Assigning final grades to students has been done in various ways over the years. In some contexts, everything rested on a final exam – this was the case with the O-level and A-level exams I took in a British high school ‘back in the day.’ Then ‘continuous assessment’ became popular, making the final grade a composite of grades for assignments completed during the course, either with our without a final exam. This approach became popular in U.S. intensive English programs, where the final grade might be made up of homework assignments, projects, tests and quizzes, and the usually ill-defined ‘participation’ by the student.
But English language programs, like all other schools in the U.S., became caught up in larger forces that had an enormous impact on how students were evaluated. Following the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik in the late 1950s, there was much nail-biting over the quality of American education, culminating in the ‘A Nation at Risk’ report in 1983, which painted an anxiety-inducing picture of failing U.S. public schools.
In the years following the publication of the report, the means of defining quality in education were questioned. The focus of quality tended to be on inputs – number of hours in class (this is where the ‘credit-hours’ system came from), teacher qualifications, teaching methods, and so on. Many schools in competitive environments still make such inputs the basis of their quality claims – “highly qualified teachers!” “innovative teaching methods!”
But those raising the red flag about school quality were less concerned with inputs and more concerned with what the students came out of their education with – that is the outcomes, or as they have come to be known, student learning outcomes, or SLOs. No matter how great the inputs, if students were not learning useful knowledge and skills for the job market, the education they were receiving was not valuable. The solution was to turn the traditional curriculum planning process around and start at the end by first defining the desired outcomes, and having course design lead to student achievement of outcomes.
This enabled education bureaucracies to hold schools and teachers accountable: school and teacher quality could be judged not by the quality of the teachers or the hours spent in class, but by the extent to which students were meeting the defined learning outcomes. In the public schools, those outcomes were assessed by standardized tests, and schools were judged and ranked by how well students scored on those tests. (The downside of all this was that quality aspects of school such as adequate breaks between classes and time for the arts, music and sports suffered as schools honed in on efforts to increase standardized test scores in math, science, and English.)
Back to grading. ESL teachers have for many years been used to giving final grades based on a combination of test and quizzes, homework assignments, projects, participation, and final exams. But with a shift toward accreditation of English language programs – mandatory in many cases, voluntary in others – teachers in those programs are now required to fall in with the requirement to define learning outcomes at the outset, and assess and evaluate students with sole reference to the students’ achievement of the outcomes. This has to be done at the school level, and it results in a greater standardization of curricula, syllabi, and assessments in schools. Schools are required to record and analyze the data arising from the assessment of SLO achievement. Decisions about whether a student may progress to the next level of study or complete the program successfully must be made solely on the basis of whether the student achieved the learning outcomes.
The result is that schools have to take a mixed approach to grading students. Schools may still assign a traditional grade based on continuous assessment and participation, but they must also maintain a system that isolates achievement of the student learning outcomes and makes promotion and completion decisions based on that. What’s certain is that choosing one or the other of these two systems is not possible – both are needed. Yes, we can agree that it’s important for students and their sponsors to understand what the expected outcome of a course or program was and whether the student achieved it. This kind of accountability is needed when many are questioning the dollar value of their education. But as educators we also want to know whether students engaged with the educational process – collaborated with peers, challenged themselves on difficult projects or assignments, sought help and advice and gave them to others in turn. How the students got there is important to us, and still largely defines the benefit of studying at one school rather than another.
And so we ended up with two types of student assessment and evaluation, one based on inputs into the process and ongoing or continuous assessment, the other on outcomes. Both systems are here to stay, and educators need to be familiar with the rationale and procedures for each of them.