Measuring Success: Assessment and Achievement at Nightingale
by Kitty Gordan, acting head of school
Grades. A, B, C. 18/20. 7/10. These letters and numbers summarize the daily communication between teacher and student, a symbolic representation of the narrative.They inform both the student and the teacher and are part of the dialogue between faculty and student that is the hallmark of a Nightingale education. Still, these progress indicators can have an impact way beyond their substantive meaning. What role do grades actually play in the daily life of the classroom? Are our grades reflective of our students’ learning?
When our faculty design assignments, quizzes, quests, projects, and rubrics for essays, projects, and presentations, they give a great deal of thought to how to best monitor and encourage your daughters. Mindful of differences in learning styles, the faculty seeks to encourage and support the girls while still providing clarity about their progress. Yes, success is motivating and our teachers want students to feel a sense of accomplishment about what they have learned. Still, it is arguably even more important to learn from mistakes and build from the experience. From Benjamin Franklin to Steve Jobs, educational psychologists to Nightingale faculty members, all agree that the ability to learn from one’s mistakes is critical to the development of a mindset that encourages students to take risks intellectually and to weather setbacks with some equanimity; learning from the experience of failure is a first step towards building resilience and the confidence that comes with the conquest of difficulty.
Letter and number grades are not part of Lower School; instead, our teachers are keen observers of young children and assess student progress as part of the daily classroom routine. They assess each student’s strengths and build plans to address weaknesses on an individual basis. There are many ways for a young child to demonstrate mastery of a given topic. At the Kindergarten level, for instance, math assessment includes a one-on-one interview with a teacher during which the student might be asked to count a row of eight dogs and then decide how many there would be if five more came along. The instructions are read aloud and the teacher guides the child through the process. In Class IV, on the other hand, the girls choose a colonial profession as part of a long-term project culminating in the Colonial Fair and are assessed on their ability to follow directions, write coherently, include accurate historical detail, and add elements of creativity and imagination. Assessment is an ongoing tool in teaching and is both empirical and objectified. Standardized testing administered every year in reading and in math (I–IV) is another tool we use to evaluate student progress.
From Class V on, grades become part of daily life and serve to set expectations and standards. The faculty are transparent about its grading and encourage the girls to see grades for what they are: a tool to assess the students’ mastery of content and “process.” We believe that students learn best from frequent low-stakes opportunities to assess their progress, such as quizzes, in-class writing, quests, essays, and papers. When working on research papers, students get extensive instructions about how to conduct their research and are assessed with reference to both the quality of their presentation and their working habits. Classroom participation is highly valued as well and is a significant part of the summative grade as it encourages high quality discussion and engagement. It also recognizes students who excel in class discussion but do not write as well or have trouble memorizing. Standardized testing and departmental benchmarks that expect students to follow similar developmental patterns are imperfect but still useful as they enable us to normalize our programs and our students’ performance against that of other independent schools. They also provide a helpful diagnostic tool for the teacher, objective feedback for the student, and valuable information for curricular planning purposes.
The relationship between your daughter and her grades is complex and reflective of her interests, her attitude towards school, and your family values. Grades are useful assessment tools, but they are not a precise measurement and grading can never be an exact science. Some girls are so concerned with pleasing adults that they overemphasize the importance of grades and are highly self-critical when they do not get the mark they expected or hoped for. Others feel such stress and internal pressure that even excellent grades can’t alleviate; one of the paradoxes for teachers and parents is the straight-A student who still considers herself stupid and feels discouraged. It is important for girls to see their grades as part of the continuum of their learning and for us to remember that it is harder to be a child than an adult. Schools require children to be generalists and to do everything fairly well; as adults, we can focus on our strengths and de-emphasize our weak points. Both teachers and parents have a critical role to play in helping students see grades for what they are: feedback about their progress, part of the toolkit of learning. Equally important is to remind the girls of that we all learn from mistakes and to help them develop resilience so they can enjoy the pleasure that comes with their hard-earned accomplishments.