Must we grade?

I have a real philosophical back and forth with myself regarding assessment and elementary physical education. I also wrestle with what elementary PE’s true purpose is? Are PE teachers and school leaders achieving the intended objectives of the subject? Is assessment aligned with these objectives? Do we need to assess and grade a young person’s (elementary age) physical ability or are we doing it to justify the subject? In terms of grading, what is most value placed on? First by the teacher, then the student and finally the parent? And finally, what purpose does allocating a leveled grade or ticking a box serve when reflecting on student learning in PE? Wowsers, that’s a lot of q’s and I’m not even going to try and answer all of them here. Fact is I ask more questions than I have answers for but I guess that’s a healthy approach to most things. 

Anyway…It seems schools are fully invested in assessment of all subjects, but how do we quantitatively assess something so fluid as the physical performance of a child? In sport you have the competition ladder and season ending finals all providing feedback on a team’s progress. In the classroom kids are getting constant quantitative feedback – the math answer is right or wrong, the spelling was correct or incorrect or the comma is used appropriately or inappropriately in the sentence. In PE though success is complicated and not necessarily related to being right or winning.

I was privileged to attend a conference recently ‘Learning By Design‘ hosted at my current school, The International School of Brussels. For three days we listened, discussed and critically evaluated ourselves our practices and the preconceived ideals of education. The buzz word ‘disrupt’ was flying around everywhere in all of it’s alliterations. One well respected education personality spoke up during a panel discussion and said something along the lines of ‘If you’re serious about ‘disrupting’ and making change a reality put your money where your mouth is and do away with things like homework, ability groupings, 9am starts and wait for it…grades (related tweet here). I almost stood and applauded but thankfully my introvertedness stood strong and I remained quietly perched on my chair at the back of the theatre.

What about this…if we are going to grade in PE, there should be intervention for those students who are delayed or struggling with certain movements or concepts. A student struggling with literacy and numeracy will be promptly provided academic support and intervention in order to close the gap in the student’s development. Assessing a student for the purpose of identifying required interventions makes sense. I haven’t experienced assessment and grading used for this in PE though. In my opinion the reason for this is probably because it’s not practical or PE’s primary purpose. However, if the primary purpose of PE is not focussed on the competent performance of motor skills why are we required to assess it? Why rate a student’s physical competency if it’s not directly informing future teaching and learning.

What if we could do away with grades in PE?! Wouldn’t it send a positive message to our elementary PE students that movement in elementary PE is not about mastery and purely about the inquiry process and the practice of doing. In an age of sedentariness and self consciousness shouldn’t our primary objective be to increase children’s movement ability and comfortableness in their own bodies in the hope that they go forth and enjoy a life of physical activity and play (physical literacy). In my opinion, grading a child’s physical performance is not required for the accomplishment of this purpose; it may even prove to be counter productive. ‘Effort’ or ‘Approach’ and a comment. Report card done. That’s it! But if the powers that be continue to demand a ‘grade’ then self evaluation needs to be central to the process. No standards, no norms, no grade level equivalents. It’s a shift and maybe some parents will miss not being able to put their child on a rung of the PE performance ladder but I’m pretty sure the kids won’t mind 🙂 

Teacher-student discussion and next steps becomes the sole focus and in my opinion this post by @ImSporticus is a step in the right direction. Self reflection, individualized feedback and a strong process focus rather than the end letter or number grade. I just hope that more PE classes are empowered to head in a similar direction. Mine included. Work to do 🙂

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