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Grading: A Duct-Taped System In Need of an Overhaul?

This post is the first in a series of reflections on our current grading system where I try to tackle these questions: Is the current system fair and relevant? What is the relationship between grading and learning? What alternatives to the 100 point system do educators have? Throughout the series, you will hear from other classroom teachers, my current students, and researchers who have delved into these questions with a scientific lens. In the final post, I will share what I plan to do in my own classroom as a result of these conversations and reflections.

I invite you to view this series as a conversation. One where I invite divergent perspectives, welcome respectful disagreement, and applaud any who dare to share their own struggles, resources, and triumphs with this issue. Please add your voice to the comments. My final post is not yet complete because I am waiting to see what I learn from publishing these initial posts. Perhaps you will be crucial in my final decision! I welcome you to learn and struggle through this with me. My journey begins with a conversation within my own department this past January.

The Gaming of Grading

Our high school English department was discussing whether to change the basement grade from a 50% to a 40%. Was it fair for students to even have a 40% in the grade book if they turned in 0% of their assignments? What about the students who would intentionally game the system by slacking off in the first half of the year only to kick it in high gear in the second half and pass?

Then someone clarified the basement grade’s original intent: to keep a student from “giving up altogether” after a disastrous first marking period grade. But my view? We are kidding ourselves to think this discussion is about student motivation. Also, I’m starting to feel that basement grades are just one way to duct-tape an outdated grading system.

What we are actually discussing in this meeting are the counter-moves in an elaborate game called the 100 point grading scale. By playing this game, an “us vs. them” mentality overshadows this discussion: us, the teachers vs. them, the students. Us, the teachers trying to promote learning; them, the students trying to game the system. But, who created that system in the first place? Certainly not the students. They are merely responding to the rules, looking for the loopholes, and working for the carrots. We, the teachers are trying to close the loopholes, work within the rules, still emphasize learning through it all.

Couldn’t we just reject the “Us vs. Them” system?

In the current debate between 40% or 50% for a basement grade, I don’t feel we are scratching the surface of “fairness” or equity. If a student was so disengaged that he/she didn’t complete any assignments in nine weeks, than receiving a 40% charity bump will NOT address the real issues of that student’s learning success. We need to have the more challenging discussion of how we--the teachers and the system--should be reaching this student. Yet, we were asked by our administration and colleagues to have a basement grade discussion, so we did. We discussed our preference of 40% or 50%, found consensus, and then moved onto the next agenda item.

But I was left unsettled.

Who else feels the grading system is broken?

The very next day, an article by anti-grade revolutionary Mark Barnes caught my eye: How Eliminating Grades Changed Everything in my Classroom. Barnes writes: “Grades are just a math game...If you know how to work the numbers, you can get a good grade.” He goes on to detail how he felt by the end of that year: “I wasn't teaching students anything, except failure or, worse, how to manipulate traditional grades enough to build report cards that would be acceptable at home.”

So he decided to eliminate the traditional grading system in his classroom. In its place, Barnes provided his students with ungraded feedback as well as challenging questions. He asked students to self-assess and take ownership over their own learning journey.

Upon reading this short post, my feelings of being unsettled distilled into a restlessness for action. I too felt that our current grading system was broken, but what was I going to do about it? I started asking myself tough questions like: what did I believe was the purpose of grades? Could I help my students by taking a risk to try a different system of accountability and assessment?

I shared Barnes’ post on my Facebook feed. Almost immediately teachers and parents in my network began responding. A few wanted to get rid of grading altogether while others admitted that this issue was also a “struggle” for them in their classrooms. We all seemed to sense that something was deeply wrong about our current grading system, but also weren’t sure the alternatives. So many teachers seemed eager for this conversation. And so many have already begun to challenge the status quo.

A comment I wrote on Barnes’ original post was shared by an EdWeek Teacher editor on Twitter. You can see how many times it was retweeted. Not Lady Gaga numbers, but for an educational tweet, still indicative that this idea strikes a nerve with educators and parents.

Restlessness to Action

Our grading system seems up for review. Teachers care about learning and about students meeting their potential; teachers are worried about the lack of joy and the proliferation of stress in our schools today. These teachers are ready to have a conversation beyond duct-tape options. We are ready to reexamine the system, look at the research, and have that bigger discussion of fairness and equity.

Two teachers who have agreed to walk this journey with me are linked below.  

Sandy Mertz: Jesse Pinkman's Wooden Box

David Cohen: Don't Give a Pass to Failed Grading Systems 

In my next post, I’ll share with you the responses from my students when I asked them about their relationship with the grading system. Until then, I invite you to share your own perspective on our current system. Does it seem to be working for the students in your classroom? Do you feel that it is a fair assessment of student learning? What have you done to manipulate the system to create fairness?

For the next post in this series, click the following link: Grading: A Duct-Taped System? Students Weigh In.

This post was edited 12:00PM Friday, 2/27/2015 to reflect David Cohen's updated blog link in this conversation.

This post was edited 12:00PM Thursday, 3/4/2015 to include the link to the second post in the series and modify the end teaser to reflect that post's content.

20 Comments

Jennifer McClelland commented on February 26, 2015 at 10:16am:

English

In my own classroom this year, I've been experimenting with the ways I communicate skill level to students. We focus on skills, so that each English assignment has a skill on which it is being graded -- say, a paragraph repsonse is being graded for the ability to cite textual evidence with elaboration and commentary. A student gets feedback on a four-point scale: advanced thru below basic. For students, this makes a lot of sense, and has helped steer us away from, "how can I get my grade up to an A?" My biggest obstacle so far has been how to communicate these grades in the software system my school uses to interface with parents and students. It's set up for the traditional system. Ideally, I'd like to use numbers on a 4-1 scale, but I have to use letters instead, such as A for advanced, which works fine, but is still a system is progress. As we move forward with revising grades in the secondary level, we have to think about creating software that allows standards-based grading, much in the way elementary report cards are set up. We could still assign traditional grades at the end of the term -- we have to or it will make college admissions very hard. I look forward to some changes. Thanks for letting me weigh in. 

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on March 1, 2015 at 7:58pm:

Skills-based Assessment

For all my dour outlook on the grading system at my school, I will happily report that we've been moving toward a skills-based curriculum with specific skills-bases assessments. I believe that change has helped students feel more in control of their learning and also helped them to see their growth and progress more clearly. 

I almost never have arguments about the grade I give students only because I will provide a reason for why every point was given or taken away on writing assignments, projects, and grammar quizzes. The students know specific expectations before they are assessed, and they receive specific feedback through that assessment to explain where they might have missed the mark. 

But I like your suggestion about simplfying the scale even further and naming the increments with language that reflects learning rather than currency. Others in their comments have made similar suggestions, which are helping me to reflect on what could be in my grading next marking period and year. 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts here! I look forward to further reflections as we take this journey together :)

Andrea Schueler commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:02pm:

World Language

I've been struggling with this very issue since I was a student who was very unconviced that the A's I received meant anything.  In my heart I want to dump grades entirely, and yet I know that other demands (college entrance and tradition being two big ones) make that a very difficult proposition.  It may not even be the right way to go.  So, thank you for this frank discussion and for engaging in it in hopes of finding an answer rather than with the intention of sharing the answer.

In my own grading journey, the past eight years or so I've experimented with grading my AP Spanish students on a final portfolio for almost the entire second semester grade.  I've never quite felt satisfied with that system either.  I'm still searching for the system that best reflects learning and growth as well as skill and achievement.  As with the previous commenter, I've been frustrated when trying to convert an attempt to move towards standard-based grading into the rigid 100 point system of our reporting software.

Hilary commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:02pm:

Systematic Change

I agree wholeheartedly that the grading system needs to change. However, until colleges decide that they will accept something other than GPA, we're a bit stuck. 

Carl Draeger commented on March 1, 2015 at 10:49pm:

Colleges and GPA

I'm not sure how much value colleges and universities place on GPAs. I am also keenly aware that honor students transfering in from another district do not necesarily meet the 'honor' criteria of our school. Similarly, our honor student might not exceed their standards either.

 

Even if colleges and universities might struggle with the lack of grades, how is that our problem. What do they do with home schooled students? Foreign students? They're smart. They'll figure it out faster than we can implement it anyway.

 

The problem is the parents wondering where their child fits in the 'competition'. Are their kids 'winners' or 'losers'. Every game has both winners and losers. It's kind of a fixed mindset. I want my child to grow as much as she can regardless of how she is 'racked and stacked' by her grade.I don't want to play the student comparision game. I want to know which standards my child meets, exceeds, or needs improvement in. 

Rhonda Bernard commented on February 27, 2015 at 9:51am:

Math

Carl,

Your last paragraph summed it up best!  I work in an community that has highly competitive parents.  Grades are another way that parents can see if their own children are "winners" or "losers".  It is definitely a fixed mindset.  It is a difficult undercurrent to work against when you are a parent and a teacher with a growth mindset.

Andrea Isabelli commented on February 27, 2015 at 10:55am:

I disagree that all systems

I disagree that all systems have winners and losers. I believe there can exist a system in which everyone can be winners; students learn at different paces, and some may take longer than others, but given time and the right supports I believe that all students can learn. The problem with our current system is that we herd students along by classes as if they all learned at the same pace. In my dreamworld, gradebooks would be set up not by assignments but by skills mastered, and the grade would only reflect which skills were mastered. In this respect, some students would have more skills than others, but they would only be graded on what they have done. I teach French, so the idea is that once students have mastered all of the skills for French I that are listed in the curriculum, they can advance to level 2, etc. The flipped classroom lends itself very well to this type of grading. I am currently investigating how to possibly combine these two concepts, but am not yet sure how that would translate into our current defunct system. Any thoughts would be greatly appreciated!

Carl Draeger commented on March 1, 2015 at 10:50pm:

I'm not sure we are disagreeing.

I'm referring to the grading system in place in most schools throughout the country. There are grades A to E (or F). Teachers arbitrarily set up some calculation to arrive a single number which supposedly 'measures' what a student has done to indicate their proficiency. This numerical result determines the students standing in comparison to other students (hence winners and losers). I think that we agree that this is a bad thing. 

 

It is a far better thing to grade each student against standards instead of each other. The system you discribed does exactly that. I was arguing against the idea that colleges' use of GPA is a sticking point for grading reform. I would like my daughter to graduate from a school which has pushed her to learn as much as she can without her calculating what she needs to maintain her 'A' or 'C' or whatever her target grade is. It is a total mind shift away from treating grades as currency (My honor roll student is better than your LD child) to making student growth the new bullion. Wouldn't we like to have students saying to each other, "Wow, I didn't see it that way. Have you considered..."? We could ask questions that we don't know the answer to. "Oh, the places we will go!"

Kathleen Brizuela Absalon commented on March 7, 2015 at 2:23am:

Skills-based school reports

I've seen some high school reports from Australia and New Zealand that are similar to what you describe: the skills mastered are listed, along with a narrative on how they were achieved. Some skills/standards say "not attempted", so the student and everyone else knows what they need to work on next.  Not sure what kind of software they use...

Mark Lasater commented on March 1, 2015 at 8:58pm:

Foreign students and grades

I can answer at least a couple of points your brought up regarding foreign students in the US. I've worked in international schools now for 12 years, for about 10 of those years I've worked with HS students to find pathways into US schools.

Currently, if you can demonstrate that you have enough money in the bank to pay for a 4 year degree, you are probably going to be admitted. This is The Case if you are applying to state schools and many of the small to midsized private institutions. This is also The Case if you are applying to some of the more prestigious institutions. A bank statement from your banker in Berlin or London, that you have 1 million or so dollars in an account there, is, for at least a few of the kids I've worked with over the last decade, all they needed for admission.

Barring a huge bank account, there is the SAT and IGCSE (what were once called A and O level tests in the British System). Many international schools are accredited with either US or UK bodies. This points their curriculum at these two well known tests and generally means that a student will at least make an average score. Of course, there are kids who excel at taking tests. If you break 2000 on the SAT, you will probably find a school in the US who, if they can't appreciate the size of your bank account, at least appreciates your intellect.

Of course this means that the SAT becomes the be-all-end-all of getting into colleges. Think you teach a pointed, content oriented, testing focused curriculum? You've not seen anything till you seen some of the factories in Korea that are intended to push every student who walks in the door through the 2000 point mark on the SAT. That fantastic push and the corruption that goes with it (my Korean kids tell me a copy of the SAT in Korea goes for about $50,000) lead SAT to suspend testing in the entire country last year.

Of course, there is the tried and true tactic of just being an exceptional athlete. I had kids in Uzbekistan who would come to our school to take the TOEFL who already had scholarships to small and mid-sized schools, but who just needed to demonstrate minimal English proficiency. Of course, when this becomes the pathway you find interesting twists. My landlord in Uzbekistan was also the head of he Uzbek Tennis Federation. If you wanted a scholarship, he had the connections, and for a given amount of money, he could arrange for you to make your way to the top of the player rankings for their regional association. He could also help you out with a US Visa. If you just wanted to get into the US for a couple of years and work in your brother-in-laws cleaning business to make a little cash, he could arrange for you to look like you were a much better tennis player than you really were so you could get a "training" visa to the US.

I'll bet home school kids in the US have to jump through similar hurdles if they want to go to college. We could do what they do in many countries, just not give grades, make everything dependent upon a test, that is what millions kids do across Asia. Teachers in India really don't give grades. There are what I would think of as course-based exams at the end of the school year that are standardized by regional boards. What you do on the test is what you do in the course. University admissions (public) are then decided based upon how those scores stack up. You also don't get to choose what you study, your testing profile decides if you are offered a seat in the which department.

Marsha Ratzel commented on February 28, 2015 at 2:04pm:

Can you tell us more?

Hi Andrea,  When I read your post I was very intrigued.  I wondered if you could explain more about the portfolio.  Is this something that you formatively evaluate as the course goes along and then students use the portfolio to syntheisize or analyze what they've learned?  or do they use it more as a archived set of evidence to prove they've mastered/learned different concepts.

I'm so hopeful you'll share more with us.

Patrick commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:03pm:

English

I think ALL grades are arbitrary and capricious. They have been used as tools for compliance and control for too long. No two teachers will necessarily grade any two students consistently over time unlike "blind" comparison might. Barnes is right - only student self analysis and evaluation is consistent - not to mention an incredibly important life skill to learn.

Bloolight commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:21pm:

Physics

When implemented carefully, standards based grading practices can solve a lot of the problems associated with traditional "point-accumulation" grading.  I broke my curriculum up into specific learning goals, each of which represents an entry in my gradebook.  Every time I assess them over a learning goal, I report the result on a 1-4 rubric scale reflecting on their current mastery level.  Every subsequent test over that goal replaces the old score, for better or worse.  I have multiple versions of every test which I can give, and each test takes about ten  minutes to complete and I grade them face-to-face at my desk.  If a student wants to be tested again, they can do so at any time without limit.  The score in the gradebook is always the most recent attempt. 

Because we have to create a single "average" grade, I end up giving each goal a multiplier to indicate how involved or important it is.  This multipilies the score by up to three times when the average is being calculated.  That way, the most important learning goal scores have the biggest impact on their grade. 

If you simply take a point-accumulation grade and slap it into a rubric-score mold, the result will be worse than useless.  Using rubric grading requires a massive change in instructional/testing philosophy.

Ruth Still commented on February 26, 2015 at 9:06pm:

Physics

Bloolight....

Thank you for joining the conversation!  I teach with Brianna and struggle with switching over to a non-traditional grading system.  Our elementary schools are graded on the standards based system and I often wanted to try to convert my physics grading over to the same method....but based on skills like you did.   I would love to discuss how you went about converting over to this system.  

 

Carl Draeger commented on March 1, 2015 at 12:00am:

Physics is phun!

I work with a Physics teacher who adopted standards-based grading 6 years ago. His students don't ask if they get points for their work and seem to get immense joy out of working the problems to better understand the physical world. Amazing transformation. Physics teachers, in my limited experience, seem to get this quicker than others. Thanks for being the change!

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on March 3, 2015 at 2:07pm:

Grading Contortions

Thanks for sharing your system here--It sounds like the focus of your classroom is truly on student mastery of skills and content. Your feedback is immediate, and you allow students to be successful at different paces. It's awesome!

I also agree that the way you provide your students with feedback requires a huge instructional shift from the traditional model of grading.

But my question is this: in the end, when you have to report a marking period grade to students and parents, are you required to do so within the 100 point system? If so, all your work may be providing valuable feedback for your students, but it is also contorting to still fit within that unfair, reductionist 100-point grading system.

Another question: how many teachers in your district grade this way? One of my struggles is that no matter what I decide, if our district and building continue to use the 100 point scale, my impact feels limited. Parents will receive mixed messages about what a "grade" in my book represents vs. a score in another teacher's room.

I believe that every school building should have a strong, strict, specific, and clear system of reporting student acheivement. As another commenter pointed out, an "A" in one class may look completely different than that same mark given from another teacher. The 100 point system is a terrible way to communicate learning to our communities. So no matter how we individual teachers manipulate the feedback loop within our rooms, the greater system still operates unfairly and parents are still not given consisten information about their students' learning.

Does that make sense?

gayle.shuler@jordandistrict.org commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:28pm:

Elementary Gifted Magnet Class

I love the idea of alternate grading systems because children learn and express themselves in so many different ways.  One caution is the use of only subjective assessments such as class discussions and certain performance assessments.  I have many times found my personal impression of a child's knowledge or ability to be far different than their "testable" a ability.  Often times I underestimate their knowledge.  I like to use a variety of assessments.  I love the idea of student created systems as a component of an existing system.  

gayle.shuler@jordandistrict.org commented on February 26, 2015 at 3:28pm:

Elementary Gifted Magnet Class

I love the idea of alternate grading systems because children learn and express themselves in so many different ways.  One caution is the use of only subjective assessments such as class discussions and certain performance assessments.  I have many times found my personal impression of a child's knowledge or ability to be far different than their "testable" a ability.  Often times I underestimate their knowledge.  I like to use a variety of assessments.  I love the idea of student created systems as a component of an existing system.  

Carole Lonneman commented on February 26, 2015 at 4:23pm:

Psychology

I am a counselor and I also taught psychology in high school. One year in the chapter on motivation we had a discussion about intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation. I think teachers agree that intrinsic motivation is the preferred motivation for lastly learning. I asked my students what they thought would happen if I didn't give any grades but corrected their work and added notes on the side. The class was divided. Students who found learning important for their future said they felt they would do better because they didn't have to worry about grades and could just learn the subject. Poorer students said that if I didn't give grades they wouldn't do anything. I think that is one of the difference that we often forget. I don't feel there is a perfect system, a one-size fits all.

Brianna Crowley Brianna Crowley commented on March 3, 2015 at 2:14pm:

Digging In

I'm so glad you thought to ask your students about this--I did as well, and will be publishing their answers tomorrow in my next post on grading. But I had results simiar to yours: mixed.

You stated

Students who found learning important for their future said they felt they would do better because they didn't have to worry about grades and could just learn the subject. Poorer students said that if I didn't give grades they wouldn't do anything.

This is a very interesting split and observation that you make, but I feel that it offers more questions than answers. Perhaps those students who "found learning important for their future" also had supports to make sure that tradition school environments offered them success. Perhaps they had modeling at home about what an education can bring in the way of lifestyle and opportunity. Perhaps "poorer" students had just given up on intrinsic motivation because compliance was the only thing they saw as an option. Rather than "accommodate" this split as you suggest, I would prefer to try to understand how to reach these "poor" students' intrinstic motivation--reignite the possibilities school could offer them. I may not be successful, but I don't think sticking with extrinsic, compliance-driven learning is the answer for lifting these students into greater opportunity for their future.

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