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The Thing About Grades

BLOGIt’s that time of year – grades are due.  As we scramble to get our grading done, I thought it would be a good time to tackle this issue which really has so many dimensions to it that you could write a book about it, and in fact some people have – here are some I would recommend:

  • Transforming Classroom Grading by Robert Marzano
  • Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading by Thomas Guskey
  • Fair Isn’t Always Equal:  Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom by Rick Wormeli
  • Elements of Grading:  A Guide to Effective Practice by Douglas Reeves

(also  the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership is devoted to Effective Grading Practices)

When we started PFFS we knew that we wanted to do grades differently, we wanted to try to change student focus from grades to learning and we wanted to make sure that our report cards more accurately depicted the student as a learner in all her many dimensions.

I formally taught in a large comprehensive high school in which most of my students were highly motivated by grades.  I was dismayed at how often students’ first questions about a project would be about the grades – how many points, what would be the bare minimum needed to receive an A (or to pass) – rather than wondering about the specifics of the learning involved.  This focus on grades is rampant in schools across the country and its not really students’ fault.  We have created a system in which we practically train students to have this mentality.  Alfie Kohn writes often and persuasively about the negative impact some of our policies and structures have on a student’s intrinsic desire to learn.

So we have tried very hard to have the dialogue around student work to be first and foremost about the learning involved and then about their level of proficiency demonstrated.  There are many ways we work to do this, but one strategy was to do away with the single “omnibus” grade and instead to use a standards-based, narrative report card.

Our standards-based narrative report cards give teachers the opportunity to share specific strengths and challenges and describe extenuating circumstances and a prescription for growth.

More or less they look like this (H=Highly Proficient, P=Proficient, N=Near Proficient, U=Underperforming)

 

Know and Able to Do

Demonstration and Evaluation

What is Science?

Scientific Inquiry & History of Science

P

Projects, Labs, & AssessmentsX has done a great job on her projects this trimester.  She works great with her partners and really elevates their work ethic and final product.  Her African American Scientist project was well researched but needs to have more confidence when speaking and explain her info a bit better. 

Homework  – P

For the most part X has done a good job of turning in her homework on time and complete.  There are a few times when she loses her materials and things don’t get turned in though.

 

Classwork & Participation – P+

X has been an ideal student this past trimester.  She is enthusiastic, participates in class discussions, and is always willing to work.  Aside from the times she misplaces her materials, X does a good job of getting her work done and doing proficient work.

  • Research information and select appropriate resources
  • Perform measurements using appropriate scientific tools
  • Keep a record of observations, notes, sketches, questions, and ideas
  • Identify contributions to scientific knowledge
Unit Projects: 

 

  • African American Scientist/Inventor Research

N+

  • Mineral Identification Lab & Questions

P+

Layers of the Earth & Plate Tectonics

Describe how different layers of the earth affect each other

P+

  • Describe the properties and composition of the major layers of the earth.
  • Describe changes over geologic time
  • Analyze lithospheric plate movement – explain convection
  • Relate plate boundary movements to resulting landforms
Unit Projects: 
  • Continental Drift, Seafloor Spreading, Plate Tectonics presentations

 

P

  • TEST

H

Rocks & Minerals

P+

  • Explain the rock cycle.
  • Distinguish rocks, describe processes of formation
  • Classify rocks & minerals based on properties
  • Describe processes that form Earth’s structure
  • Analyze environmental risks caused by human interactions & possible solutions

 

Unit Projects: 

 

  • Mineral Properties & Identification Quiz

H

  • Weathering, Erosion,  Deposition Scavenger Hunt

P+

Student Self Evaluation

Teacher Evaluation

  Homework CompletionIn-Class WorkPrepared to Learn

Effort

Encouraging to Peers

Attitude Towards Science

  1    2    3    4    51    2    3    4    51    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

  Homework CompletionIn-Class WorkPrepared to Learn

Effort

Encouraging to Peers

Attitude Towards Science

  1    2    3    4    51    2    3    4    51    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

1    2    3    4    5

 This provides students and their families with so much more information about what our kids know and can do.  At first and at times our teachers longingly think/reminisce about single grades – which are much less work and can seem more precise.  Who can argue that a student with an 86.3% should receive a B.  However, the precision is misleading.

To give you an example, a B grade could mean any of these:

  • Child consistently does good, but not great work
  • Child has strong mastery of content, but written work is poor
  • Child consistently does “A” quality work, but missed a week of school and failed to make up those assignments
  • Child’s work is not quite at grade level, but she is a teacher pleaser – participating in class, helping out classmates and doing extra credit for points
  • Child consistently does “A” quality work but forgot to turn in a major assignment on time so he only got 50% credit for his work
  • Child nailed the statistics unit, but bombed linear equations
  • Child did all in class work at high levels, but never turned in homework

So even if you could say with absolute confidence Johnny is a 86.3%– it isn’t really clear at all what that means (not to mention the subjectivity that is inherent in so much of grading that goes into that percentage – even with well written, clear rubrics).

Finally, there is the issue of the impact that grades have on students.   “No research supports the idea that low grades prompt students to work harder.  More often, low grades prompt students to withdraw from learning.  To protect their self-images, many students regard the low grade as irrelevant or meaningless.  Others may blame themselves for the low grade but feel helpless to improve (Education Leadership, Nov. ’11, 18)

While of course we set out to have these be accurate depictions of our students’ achievement, for a student who is experiencing a substantial amount of failure, we can frame the information in a way that will give him/her hope or motivation to improve rather than reinforce predestined defeat which is the message given to so many students who receive a long list of ‘Fs’ (Think about it – what would be your attitude towards an institution in which you were repeatedly labeled a failure?)

At the same time that experts are promoting a different format for grades, institutional forces straightjacket schools into keeping the old system.  Even after getting our teachers to fully buy into and understand this new system (and it is a never-ending job because training must happen each year for any new staff), we find ourselves being pulled back into the old system by outside forces.  For example, any of our students who apply for the selective University High need to have us translate our narratives into a single GPA.  The state of Arizona, in its attempt to try to track teacher effectiveness by linking standardized test scores and classroom grades, requires each class to have an omnibus grade.

Additionally most grading software promotes percentage averaging or point accumulation.   Grading is already the most onerous part of teaching (only teachers can fully appreciate the dread accompanying a large stack of untouched papers on Sunday afternoon), so any product that facilitates the process is hugely appreciated.  However, there is a disconnect – not insurmountable but challenging nonetheless – between the way these programs are set up and they way we have developed our standards-based narratives.

So grades will likely always be an ongoing struggle for us, but we continue to work hard to try to make them matter.  For any parents reading this blog, we hope you take the time to really read your young person’s narrative and discuss with them their strengths and stretches, so that the grades themselves become a learning process.

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