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A Much Needed Re-Think for the MYP

By Neil Griffiths

How much longer will educators continue to accept the illusion that numbers are not numbers?
A recent conversation with two administrators revealed that, even though I was comfortable with the goal of being an inspirational teacher, to the extent that all of my students were evaluated as experiencing a high level of success, my administrative colleagues were not. The reason being that a high level of success for all students would not be commensurate with the expected spread of results for the summative assessment task. How could 95–100 percent of students get 8 out of 8 in the learning to perform unit? Does this reality unearth a fundamental flaw in the way some organizations, administrators, coordinators, and teachers are interpreting criterion-based referencing?
As a Middle Years Program (MYP) teacher of physical education, over the past couple of years I have increasingly been asked to interpret criterion-based rubrics so as to ensure the production of high-scoring students, medium-scoring students, and low-scoring students. If a teacher enters a unit of study under the assumption that this “expected spread of results” is required, is there then not the compulsion to design the rubric so that the “expected spread of results” (we might want to call this a “bell curve”) will occur?
This line of reasoning in backwards-by-design form means that we are starting the assessment period with the goal of producing students who succeed, and students who do not. If this were not the case, then why would my administrators be so upset that 95 percent of my students met the top level for the criteria?
Could it be that, if the written descriptor were the sole measure of student achievement, the administrators in question would have been more comfortable with the outcome? Is it perhaps the presence of the number that grinds on the brain of every individual indoctrinated with a measure of self and peer worth that is inextricably linked to a figure that lies somewhere between 0 and 100 percent?
Why is pacing so important to us? This question allows us to explore and experience the concept of pacing in physical activities that may take anywhere from two minutes to those that might last two hours or two days. From a task perspective, we might ask students to demonstrate continuous action that conveys an understanding of the concept of pacing, indicating that the student is listening to the capacity of their own body.
With this structure in place, should we be uncomfortable with a task outcome signifying that all students were able to control their energy expenditure? Surely pacing is a concept of long-term worth. It applies equally to the 800-meter runner, as it does to the individual digging a garden. Perhaps the reality is that for probably all the wrong reasons, 10 out of 10, 8 out of 8, or 7 out of 7 across the board showing that all students demonstrated competence when engaged in a pacing activity is much harder to accept than just a narrative feedback indicating the same.
At MYP workshops, I have witnessed on many occasions representatives for the IB downplay the numbers that represent achievement on the MYP criteria rubrics. However, at the practical level I have yet to see IB schools withdraw these numbers from their report card, leaving them with only the written descriptor. As educators, if we are serious about criterion-based referencing, should we be accepting anything less?
Some may argue that the higher education establishments require these numbers from those further down the line, so as to speed up the process of rejection or acceptance. But that would suggest that the IB is more interested in placing the needs of the higher education establishments over those of the student. Even if this is the case, should not this practice be restricted to the Diploma level at worst?
Numbers are grades in every sense, and as reported by Kohn in the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership:
· Grades tend to diminish students’ interest in whatever they’re learning
· Grades create a preference for the easiest possible task
· Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking (Kohn 2011).
Overall, some might argue the aforementioned task using a rationale that the pacing bar is not being set high enough. The reality, though, is that the bar is effectively being elevated and lowered by individuals interested in producing a bell curve. What could be more evident of your consistency and excellence as an educator, a coordinator, or a school, than your ability to produce the “expected spread of results” as measured against your self-written and teacher-assessed tasks, year after year?
Neil Griffiths teaches PE at Canadian International School - Lakeside.

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