How Montessori Schools Evaluate Students

I think many of us feel the letter/number grade system is woefully inadequate for evaluating students and providing them with meaningful feedback. But what's the alternative? We have to evaluate students somehow - how else could we provide trusted certification to students for other educational institutions and employers? Well, a Montessori school I visited in Germany uses one alternative and it seems to work pretty well. I'll describe the process below.

First of all, instead of letter grades, students receive much more descriptive feedback detailing their strengths and weaknesses, often focusing on their individual goals. For example, instead of handing out a B+, a teacher may write, "Johnny is working much better with others than he was previously. His final work is generally excellent though he does seem to be struggling with time management, spending too much time on some projects, then not having enough for others."

After that, the teacher gets together with the student and parents/guardians to discuss how they're going to contribute to Johnny's future success. That's right, teachers don't just take points away from Johnny, assuming he knows what he's doing wrong and how he can improve. They also don't automatically assume that Johnny is the (only) one who could improve. The teachers and parents/guardians take responsibility and the plan will include what they can do to support Johnny as well.

Some of you may be thinking now, "But without grades, how will other educational institutions and future employers know how Johnny compares to others?" Well, Johnny and his teachers will be keeping an ongoing portfolio of his work, showcasing his abilities. Sure, these portfolios take longer to read than a grade point average, but they have the advantage of actually being representative of the student and not just an indication of how they measured up to an inflexible grading rubric.

I wrote this post because I think it's important for people to know that ditching traditional student evaluation isn't just idealist dreaming - it already exists and is very successful in developing effective learners and mature people. I may write more about Montessori schools (and other alternative school models) if people are interested - and very possibly even if they're not. :-)

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Tags: alternative-schools, grades, montessori, student-evaluation

Comment by monika hardy on July 22, 2009 at 12:57am
nice post chris. we've got to do something. the tests are driving us. and in the wrong direction.
i'm wondering about assessing per
1) what you get when you google a kid (that would encourage final projects that live on rather than being trashed)
2) how everybody else is doing. we know we learn more by teaching others - so how are the people in this kid's community (in class or online or both) doing...define success by how much a kid has helped others...
Comment by Chris Fritz on July 22, 2009 at 5:28am
I agree. Even employers know we need a new system! Throughout university, I was constantly being told not to worry too much about my grade point average, since probably no one after my first real job would even look at it. If that's true, why am I still primarily being assessed this way? And where's my motivation to succeed if the results of my success are meaningless? I think students would be a lot more motivated if they were building an online portfolio that the world could see and which showcases skills and knowledge employers actually find valuable. The last job offer I received wasn't earned with a high number on my resume - an employer saw the ideas I shared and my social interactions online (my "unofficial" portfolio), then just checked my resume to confirm my qualifications.
Comment by Dan McGuire on July 22, 2009 at 7:00am
The assessments that matter in my classroom are the ones that I make and discuss with students and parents. They're called conferences. Parents care more about what I say to them in conferences than what shows up on report cards or on those unintelligible reports that come from the state department of education in November after the student has moved onto another classroom. Many of the conferences are informal, happening in on the sidewalk after school, or in the aisle at the grocery store, or on the phone in the evening. They mostly don't get recorded, except in the minds of parents and students as they are passed on to them.


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