Rethinking report cards: the DiscoTest alternative

The way we measure and report student outcomes should never interfere with learning and development.

When I was a kid, the main way school performance was measured was with letter grades. We got letter grades on almost all of our work. Getting an A meant you knew it all, a B meant you didn’t quite know it all, C meant you knew enough to pass, D meant you knew so little you were on the verge of failing, and F meant you failed. If you always got A’s you were one of the really smart kids, and if you always got D’s and F’s you were one of the dumb kids. Unfortunately, that’s how we thought about it, plain and simple.

If I got a B, my teacher and parents told me I could do better and that I should work harder. If I got a C, I was grounded until I brought my grade up. I thought this was normal. It was certainly what happened on Father Knows Best and The Brady Bunch.

Unfortunately, the information in most report cards is severely limited, providing little or no support for learning—beyond the threat of grounding, that is. Grades, no matter what form they take, represent rank, punishment, and reward, but they do very little to support learning. In fact, grades actively punish slower learners by rewarding most or all of their learning efforts with bad news. And they aren’t much better for faster learners. Grades have been shown to undermine learning, reward cheating, damage peer relationships, reduce trust in adults, dampen enthusiasm for learning, and teach students to value grades over learning itself.

I’m not arguing that there is no need for standardized ways to determine how well students have learned. We do want to be able to show, for example, that all students, despite their level of privilege, have the same opportunity to develop their knowledge and skills. This is something we cannot ensure without good measurement.

But the way we measure student outcomes should never interfere with learning and development. In fact, it should help to ensure that all students have an opportunity to learn optimally—at their own pace, and as much as possible, while following their own interests. At the turn of the century, there was no approach to testing that could support these objectives. Recognizing that this state of affairs needed remedying, my colleagues and I immediately launched the DiscoTest Initiative and began the process of rethinking testing and learning from the ground up. Our research led to a complete overhaul of the entire report card concept.

Virtuous cycles of learning: Redesigning testing during the digital revolution

The DiscoTest report card

One of our goals here at Lectica has been to develop a new kind of report card — one that is not an end in itself but is more like a portal that opens to rich, personalized learning opportunities.

The DiscoTest report card is unique in three ways. First, instead of showing grades, it shows growth over time. Second, because all DiscoTests are calibrated to the same developmental scale, the report card can show growth in different areas on the same graph. Third, each circle on this report card not only represents an assessment event, but also links to a set of personalized reports that contain several practice-based learning activities called VCoLs. All of these VCoLs are designed to deepen learning while optimizing the development of essential life skills.

The reports

Below is an example of a DiscoTest report. In this case, the assessment is the LRJA, an assessment of reflective judgment. This assessment asks test-takers to respond to a real-life conflict — one without a single clear answer, then prompts them to explore questions about:

  • finding, creating, and evaluating information and evidence,
  • perspective-coordination, persuasion, and conflict resolution,
  • when and if it’s possible to be certain, and
  • the nature of facts, truth, and reality.

All DiscoTest reports are based on rigorous, ongoing research into the development of the specific skills targeted in that assessment.

Each report in the LRJA set provides information about a specific set of skills. In the case of the report shown below, the focus is on conflict resolution skills. Other LRJA reports in this set focus on perspective-coordination, persuasion, and using and evaluating evidence.

  • In the “thinking about” section, the report provides a list of things a given student is likely to understand (based on their score on the LRJA).
  • The “what’s next” section that follows provides descriptions of several personalized practices that help students build upon existing conflict resolution skills and knowledge.
  • Finally, this report provides a personalized practice-based learning activity (a micro-VCoL) the student can engage to build the specific skill targeted by the first practice in the “What’s next” section. (A VCoL is available for every recommended practice. These are shown one at a time to avoid overwhelming the student.)
  • Other reports in the set are typically released, one at a time, after students complete their work on the VCoL in each report.

You’ll notice that there is no score on this report. This is intentional. We want students to focus on building knowledge and skill, not their ranking in the classroom.

Right now, Lectica is working with several schools and colleges to polish our delivery system and continue our research on learning and development. If your institution is interested in participating, please contact us.

ViP info | ViP rationale

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