Not Your Father’s Math Test

By Brian Thomas, Assistant Head of School; Scott Small, Head of Upper School; and Elizabeth Helfant, Coordinator of Pedagogical Innovation

Think back to when you were in high school. Remember the stress of final exam week? Or the big history test you stayed up all night to cram for? What about the math quiz you bombed? Most of us remember those days and are thankful that we’re no longer expected to regurgitate from memory the Pythagorean Theorem or the dates of the Civil War on a regular basis.

Children today, it turns out, carry the same stress you did all those years ago. They worry, “Am I an A student? Do I have to be an A student?” Students here at MICDS (and at many competitive schools) consistently express that getting a B is not acceptable. And yet, they acknowledge that everyone isn’t an A student. Last year, 80 MICDS students with a variety of GPAs and from different grade levels participated in focus groups. They told us that they view their identity and self-worth in direct relationship to their grades. We know that by “grade” they aren’t talking about “academic success,” which are two very different things. Their very sense of self is all wrapped up in what shows up on the report card at the end of each trimester, which until recently has largely been the result of traditional assessments designed to measure learning (rote memorization, for example). There is no doubt that our students (and their parents) view grades as currency and the pressure to get an “A” has increasingly been taking a toll on all constituencies and, perhaps, on learning itself.

Researchers have found three consistent effects of using – and especially, emphasizing the importance of – letter or number grades that are the result of a traditional test-and-drill model.

1.  Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself.

Some research has explicitly demonstrated that a “grade orientation” and a “learning orientation” are inversely related.¹  More strikingly, study after study has found that students — from elementary school to graduate school, and across cultures – demonstrate less interest in learning as a result of being graded.²

2.  Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks. 

Students of all ages who have been led to concentrate on getting a good grade are likely to pick the easiest possible assignment if given a choice.³  The more pressure to get an A, the less inclination to truly challenge oneself.

3.  Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking. 

One series of studies, for example, found that students given numerical grades were significantly less creative than those who received qualitative feedback but no grades. The more the task required creative thinking, in fact, the worse the performance of students who knew they were going to be graded. Providing students with comments in addition to a grade didn’t help: the highest achievement occurred only when comments were given instead of numerical scores.4

Okay, so we’ve learned that the stress of traditional assessments is harmful both emotionally and academically. But what about those pesky transcripts needed for college admissions?

Well, we posit that if students simply focus on the learning instead of the grades, the grades themselves will work out. With these learnings in mind, MICDS has moved to a variety of standards-based assessments that allow students to flourish in different models. We want students to be thoughtful about the kinds of things they know and are mastering, and the kinds of assessments they might get in college and beyond. For instance, in addition to making sure they know the material, we assess students on their abilities to collaborate and work in a group, skills that are imperative in college and their careers beyond.

I think we’d all agree that ultimately we wish to increase student interest in learning, increase their preference for challenging tasks and increase the quality of their thinking. Our focus group and external research force us to ask, how can we better respond to undue stress and external pressures on students to ensure that they are both sustained and successful in their learning experience?

There are some promising practices that might help us shift to a culture that values learning over grades to a greater extent.

Using standards to determine what a student must learn.

We see a trend towards using standards to help us more accurately determine a student’s understanding of the learning objectives. A unit of study might have 4-5 standards as goals and feedback is given on a 1-4 scale on a student’s progress toward that goal. Where we have used this system, we have seen a shift to students identifying and focusing on what they are learning and how well over what score they are getting. Unfortunately, external pressures for college reporting and parental expectations/understanding keep us in a hybrid system of discussing on a 1-4 scale but always translating to a traditional grade. As soon as we give a numerical judgment, learning stops. Students and parents revert to grade-grubbing or asking for reassessment, shifting their focus from learning to scoring.

Clearly identifying what constitutes success on a 1-4 scale and framing this in terms of the level of thinking required.

Faculty have done good work to determine what success looks like on a 1-4 scale. A score of 3 is defined as mastering the content to the extent that a student is able to move forward successfully. On a traditional scale, this would translate to a B performance. In high-achieving environments, students and parents equate a B grade with poor performance, as opposed to recognizing it as an acknowledgment that the student is on the way to learning what is necessary. We need to re-cast lower grades, making sure they are not seriously impeding a child’s progress to get into the most prestigious schools. With top-tier colleges becoming ever more selective and acceptance rates falling, let’s instead focus on the learning that takes place during the process. To determine the level of thinking and achievement on a 1-4 scale, we use Webb’s depth of knowledge indicators:

Making better use of formative assessment and feedback

Formative assessment means teachers use formal and informal assessments throughout the learning process to determine achievement. Teachers see how students are learning and where they are struggling, allowing them to modify their lessons as needed. This is confusing to those who think of assessments solely in terms of measuring what a student has learned at the end of a specific unit. There are countless ways to evaluate how children are learning that go well beyond traditional test and quiz taking, and it can be hard for parents today to wrap their heads around unconventional assessments. Many of us think that students need assessments (or rather, good scores from assessments) to get into college when what they really need is knowledge. It can be hard today for students and their parents to realize that a B or C grade is not the end of the world and is recoverable. In a perfect world, instead of merely measuring what students have learned in a traditional format, assessments help students identify their own interests which sets them up for continued success.

Making learning dispositions more explicit to students and asking them to reflect on their standing.

Standards-based assessments can help students learn how they learn, enabling them to maximize their strengths and overcome their weaknesses. They can identify whether they’re a risk-taker as a learner, or resilient as a learner. It’s a shift into thinking about skills such as data literacy (important across the curriculum, in English, history and science for example) that are important over a unit of chapter tests. This shift in thinking goes beyond content mastery and moves into higher-level thinking.

In considering an assessment system for MICDS, we’re focused on considering what our students need now, and thinking about how they will learn after they leave our campus. We want to encourage them to keep learning long after they’ve graduated. They’re eventually going to be faced with a career that offers no template, and our hope is that they’ve learned skills here to help them cope. It goes way beyond what they’ve shown they know on a chemistry test.

We’re not saying it’s easy. Grades should be an academic measure, proof of achievement of an academic level. An A grade shows a student is thinking on a more complex level. At the same time, we’re striving to teach our students to value the learning over the grades, to become self-aware of how they learn and what they’re interested in pursuing. It’s a complex process that is ever evolving but is well worth it when we see our graduates thriving in a variety of college models and a diverse career field.


¹Beck et al., 1991; Milton et al., 1986

²Benware and Deci, 1984; Butler, 1987; Butler and Nisan, 1986; Grolnick and Ryan, 1987; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Hughes et al., 1985; Kage, 1991; Salili et al., 1976

³Harter, 1978; Harter and Guzman, 1986; Kage, 1991; Milton et al., 1986

4Butler, 1987; Butler, 1988; Butler and Nisan, 1986