The Sad Truth Behind Mr. D’s Take on Assessment

After my recent rant on the sad state of technology in schools, Gerry Varty — a regular Radical reader and good friend working as an assistant superintendent for the Wolf Creek Public Schools in Canada — dropped me an email looking to cheer me up.

He pointed me to this hilarious clip from a new Canadian #educentered sitcom.  In it, Mr. D figures out a new way to speed-grade essays written by his students and then ropes a buddy into helping him work through the stack over beers at the bar:



Here's what worries me, y'all:  I've BEEN Mr. D more than once during the course of my career.  The truth is that grading essays can be a grind — and even when I use rubrics to give targeted feedback or when I focus on ONE criteria — student voice, proper mechanics, organization, content — to save time while grading a written task, I end up overwhelmed. 

This is nothing more than a function of simple math:  I serve 120 students every day.  Giving good feedback on an individual essay takes about 5-7 minutes.  That's 12 hours of grading per task.  After attending meetings, filling out paperwork and answering my email, I have about 30 minutes free each day to plan and to give students feedback.  

The result: I skim my way through papers on a good day and I completely stop asking challenging questions that require anything more than multiple choice responses on a bad one. 

To be honest, that confession leaves me just short of completely ashamed. 

Out of all of the tasks that I'm charged with, NOTHING is more important than giving my students tasks that challenge their thinking and force them to demonstrate sophisticated understandings of the content and skills that we all care about.

More importantly, NOTHING is more important than giving my students timely, targeted feedback on their levels of mastery.  Without detailed feedback highlighting strengths and weaknesses, students don't grow as learners. 

But NOTHING about the current structure of schools makes timely, targeted feedback on tasks that require complex responses from kids doable.  Our class periods are too short, our student loads are too large, and our time away from students is increasingly filled by requirements that draw us away from important individual tasks like planning and grading.





Related Radical Reads:

Is REAL Formative Assessment Even Possible? 

Assessment's Either/Or Conundrum

Assessing Learning the Danish Way

Your Data Dream. My Data Nightmare

10 thoughts on “The Sad Truth Behind Mr. D’s Take on Assessment

  1. Megan B

    The only way to change this is to build feedback into your lessons. Lessons that teach kids how to give feedback to each other and to themselves. You may have to sacrifice content – but a kid who leaves you with better skills to evaluate their own writing is better than one that was entirely dependent on you for feedback. Check out Standards Based Grading – where the grade is dependent on showing a skill rather than a collection of points for completing tasks. Find english teachers on Twitter who have done this. You will likely lighten the assessment load and feel like your students are learning more too. At first I was skeptical – but now I will never go back 🙂

  2. Philip Cummings

    Just catching up on my feeds (“because I’m a lazy reader” 🙂 ) and totally feel your pain here. The week before Educon when my parent conference forms were due, I had to take a professional day and get a sub so that I could spend 8 straight hours assessing essays before I could start on the conference forms–and I only have 68 students right now. It’s not that I mind giving the feedback; I actually enjoy it. The problem is I usually have to sacrifice time with my family to do it. Your task, with 120, is downright impossible.

  3. MrsOrman

    Oh my gosh…I completely feel the same way. My bag has 60+ short stories and another 20 expository essays to grade and I can’t bring myself to do it because I know I will end up spending 10-15 minutes on each. I can’t stop commenting or giving suggestions for improvement. I tried meeting one-on-one with my students to go over their drafts, but it took 3 days and I still didn’t get through each class. By then, the rest of the class was getting restless and tired of editing and/or reading silently while I met with each one. To give valuable feedback, we need fewer students and more time. Since that will never be possible, I find myself giving fewer writing assignments and much shorter ones. And I feel incredibly guilty about it, but I won’t last in this job another 12 years if I don’t.
    Thank you for saying how we all feel inside. It does help to know I’m not alone.

  4. Deb Day

    And as I procrastinate the 40 creative writing papers, 40 letters from English 9 and 50 speech outlines in my bag, I appreciate that someone else understands the tendency to skim through papers. But I need to get crackin’, because rough drafts are on their way.

  5. Bill Ferriter

    Believe me, Hatch, Id LOVE to get up to the Great White North sometime! Not only do I have a ton of digital friends like you and Gerry that I want to meet in person, Im always inspired by the innovation and creativity of Canadian teachers and systems. I think it would do a frustrated body good to spend some time hanging out in a world where education still had the kinds of glimmers of hope that keep a guy running.
    Someday, maybe. Someday indeed.
    Rock on,

  6. Hatchderek

    Gotta love those guys from Alberta! Always good for a few laughs. I keep telling you, Bill…you have to come to the Great White North and meet more of us.
    Thanks to Gerry for sharing the video. I grew up in Red Deer, not far from where Gerry is working in Wolf Creek.
    Great golf course at Wolf Creek!
    Thanks for the post, Bill…you are right, the job of the teacher gets more and more challenging every year. Teachers are expected to be everything to everyone…

  7. dave

    Hi Bill,
    Thank you for your honesty about how difficult it is for teachers to give good feedback, and plan a well-differientiated lesson, and design an assessment that will foster student learning. When each of these #1 priorities takes center stage in an edureform article, it seems like the least any good teacher would do. Add them all together, and real teachers who teach real kids suddenly realize that we’re being asked to do 28 hours of work each day.

  8. Tim Furman

    This was my plight as an English teacher. For twenty-three years, I graded and gave feedback during every waking moment: evenings, weekends, early mornings. There were always people who said you don’t have to give feedback on everything, but none of these people ever struck me as being particularly effective. Kids love feedback and grow from it, particularly in a writing course.
    I feel like I missed two decades of my own life.
    I finally left teaching. As much as I loved it, I would never go back now. I can finally read books, see movies, and spend time with friends and family. And the weekends? They’re like a dream now.
    These rubric people? They inspire nobody. I’m sorry, but it’s true. Rubrics are about compliance, and compliance is the opposite of learning.
    Great post. Hang in there.

  9. Chris

    Can’t help but agree. Teachers are expected to do an awful lot with little time to do it. Longer lessons can be a partial solution but this takes away from frequency of lessons.
    Another partial solution can come from many Asian countries: reduced teaching loads and increase in aides.
    Teachers rarely request more money but always request more time.

Comments are closed.