Time to get off the scale?

It is thin mint season and in a year that has bad news like no other, it was a welcomed sight when I saw this little box of joy sitting in our pantry. Yet, at the same time, I am well aware of the ramifications that thin mints can have on my waistline as we head into the month of holiday treats and feasts. After having a thin mint or six last night, I decided to make the dangerous move this morning and climb atop our scale that has not been touched since beach season. As I read the number, I was left feeling…nothing. My weight was about what I thought it would be, I didn’t learn anything new about myself. As I continued my morning routine of getting ready for the day I thought of everything else the scale didn’t tell me:

The scale didn’t tell me:

  • How good I have been feeling over the past 3+ months due to exercising religiously and making improvements, albeit minor, to my diet.
  • How a torn ligament in my thumb and a minor back injury had slowed down my progress this fall
  • How my wife has been a huge motivator this past fall around exercise and how proud I am that we work out together almost every day.
  • How one of my biggest growth areas to my overall health is to eliminate that evening meal I like to have around 8:00 PM!

The scale could not reflect how far I have come in MY health journey.

You might see where this is going. If not, you should know that over the last few years I’ve had some serious wonders about our use of proficiency scales. Post after post in fact!. It should be noted that I am 100% in favour of moving away from letter grades, embracing strength-based assessment, and valuing ongoing descriptive feedback of learning. The area I take issue with is viewing proficiency scales as significant improvement over grades. Here are some questions that are swirling for me around the use of scales:

What added value do scales offer?

  • In my weight example above, the scale didn’t provide me with a ton of insight. It wasn’t able to tell me my personal health story, it didn’t offer any descriptive feedback, and it certainly didn’t help me understand my health strengths and next steps for continued growth. Are the use of scales in education any different? The research is clear that ongoing descriptive feedback is key to student growth. In addition, we know how a letter grade (or proficiency scale) at the top of a paper essentially nullifies any descriptive feedback and shifts the focus to the grade. 
  • As a parent, I also wonder what my actions might be based on the various grades, sorry proficiency scales rankings (?!?), my children might bring home. If they come out as ‘extending’ (top part of the scale) does that mean we should celebrate, not worry about pushing the learning further, or perhaps relish in the fact that we’ve reached the promised land? Or, how about our actions right in the middle of the scale at ‘developing’? In this case I don’t know what we would do since they’ve both been working so hard at home and really enjoy school. I guess they’ll have to work harder and spend more time at home on schoolwork? That will foster a love of learning, right? Now let’s get to ‘emerging’ at the bottom end of the scale. Hmmm…Should we panic? Tutor time? Is all hope lost? 

Are proficiency scales really strength-based?

  • The various “proficiency” scales I have seen across the province do not give me, nor the students in our province I argue, any more of a warm cozy feeling than the letter grades of old did. Even though we’ve spent copious amounts of time developing language that conveys notions of “keep-going” or “you’re making great progress,” what is the impact when a child sees his or herself at the tail end of a scale? 
  • My intention is not to offend and I know everyone has the best intentions, but have we fully considered the impact of the images we pair proficiency scales with. At the ‘emerging’ end of the scale I’ve seen an image of a flower without petals, or a bridge that I wouldn’t wish my worst enemy to walk across juxtaposed against the Golden Gate bridge or a child who has yet to enter the swimming pool while others are deep sea diving. Is this really strength-based? How would you feel as a flower with no petals?

Is the goal of school to be proficient in everything?

  • The narrative that we spread in schools with proficiency scales is that being “proficient” is the goal. In some areas I think this is absolutely necessary. We want ALL students to be literate and numerate to a basic degree. Reading, for example, is absolutely crucial when it comes to future success. Yet, where do we go after basic competency has been achieved?  
  • As a 36 year old man, there are far more areas I would classify myself as deficient in than proficient. I can’t change the oil in my car, my skill around the use of power tools leaves much to be desired, and as someone who works in IT I still don’t really understand how the internet works. Yet, I don’t dwell on these areas where I could grow. I take my car in to get the oil changed and life goes on. Rather, I focus my time on my areas of strengths. Those areas that I am passionate about that I enjoy doing and I work to make them even stronger. And, it is my belief informed by the work of Todd Rose that when we focus on those areas of strength we not only make them stronger but we also bring every aspect of ourselves forward in a positive direction. So…do our children need to be proficient in every area of school? What do we gain by having this narrative? And perhaps more importantly, when I see the tears, anxiety, and remorse that accompany report cards…what do we stand to lose as we continue to fixate on proficiency?

What would assessment/reporting look like without scales altogether?

  • If we root ourselves in quality assessment principles that provide feedback for our learners, that are ongoing, specific, and helpful, our learners will thrive…full stop. When we support students in developing their unique profiles as learners with their own distinct strengths and next steps of learning, good things will happen. By adding scales to the mix, it is my belief that we over complicate things. We start to compare, the focus shifts to what students can’t do rather than what they can, and school becomes less about learning and more about meeting levels. In short, assessment and reporting would look, feel, and work better without scales.

In full transparency I am hoping you can push my thinking. A lot of educators I deeply respect in the Twittersphere seem to really feel proficiency scales are a step in the right direction and I just don’t see it. My hope is that you can help check my thinking, challenge my thinking, and together help create assessment that helps students grow and love learning. But for now, I am going to step off the scale.

One thought on “Time to get off the scale?

  1. Good thoughts Graham!
    My favorite teacher and one that helped extend my world view …..NEVER judged me or my learning. Frankly he did not have a clue what I was learning….he mentored and inspired….that was it! I learned what I learned. This speaks to the idea of what a teacher is, does and how the teacher/student relationship should evolve.


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