Redefining Accountability

By Tom Schimmer105046605 - New Photo #2

The issue of accountability often serves as a source of tension between those on either side of the grading reform ledger. For those still not sure about a move toward standards-based grading, the pushback often centers on the notion that “students need to be held accountable!” To be clear, the collective movement toward standards-based grading is not some misguided attempt to make school easier for students or to relieve students of their responsibility to fully invest themselves in their own learning. In truth, most would agree that students need to be held accountable, but the difference is that standards-based grading establishes a new kind of accountability.

For some, the term accountability is code for punishment, which sounds harsh, so the word consequence is often used as a substitute to present the illusion of a more logical response. As thinking goes, punishments need to be applied by adults whereas consequences are the natural result of student missteps. Either way, this version of accountability is a distraction that focuses on the student’s behavior (not learning) and compromises the validity (accuracy) of what is ultimately reported about student proficiency. While some may philosophically justify this approach, philosophical justifications aren’t enough to neutralize the role this version of accountability plays in diminishing the meaning and clarity of the grades student earn.

What is needed is a new definition of accountability where all learning is mandatory. With late penalties, struggling students have almost no incentive to complete essential learning activities after three or four days. Give a student a zero and, if he or she is still passing as a result, it is unlikely that the work will ever get turned in; that’s not accountability. The irony is that while many claim standards-based grading makes it easier for students, the traditional accountability practices actually do more to make school easier by rendering essential learning as optional. Real accountability doesn’t allow students to opt out of what is essential nor does it allow students to play a numbers game to decide which assignments need to be completed and which ones do not.

Punishing irresponsibility doesn’t teach anyone how to be responsible; it only teaches someone that they should have been responsible, but it doesn’t teach them how. If the life lesson of responsibility is that important, we would be proactive in teaching responsibility in the same way we teach math, ELA, or any other subject. As a point of comparison, we don’t use the threat of lower scores to teach respect. Almost every school expects students to be respectful, holds students accountable when they are disrespectful, but never needs the gradebook to do so; responsibility can be handled the same way. What a student knows and when they hand their teacher something are two different constructs–both important, just different. If you want students to learn how to be responsible, teach them. Playing the life lesson trump card because we’re annoyed that a student was non-compliant is no way to ensure the accuracy of what is reported or to establish a culture of optimism about learning moving forward.

I am looking forward to sharing more on this topic at the Pearson-ATI Sound Grading Practices Conference (Dec. 4-5, 2014) in my session entitled “Redefining Accountability.” In addition to my keynote address, “Grading from the Inside Out,” I will also be presenting “Reassessment the Right Way and Effective Leadership for Standards-Based Grading.”

If you’re unable to attend the conference, please take some time to follow the hashtag #ATIcon on Twitter while the conference is in session.

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