April 27, 2006

Grades Matter?

I am concerned about teachers who subjectively assess their students without a clear-cut and firm grading structure. Whether a student receives an “A” or and “F,” a “6” or a “1” in the classroom, that grade should be based on concrete evaluations and transparent to all stakeholders.

Grades need to be based on tangible items that kids can identify and understand. If a student doesn’t understand the grading system, or why they are been assessed, then their grade, no matter what it is, loses meaning. I recently spoke to one of my son’s teachers about a quarter grade. One of her evaluation items was initiative. My son’s grade wasn’t higher because he, in her opinion, did not show enough initiative. It’s hard to quantify initiative. My son did the work he was asked to do, but because he did not complete the work with an attitude that satisfied the teacher, he received a lower grade.

I once shared students with another teacher for one semester. At the end we sat down to record semester grades. I brought my grade book, and she brought hers. We began to compare notes. I quickly realized that we did not assess our shared students the same way. I shared the student’s score for my portion of the class, and then my colleague shared her score. With many students my colleague changed the mark the students had earned based on her own impression of how hard the student worked, or what grade she felt they student deserved. I was shocked. Does this type of subjective assessment have a place in a grading system when standardized test scores are given such a high priority in the overall performance of our schools?

The feedback between teacher and student that is communicated through both classroom and testing marks is key to the educational progress of the student, and the educational effectiveness of the teacher. Grades should be as important to teachers as they are to students. However, grading philosophies and standards are as varied as the teachers who record them. While I fully support teacher independence and individuality, I wonder sometimes if the same independent spirit and individual personality should be applied to something as objective as pupil’s grades, especially those that go on the transcripts and could potentially hurt the students in their future academic endeavors.

Try and see it from the students’ perspective. We’ve all been there. I can remember taking a college course where the instructor refused to tell us how much our projects were worth until she completed our finals. What??? I remember thinking. How could I prioritize when I had no idea what was going to make or break my grade. Unfortunately, grades are not equally important to all students. Many students, especially younger kids, fail to understand the value of succeeding in the courses they take. One of our jobs is to teach the importance of good grades and draw connections to success outside the classroom.

Grades do matter so they should matter to teachers. Take a look at your classes. How many kids do you fail each semester? If the numbers are very high, say greater that 50%, then maybe it’s time to take a look at how you are teaching. Sometimes it’s just a rotten class, or a few bad apples, and sometimes it’s the teacher. I have colleagues who regularly fail a large number of their students and yet stubbornly refuse to make changes to their curriculum, teaching style, or classroom personality. Teachers need to be willing to meet kids wherever they are, and then teach them to be successful in whatever subject matter we are teaching. It’s not easy. Sometimes we have to make changes. But that’s our jobs.

I teach project-based courses, so my grading is designed for that type of course. What I do may not work for all teachers and all subjects. I use rubrics for all of my assignments and I grade on a point system. I design the rubrics myself based on whatever content and standards I am teaching. Each area is given a certain number of points that when added together equate to a total score that corresponds to a letter grade. Most, but not all, of the time I follow the standard 90-100% A, 80-89% B, and so on. Some teachers argue that a 90% is really an A-, but I always count anything that breaks the 90% threshold as an “A.”

Most of the time I give the student the rubric I use for grading before I score their projects, so that they can see exactly upon what it is they will be evaluated. To me its fair disclosure. I always hated when teachers “surprised” me by testing on something I didn’t expect, or adding in points of evaluation after I had submitted my work. I also offer students the opportunity to resubmit for points after my initial evaluation if there are areas of weakness they want to improve upon.

The most important thing to me is that my students “get it,” that they learn the material. If that means the students need to revise, edit, and resubmit then that’s all right with me. (I almost never submit any of these essays without pouring over them a number of times and letting them sit for at least a few days, sometimes longer.) Many teachers would argue that this type of revision should be done before the assignments' due dates. I don’t disagree with that, but I do think that kids need to be taught the process.

While I am still struggling with the concept and implementation of frequent common formative assessment, and I will always support a teachers independence in the classroom, and while I am frustrated by the current level of emphasis placed on standardized test scores, and the ensuing death of the high-school elective I see brewing, I do think that some type of objective, formal, consistent grading method across subject matter and grade levels could be a useful and important reform. If rubrics are the method of the day, then lets all use them on not only assignments, but quarter and semester grades as well. If it’s something else, that’s fine too. We teachers are committed to educating our kids and motivating their personal success so we need to get organized and consistent about the way we assess our students and the grades that we record.

1 comment:

  1. Hi,
    The idea of grading was something I struggled with while I was still in school finishing my degree and when I was student teaching. How would I know what was an A,B, etc?
    Now four years into the teaching thing, I know what I expect to see because I clearly outline what I want for each assignment and show models (mine and student), rubrics, whatever I need to make them successfully aware of what they need to know. Is it working all the time? No, but that is what is glorious about this job: we can always refine and readjust to do just what you outlined in the post.
    One of my future blogs will address the idea of the validity of grading when you have social promotion. It is something that has been on my mind since my employment.