Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Gender Bias in Assessment - Even Students Do It, Do You?

"...But Mrs. Ripp, it is sloppy so they cannot get a 4..."
"... We can hardly read their explanation so we gave it a lower grade... "

All comments that made me think in today's math class as students were assessing work samples to get them ready to assess their own work.  Their open response work involved multiple steps, illustrations and explaining their work. They were therefore provided what we as teachers are provided; student sample work to figure out what the work was worth based on a 4-0 rubric.  After partner discussions, students shared their rankings of the problems and the most common discussion point was the sloppiness of the writing, not the math presented, not the explantion, not whether they followed directions; instead a laser-like focus on handwriting neatness and presentation.

I kept my mouth shut and handed them all a post-it note, asked them to copy a sentence off the board and write their name lightly on the back of the post-it.  I didn't ask them to take special care with their note, just write it down.  They handed them in and one-by-one I asked them to decide whether a note was sloppy or not as shown under the document camera.  I didn't know the names of the note writers but sure enough all the notes that were deemed neat and not sloppy were those written by girls.  Not a single boy post-it note was in the pile.  My students sat quietly as I gave them some think time.  Then I said; "If you were a boy and I assessed your work based on your handwriting presentation you would not be able to get a full score.  You would never be able to acheive what a girl can achieve in this class."  Silence and crazy stares. 

When teachers base part of their grade on handwriting and neatness, particularly at the elementary level, we forget one important thing; handwriting is often determined more by our fine motor skill development and not the effort placed in the work.  Neat handwriting does not mean a fuller understanding or a better writer, it does not mean more care was taken with the work, or that more effort was put in.  Neat handwriting means just that; neat handwriting.  So unless that is what we are specifically assessing it should not be part of our assessment, even if our inner voice screams at us to include it.

Try the same experiment with your students, see if you get similar results and then watch them discuss it.  Watch them realize how their knowledge is judged based on their handwriting.  Watch them gain a deeper understanding of all of the inner voices they carry telling them what makes work quality or not.  It is quite a realization for teachers and students alike.