# To Extend or Not Extend

At a recent “Communicating Student Learning” meeting in Vancouver we were presented with a proposed 4pt scale for recording student progress.

**Emerging - Developing - Proficient - Extending**

At first glance this scale seems pretty good. I’m a fan of smaller vs. larger scales. In fact, in my day-to-day formative assessment using SBG I prefer to use a 3pt scale. The reason for this because the scale is very easy to understand and the levels are never ambiguous. Students can easily and quickly self-assess their own work on a 3 point scale. 1 refers to really struggling with the objective, 3 refers to nailing it, and 2 is everything else in the middle. Having sub-divisions/labels in the middle isn’t that useful provided that the student is getting other feedback that is more detailed. A 4 point scale is almost as good as a 3pt in this respect and the 4pt scale does add some clarity for other people such as parents.

The proposed grading E-D-P-E scale also seems reasonable in terms of having an upwards bound of “extending”. It makes sense that we want our students to strive for excellence and recognize when this happens. However, when I start to think about the word “extending” I start to see some problems.

If one of the goals and purposes of SBG and similar systems is to provide clear learning intentions to our students, exactly what does “extending” tell them? Are all learning objectives “extendable”? If we’re clear on what it looks like when a student extends, are we ultimately just changing the learning objective? Consider a learning objective for Math 8 which could be “I understand where positive and negative integers fit on a number line, and I can add/subtract positive and negative integers.” Let’s suppose that a student extends this by adding/subtracting positive and negative decimal numbers. Is there any difference in the following grade scales?

Emerging | Developing | Proficient | Extending |
---|---|---|---|

can’t do much | sort of gets it | add/subtract positive and negative integers | add/subtract positive and negative decimals |

Emerging | Developing | Proficient | Mastery |
---|---|---|---|

can’t do much | sort of gets it | add/subtract positive and negative integers | add/subtract positive and negative decimals |

As you can see, asking a student to extend a learning objective is no different from asking a student to master a slightly harder one. If in fact you want your students to add/subtract positive and negative decimals, why not just tell them? Of the above two grade scales, the latter has the advantage of being very clear because the Mastery level will be the explicit learning goal.

Working with scales and learning objectives for seven years, I have seen the advantage of being more clear on the expectations from the grade scales. For good backwards design, we need to be explicit on the learning goals and then work backwards from our assessments. Trying to design an assessment around allowing for students to “extend” is difficult at the best of times.

I would argue that neither of the above two examples for grade scales is appropriate for tracking individual learning objectives. I think that if the learning objective is “I understand where positive and negative integers fit on a number line, and I can add/subtract positive and negative integers.”, then the scale should be:

Emerging | Developing | Proficient | Mastery |
---|---|---|---|

can’t do much | sort of gets it | mostly gets it, a few mistakes | add/subtract positive and negative integers without mistakes |

I still want to see students showcase their understanding and this is where performance tasks come in. I see performance tasks as being summative which produce a single grade in a holistic manner. A performance task can take on many different shapes and forms, such as a unit test that gives one overall grade for several learning objects, or a project that is graded holistically against some set of standards or rubric. I prefer to grade against a standard. For example, students may be given an exemplar to help guide them in their work and if the student’s project is better than my exemplar, I give the student a grade of “extending.” I also caution against using rubrics with many scales. The scales are inevitably either too vague and don’t really help with the grading, or the rubric is too prescriptive and doesn’t do a good job of assessing anything other than the prescriptive list. I believe that the “one column rubric” is one solution to this problem. Instead of making a rubric, I prefer to make a list of features that I want to see (similar to a one column rubric) and then rely on an exemplar to give the students an indication of the quality of work I’m expecting.