Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Standards-based Grading of Dogs

Don't worry, this post actually is about learning...

As a hobby, my wife and I train hunting dogs.  One of the things that has amazed me while working with dogs is the parallels between dog training and teaching, learning, and assessment.

The assessment piece is the most interesting.  Each of our dogs are run through a variety of hunting tests.  These tests are sort of tiered by age and expected ability.  For young dogs, who are anywhere from 6 months to 18 months in age, a "puppy test" is administered.  During this test, the dog has to search a field, locate and "point" a few birds, and track a rabbit.  While these things are going on, judges are also assessing how well the dog is using its nose, its cooperation, and its desire to do the job at hand.

These things are assessed by a group of 3 judges that walk with the dog's owner while these tasks are being carried out.  At the end of the day, the dog is given a score card that rates the dog in these categories:
  • Search
  • Pointing
  • Tracking
  • Nose
  • Cooperation
  • Desire
The scores are tallied up for an overall total score, but the scores of the individual components are listed as well.  What is the point of all of this?

This test is used by a breeder to assess their litter.  A litter will have on average 6-8 puppies.  The breeder encourages the new puppy owners to take this test at the appropriate age, and then looks at the scores that the litter receives.  Now, we all hope for "perfect 10's" across the board, and that would be great.  Sometimes, there is a trend within the scores.  For example, some litters may have a lower score in the "pointing" category.  As a breeder, you know that their may be a genetic issue with the pointing abilities of these dogs.  So, when you think about breeding again, you take that into consideration.  You will likely not pair the same two dogs up again, or perhaps not breed those two dogs again at all.

This is a description of a German hunting test that was developed in the late 1800's.  All dogs that want to be bred and receive pedigrees must do this test (and some others) to get to OK to breed.  The important thing to note though is that the dogs are not simply rubber stamped with a YES or NO.  Instead, a relatively detailed description of their abilities are noted and kept on record.

How does this relate to education?  To me, it saddens me at the state of education for the last century, particularly in terms of grading and assessment.  When I started training and testing dogs, I was given more detailed information about my dogs abilities than what I was supplying to my students!  I was simply sending students to their next classes with a grade of "A" or "C."  No one knows what that means.  It is utterly useless, yet it ends up being a large part that defines the future of a student.

Now, by using standards-based grading, I am starting to send more detailed information to students, parents, myself, and other teachers.  Instead of a student getting a "B+" in science, we can say that the student is showing advanced understanding in one area, while only proficient in another area.  For the dogs, these tests scores are very high stakes.  It may very well determine breeding potential.  For students, these scores can be information on where to practice and where to celebrate.

I am hoping that the standards-based grading movement at least gets us as educators to a point that is equivalent to where dog breeding has been for a century.  I am hopeful!

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