The case for assessment that matters

Our grade 7 math program has undergone some changes this year. Full differentiation. Different assessment practices. Hard final tests. We have come under a hailstorm of scrutiny as what were once "A" students are getting "B's" and "C's".
I challenge any parent to check out the "quality" of any test in any subject. One one end of the spectrum, you have multiple choice tests, which statistically students do better on, and on the other end of the spectrum, open-ended responses where students have to justify conjectures, explain their reasoning, break problems into parts and eliminate unnecessary information. We have elected to do the later.
Math curriculums have changed in recent years to included a strand entitled "Mathematical Reasoning". I think this is the most important strand of math and can't be assessed with your normal run of the mill multiple choice tests. Open-ended responses allow students to reflect on their decision making and make the case for reasoning. For many students that come from old-school assessment practices, this is a paradigm shift. For the first time in their life, students need to make the case for their work, the same way a lawyer would argue a case in court.
I want to challenge my students. I like to see them struggle. I think it does them a disservice that we give them easy "A's" in the name of uplifting their self-esteem to make them feel better about their mediocre abilities. I've known too many teacher's that make a policy of giving only "A's"; and what does that say about one as a teacher? That they're so good, or that their assessments don't matter at all? If we want to prepare middle schoolers for high school we have to create learning opportunities that force them to ask questions, come in for help, do their homework, and push the limit of their cognitive abilities.
Homework, quizzes, projects are all practice, because, let's face it, they can get help from others. So why should we grade them? We should grade students on what they can do without help from parents, friends or tutors. From this perspective, classroom lessons take on a "unstressed" approach as students do feel that every single thing that they do is graded. They know they can make mistakes and learn from them. Only the final tests and summative labs are graded and with a practice test to identify areas of focus, students can diagnose their own learning, and take responsibility for their own learning. Make no mistake, this is not high-stakes testing, this is a handful of assessments throughout the year where students can notice their improvement. With only 4 or 5 quality assessments that matter, students can see their improvement and not have a grade convoluted with too many assessments in the gradebook. So many teachers think that the more assessments in the gradebook is all the better, as it shows their diligence and oversight. I say the opposite. Too many grades don't allow a grade to change as its bogged down by equilibrium, and by mid-semester, nothing much a student does will actually matter.
Quality, not quantity of assessments will be a better indicator of student abilities in the future. We have seen countless articles of the schools in the United States "dumbing down" their tests to make them easily passable and create the illusion that their students have learned and their teachers are better than most. Just like in a larger stakes game of poker, these states jockey for competitive for federal funding and use inflated test scores as their hole card.
If that quality of student assessments are rigorous and indicate that students are doing "unsatisfactory" because they don't have higher order thinking skills, I think it's better to let them fail now in the middle school years in order to work harder now then set them up for failure later. Most long term studies on learning habits indicate that study and work habits are fairly ingrained by the time a student is an 8th grader. We need them to teach them to work hard now, and the first and last step is with assessments that matter.

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