Square peg, Round hole

“The problem with pounding a square peg into a round hole is not that the hammering is hard work. It’s that you are destroying the peg.” – Paul Collins

We’ve all heard it a thousand times – You can’t fit a square peg into a round hole. I am reminded of this often when schools and teachers are transitioning to standards based grading.

The square peg: The traditional style of instruction, formative assessment, and summative assessment. It is the factory model of education where the all students do the same thing at the same time. It is one size fits all instruction based more upon a curriculum map or lesson plan than the students it serves. It is blanket assigned homework assignments that will only be completed “if they are graded”. It is the test given on one day and one day only with no opportunity to reassess. The focus is on grades and compliance with the assumption that these will lead to learning. The square represents the rigidity of the process with sharp corners and distinct ends to the lines.

The round hole: The standards based paradigm focused on clear expectations, responsive instruction, feedback loops, and proficiency. It is meeting students where they are with the standards and charting a path forward with appropriate practice. It is differentiated while being tightly aligned to the standards. It is assessment and reassessment, if necessary, to place the priority on learning. The shape of a circle communicates that learning is never done. It is a continuous cycle of targets, practice, feedback and assessment that lead to learning.

To be honest, traditional practices do not fit into a standards based learning environment. Taking what has been done in the past and try to jam the square peg into the round hole is ineffective. There are changes that must happen in the classroom environment. In standards based settings, feedback and formative assessment are the centerpiece of the environment. These are an ongoing conversation amongst students and teachers to ensure learning is taking place. Responsivity (on the part of the teacher and the student) is the name of the game. By the time the summative assessment rolls around, it is a confirmation. Proficiency is revealed through the formative process. It is verified by the summative.

I’ve been asked many times, “How does my multiple choice test fit into standards based grading?” My question back – “Which standards are you assessing?” Teachers are trying to take what they have been doing for years (possibly decades) and fit it into the standards based model. This is backward. Rather than focusing on the standards and creating assessment tools and instructional practices that elicit standards based evidence, teachers are attempting to align a standard with an old instrument that may or may not actually address the intended outcomes.

Some feel that attempting to make old practices fit in a new paradigm is an easier way to implement standards based grading. I will argue the opposite. This is not to say that shifting assessment and instructional practices is easy work. It is not, but once the changes are in place, the time spent at the outset gains more time in the aftermath. When using an old assessment, teachers spend a long time hunting down evidence for the standards they are attempting to assess. Different questions may address different standards in different places on a test and there many be questions that are not aligned to any of the standards. There may be evidence on a project that almost fits a standard, but not quite. What to do then – use the evidence or not? This becomes a scavenger hunt for evidence that aligns with the standards. The scavenger hunt takes additional time with each assessment a teacher grades. With standards aligned assessment, the evidence and corresponding standard are clear. No time is wasted searching for alignment – it is already there. These vetted assessments are less time consuming. They provide clear evidence of proficiency levels for teachers, students, and parents alike.

The square peg does not fit into the round hole. Traditional instructional, assessment, and grading practices do not fit into the standards based learning environment. When making the shift, spend time to gain time. Create an environment where the goals and expectations are clear, responsive instruction and feedback lead to proficiency, and assessment alignment is transparent.

“When we can’t fit a square peg into a round hole, we’ll usually blame the peg–when sometimes it is the rigidity of our thinking that accounts for our failure to accommodate it.” – Nate Silver