After having gone through a few test cycles, it’s time to continue the conversation about the meaning and purpose of tests.
“In most classes, everyone takes a test at the same time and the grades form what is called a bell curve. It’s a classical distribution of grades from A to F. Some people believe that good tests should sort people into this kind of distribution.”
I draw a bell curve on the board.
“Some students get As, a lot get middling grades, and a few fail. When the class gets the test back, maybe you go over it, maybe you don’t. Then you promptly move on to the next unit. A couple of weeks later, at the end of that unit, you take another test and the grades for the class form another bell curve, probably a lot like the last one. The same people who got As on the last test will probably get an A again. Same thing for the people who failed or did badly.
“Does this sound familiar?” Again , there is a chorus of agreement. The only debate is about how many of their classes do a meaningful review of tests when they get them back. It’s clear that different teachers have widely diverse ways of handling the issue, from returning tests without comment to reviewing every question on the test. Above all, there is a sense that the whole process of taking tests and getting them back is generally frustrating and not particularly helpful.
“Since our goal is to have everyone in this room be successful at learning, we need to undo the bell curve. The test resubmittals can help us do that. The truth is, the purpose of a lot of the structures we have in this class is to do that. We want to get out of the sorting business.”
“I get that sorting is not a good thing, but it’s also true that some people learn more than others,” Steve says. “Are you saying everyone should get the same grade? If we get away from the bell curve, is that fair for people who are working harder?” He doesn’t say it, but it’s clear that he’s talking about himself. He has never had less than an ‘A’ on a test, and he consistently has the highest test scores in the class. This argument often comes up because students who do well feel threatened - they are concerned that they will not be acknowledged as excellent students.
“That’s a great question, Steve. It gets to the heart of a problem that I’ve struggled with as a teacher for many years. I believe in my heart that if we as a community hold the goal of everyone successfully learning the learning goals of each contract, we can actually achieve that. I also know that some of you have a better intuitive grasp of physics, or have a stronger math background or just plain work harder. I agree that it wouldn’t be fair not to acknowledge that some people will learn more deeply than others. And grades are the only available way we have to do that.
“So we have dilemma. If you remember the story of the merit badges I told you the first week, I said that a person learning how to tie knots would get a badge if he could tie fifteen knots correctly. Now, if we go with the bell curve process, we’d all study knot tying for the same amount of time, we’d take a test, and some people would tie twenty-two knots and some fifteen, but some would only tie, say, nine correctly. We’ve got our bell curve. We know who the great knot tiers are, the pretty good knot tiers, and the failures. And then we would move on together to the next topic.
“What test resubmittals allow the people who only got nine knots right to do is keep practicing until they get to fifteen. Now I would say that a fair grade would acknowledge that there is a range of depth of learning, but it doesn’t require anyone to fail. If we’ve done it right, everyone in the room is successful at having learned the essential ideas and skills. And at the same time, there will be grades, and they will be based on the depth of how well you learned.
“Our goal is mastery for all. We do everything in our power to help each other reach that goal. When some people do better than what’s required, by doing Above and Beyond items on the contract for instance, or really nailing the tests, we can acknowledge that with a better grade. The job is for every person to challenge him or herself to reach a personal best and trust that the grade will follow. If we pull that off, we can still have grades without contradicting our goal.