doesn’t address one important and basic question: what are grades supposed to measure and communicate, and what grading systems/philosophies best meet this goal?
Rampbell supports Princeton’s efforts to resist grade inflation, which are based on the traditional idea of the “bell curve” of classroom grades: the assumption that the distribution of student grades in any class should align with the bell curve, with a pre-ordained proportion of students receiving certain grades. A few students get As, more get Bs, most get Cs, etc. Many human characteristics are distributed on the bell curve – height, weight, IQ scores, etc. – but there’s no good reason to assume that a distribution of course grades should be distributed in this way. Ideally, course grades should accurately measure and communicate the knowledge and skills students acquire during a course. Why should anyone assume, before the class starts, that a specific percentage of students will end up learning at an “A” level? Why would anyone want a teacher to communicate to students that, no matter how much they achieve during a class, only a pre-specified number of students will receive an “A” and a few of them will definitely get an “F?”
Rampbell’s nostalgia for bell curve grading systems seems to be based on an underlying theory of intelligence: she dismisses the idea that “modern students are uniformly smarter than their parents,” implying that since there are only a specific percentage of “smart” students in a class, only that proportion of students should receive an A. This is an odd theory of teaching and learning. If teachers could (should?) predict which students could learn the course material based on some initial impression or measurement of “smarts,” why bother to teach anyone else? Good teachers know that multiple factors (e.g. cognitive abilities, motivation, effort, stress, etc.) impact student learning. Rampbell assumes that in any class there is a small percentage of “smart” students, and those students should receive As, and any deviation from that bell curve scheme is evidence of grade inflation. This self-fulfilling grading scheme doesn’t leave room for teachers to help a majority of students to achieve, and for grades to reflect that learning.
The bell curve theory of grading is probably familiar to many of us, but there was never any reason to assume it was, or is, a “good” or accurate grading system. Rampbell could have written about the more important grading conversations going on among educators right now: how to more accurately assess and evaluate student knowledge and skills, and how to communicate information about learning through grading systems. Reviving the zombie of the “bell curve” grading philosophy doesn’t add to this conversation, and returning to old grading systems won’t help teachers or students do what they want to do: teach and learn.
(shorter version: The August 17th edition of the paper reprinted an editorial Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post wrote titled “A’s for Everyone: Grade Inflation Lives On.” Rampell’s editorial demonstrates an outdated understanding of how teachers currently talk about teaching, learning, and grading.
The premise of Rampell’s argument is that “a pandemic of meaninglessly high grades” swept through colleges. In her analysis about why this “pandemic” occurred Rampbell doesn’t address one important and basic question: what should grades measure and communicate, and what grading systems/philosophies best meet this goal?
Rampbell supports the traditional idea of the “bell curve” for classroom grades: the assumption that grades in any class should be distributed along a bell curve, with a pre-ordained proportion of students receiving certain grades. A few students get As, more get Bs, most get Cs, etc. Many human characteristics are distributed on the bell curve – height, weight, IQ scores, etc. – but there’s no reason to assume that course grades should be distributed in this way. Ideally, course grades should accurately communicate the knowledge and skills students acquire. Why would anyone want a teacher to assume that, no matter how much students learn, only a pre-specified number will receive an “A” and a few of them will definitely get an “F?”
Rampbell’s nostalgia for bell curve grading systems is based on an underlying theory of intelligence: she dismisses the idea that “modern students are uniformly smarter than their parents,” implying that since there are only a specific percentage of “smart” students in a class, only those students should get As. This is an odd, elitist theory of teaching and learning. Rampbell assumes that in any class there is a small percentage of “smart” students, and only those students should receive As, and any deviation from that bell curve scheme is evidence of grade inflation. This self-fulfilling grading scheme doesn’t leave room for teachers to help all students achieve, and for grades to reflect that learning.
The bell curve theory of grading was often used in the past, but there was never any reason to assume it was a “good” or accurate grading system. Rampbell could have written about the more important grading conversations going on among educators right now: how to more accurately assess and evaluate student knowledge and skills, and how to communicate information about learning through grading systems. Reviving the zombie of the “bell curve” grading philosophy doesn’t add to this conversation, and returning to old grading systems won’t help teachers or students do what they want to do: teach and learn. )