Greg Jouriles works at the school from which I graduated, Hillsdale High in San Mateo, Calif. He teaches social studies. He was the teacher union representative for several years. He is part of an unusually collaborative staff that has raised instruction for all — with complex projects, more writing and oral exams — to a level nearly unheard of in a nonselective school.
He is much younger than I am. We clash on issues like charters, testing and union power. But I try to keep up an e-mail conversation with him because his classroom creativity, writing ability and originality on policy issues are exceptional.
We were recently arguing about how best to rate schools. I acknowledged that student test score averages are flawed, but what other way of assessing schools do we have? The available alternatives are too subjective or too political to give voters, taxpayers and parents a good sense of which schools are doing their jobs and which aren’t.
Jouriles didn’t agree. His response to me was long and deep. It included an idea that had never occurred to me and might work. I suggested he submit it to Education Week, where it was published in July.
Jouriles suggests that our schools try using classroom grades instead of standardized test scores for rating purposes. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? We all remember how erratic grading can be — the English teacher who gave A’s for TV show reviews with not too many misspellings or the science teacher who gave zeroes for lab work if you misplaced a decimal. Nobody can depend on a summary of a school’s progress drawn from such wildly undisciplined practices.
But Jouriles proposes a way to make grading rational and representative. And because he and his Hillsdale colleagues are such brave experimentalists, he shows how it has actually worked.
“We have a grade problem at my high school,” he said in the Edweek piece. “In the same course or department, a B in one classroom might be an A, or even a C, in another. It’s a problem for us, and, likely, a problem in most schools.”
“But it has also been an opportunity,” he said. In his department “we opted to create a common conception of achievement and department learning outcomes with rubrics. Our standards now align closely with the Common Core State Standards. Second, we created common performance tasks that measure these standards and formative assessments that scaffold to them. Third, we look together at student work. Fourth, we have begun to grade each other’s students on these common tasks. We could publish the results of these performance tasks, and the public would have a good idea of what we’re good at and what we’re not.”
The social studies assessments reveal that Hillsdale students know how to read a text but are stymied by poor vocabularies. They can make an argument if they are dealing with a limited amount of data, but don’t do so well when the available data grows larger. “They are mediocre at analysis, counter-arguments, rebuttals, and evaluation of sources, though they have recently gotten better at evaluating sources,” he said.
Jouriles said that is better information than those interested in Hillsdale have ever received from standardized testing. Assessing schools through a process in which teachers forge a consensus about what is good and what isn’t would make grading less confusing to students and bring school ratings closer to what’s happening in classrooms.
I sense I am losing this argument. Perhaps you can help me with comments to this column at washingtonpost.com/people/jay-mathews. There are many obstacles in the way of Jouriles’s idea. New state and federal laws would be needed. Consistency would be difficult to arrange. Classroom egos would clash.
But some changes are needed, and smart teachers such as Jouriles can show the way.