Academic achievement is based on the likelihood of success and the greater the opportunity to succeed, the greater the potential for achievement. As the window of opportunity to succeed closes the desire and drive to achieve diminishes accordingly. Education systems must be engineered to keep the window open for success at all times to maximize the learning potential of the student.
The dissonance between current assessment practices and a psychologically sound system that would support achievement is at an unacceptable level. In the likelihood that the entrenched, current system will not be abandoned, a reformation that addresses the psychological needs of students for achievement should be implemented. One aspect of this needed change can be embodied in what can be termed the Progressive Assessment System (PAS).
The Mechanics of PAS
The PAS strategy utilizes a mathematical scheme that makes an effort toward achievement (passing) worthwhile even in the event of previous low performance. The PAS strategy is independent of discipline, knowledge skills, assessment criteria or mechanisms. It merely manipulates the chosen index so that students have an opportunity to achieve during any academic period or sequence of assessment measures.
The traditional mechanical approach typically implies a straight-forward, linear arithmetic accumulation of "points" or quality signifiers (Pt = p1 + p2 + p3 + pn or Pt= SPn). Under this current practice the available points for each assessment period or activity stays the same. PAS approaches the mechanics of assessment through a logarithmic or exponential progression of quality signifiers or similar mechanism for a sequenced, significant, quantitative increase in quality signifiers over time [(Pt = p1 • p2 • p3 • pn or Pt = pn) where n is the number of assessment periods] under this system. The available points grow at a constant rate for each assessment. See Figure 1 for sample variations in point assignments and what they would look like graphically.
Conditions for Operation
In order for schema like PAS or its parallels to work effectively, several conditions need to be met. A critical consideration is that the end performance of the student be at an appropriate level for passing or receiving the appropriate end point quality signifier, whether it is a letter grade, point accumulation, pass/fail designation, unit credits, etc. No deceiving of the student or evaluator should be allowed. Politically correct promotions are not implied by the use of this system. The two obvious mechanisms to help prevent this is, one, a built in interdependency among successive performance and knowledge skills from one level to the next (a systematic, well sequenced, spiraling curriculum) and two that an overall assessment measure be implemented at the end of the instructional period that captures the essence of the knowledge and skill base that are the objectives of the total unit of study.
A second tenet that should be practiced is that the regular and overachievers are not penalized by the system. That is that those students who typically do well have the opportunity to continue to do well and that the achievement of the typically low or non-achievers does not inhibit, slow or impede their progress. In fact, the PAS strategy should encourage continued and even enhanced effort of the regularly achieving student by preventing the accumulation of "points" that allows students to sometimes rest on past achievement and that may tend to promote reduction of their effort over time.
The underlying assumptions of the PAS strategy is that students, if given the opportunity, do want to succeed in the long run if they are not penalized beyond reprieve for past failure and can see a clear path and mechanism for achievement when they attempt to do so. The benefit/cost ratio must be favorable, made clear and the possible outcomes expressed in a precise, focused manner. Once students get behind, the reward for work and struggle to catch up must be great enough, such that students have a reason to contribute extra effort in pursuing remedial work before or after regular school hours or seek outside professional help.
The PAS system relies on the typical strategy of the competitive game show. Game shows that have successive tasks or challenges have an increased value for successive achievements or they "clear the board" for the next "round." If they did not, then the winner of the first heat would take all and there would be no need to continue the competition. This psychology parallels that needed to continue and enhance the effort to acquire academic achievement.
This same incentive is used by major religions to keep subscribers focused and working toward the ultimate goal regardless of past performances or faults. Examples of the arguments for utilization of PAS can be found in the elements of the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) and the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32).
In order to maintain an appropriately rigorous academic standard, the PAS strategy assumes a curriculum that builds on previous curriculum and that grading periods or assignments are interdependent so that the critical focus is on the accumulation of skills and knowledge and not "points." The end result, passing, can be achieved with extra effort so that the reward matches the effort.
Variation, Modification and Flexibility
The most aggressive form of PAS would be one which incorporates a geometric increase of points during the grading period. As Figure 1, graph (d) indicates this would require doubling (or some constant multiple of preceding point values) of the number of points for each successive grading time period. However, a choice can be made as to how an increased stipend over time could be distributed. A less aggressive approach might be a progressive system in which successive equal assignments might take on added value in an arithmetic progression, not doubling, but with a substantial added value for each assignment rather than the same, but with less than a multiplying factor. The mathematical representation might be symbolized by the equation of a line with a slope of m, [e.g. line (c)] rather than a flat line as represented by (a) in Figure 1, which has a slope of m = 0 or (d) that has an exponential progression.
The slope, m, then, can take on any value that the instructor might choose, one that they feel might provide the right balance for opportunity and incentive and achievement. The slope of the line needed to produce the desired effect might vary from class to class or even student to student. In addition, the slope required to achieve achievement might be considered as a parameter that helps define the nature of the class and/or learning environment.
The PAS strategy can be used on a whole class basis of assessment and grading or it can be applied to individual students on an individual contract basis. The Individual Progressive Assessment System (I-PAS) can be implemented in the same way other behavioral or academic contracts are arranged. I-PAS must include the regular student-teacher contract stipulations like mutual understanding, reciprocal agreements, guarantees and assigned responsibilities. The I-PAS should include a chart of progress that indicates the student standing at any given assessment time period and the points that are still available or outstanding and achieveable.
The Progressive Assessment System addresses one aspect of the psychology of failure and success in students. The PAS mechanism simply applies an increasing progression of rewards to successive tasks rather than constant arithmetic assignment of quality signifiers (points). PAS can accomplish this without disturbing other aspects of the learning environment, teaching methodology or curriculum. The PAS strategy allows unsuccessful students to recoup their losses through applying themselves in a situation mathematically designed to establish an even playing field in each learning encounter and to parlay these successive wins into overall achievement regardless of past failures. The PAS strategy should open the door for more students to feel that they can progress and that the system is not stacked against their achievement no matter how great an effort they may ultimately choose to put into their educational program.