It’s time to let it go, part 3

A teacher is never a giver of “truth”; he is a guide, a pointer to the truth that the student must discover for himself. -- Bruce Lee

I love this quote. It captures into words an educational practice I’ve gradually grown into over time and experience. That practice is basically to set my students up to not need me anymore, much like parents aim to do with their own children.

Through my growth, I’ve realized that the critical arena that can make or break such a transcendent outcome occurs with performance-based testing. Administering a classroom test is absolutely fine to do, as they are valuable assessment tools. I simply contend that we must reexamine all facets of testing. Because if a student bombs one, for example, and he is eager to jump back in the arena to prove himself capable, I just can’t fathom how I’m supposed to impart lessons like grit and resiliency if I actively withhold additional opportunities from him. Hitting the brakes on his progression now makes learning about me, because I become the one standing in the way of his potential.

This is the third and final broadcast of my messy public break-up with traditional, performance based testing. I invite you to read parts one and two to gain some background understanding about why the time has come to change our approach for how we test and grade our students. This time, I offer some concrete ideas for how we can shift away from the traditional, make-or-break your grade testing model.

Standards-based grading: Get ready for it, because it’s coming. In line with Dweck’s recipe for building a growth mindset in our students, standards-based grading removes the high-stakes nature of tests, and instead measures whether students master the specific and general skills that the course intends to impart. Students have the duration of the course to continuously improve upon each of the standards, which are delineated by the course and teacher him/herself.

 PixabayI have this mental image of a soundboard that music technicians use, with the array of vertical dials they tweak to get the sound just right. Imagine that each one of those dials represents some skill or standard the student must know in your class. At any given time, the student can be anywhere on the mastery spectrum, for any skill. As the course progresses, the student incrementally moves up the dials, skill by skill, working to get each dial to the top, representing mastery. You can assign skill levels by name, e.g. ranging from “master” to “working knowledge” to “somewhat proficient” to “ not proficient,” or some derivation thereof.

This way, students take charge of their learning and create specific goals for themselves, in line with the class expectations. This model also entails a transparent grading system, whereby students get certain grades if they meet a minimum threshold of “master” levels, or “working knowledge” levels, and so forth. The essence is that the students are never out of the game. They can always work to “dial up” their proficiency. The onus is on them, which is the entire point.

Assessment “meet and greets”: My children’s babysitter, in the 9th-grade, enthusiastically told me about how her Spanish teacher tests her students, and I was instantly hooked to this idea. The teacher designates individual meeting times in which students can sign up and meet with her. The purpose of the meetings is for the teacher to figure out exactly what the students know, or lack.

During these meetings, the teacher has the authority to engage the student in ways she sees fit for the moment, to get a clear understanding of what the student knows. She could pepper in questions, engage in dialogue and observe the student’s responses, and ask anything she deems relevant to the learning goals outlined for the course. Should students falter during these moments, they may sign up for future meetings and try again, to dispel any make-or-break performance pressure. The meetings can serve both to celebrate the students’ progress, as well as to offer them a clear idea of which areas they need to improve upon.

How exciting is that? Instead of grading papers, which can be arduous and isolating, we can partake in a unique human exchange, one that never before has taken place, nor will ever happen again in the same way. I can only imagine the juicy opportunities the teacher has during these moments to be supportive and encouraging, leveraging the heightened socio-emotional vibe of the face-to-face meeting to foster critical human skills such as resolve, tenacity, and personal responsibility.

“Want a test retake? Sure. Make it, take it, grade it, and come see me.” Students and teachers have been conditioned to believe that if a test retake is to occur, the burden of creating one and grading it all fall on the teacher. Let’s conjure a new reality. One in which we challenge the student who truly does want a retake to go through the comprehensive process of deriving her own problems in line with the standards, then print out her own test if necessary, take it to completion, grade it in a different color, then come reflect upon the exercise with the teacher.

I’m thrilled at this idea, because inevitably, we’ll expose students who don’t want to go through that entire process. Students will realize that their grades are due to how much work they put in, not to how well they perform under pressure. This is a hallmark growth mindset philosophy. Plus, we’d enlist a student army to create testing content for us, which we can use however we see fit in the years ahead.

I appreciate your reading these ideas over the last three posts. Please feel free to reach out if you’d like to discuss ideas further. Whichever way you choose to run your learning space, I have but one sincere request for all of us. I ask that we seriously think about what kind of students we wish to unleash upon the world. Traits such as passivity, apathy, and hand-holding are loathed in business settings. Traits such as accepting personal responsibility, persistence, and motivation are celebrated. The choices we make directly shape our students’ outlook on learning, and on themselves. Let’s choose wisely.

Robert Ahdoot is a math teacher and founder of, a free online collection of math video lessons filmed live in his classroom and in studio, using costumes and characters. Robert has been teaching high-school math for 10-plus years, has given two TEDx talks, and travels to schools promoting his message of positive learning through human connection. He is the author of One-on-One 101, The Art of Inspired and Effective Individualized Instruction.

Soundboard photo courtesy of Pixabay.


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