Friday, March 15, 2013

What's In a Grade?

I've been thinking a lot about grades the past couple of years--what they mean, what they are for, why we give them, and what they represent. And throughout this process of self-reflection, I have begun moving my classroom to a competency-based model. These are the issues I've struggled with most:

Taking points off for late work
It's a common practice for teachers to take 10 points off a day for late work. I hate late work. I am an English teacher and handling piles of paper is both a science and the bane of my existence. Late work interferes with everything and is one of my biggest pet peeves. I understand that urge to dock students for tardy work--and have even done it myself to "make a point."

But five years ago I had an 8th grade student who was a brilliant writer. His craft with language, form, and voice was impeccable. Yet, he was a terrible student. Everything was late--by at least 3 days, which meant, when I took 10 points off for every day his work was late, he had a C in my class.  But as he prepared for high school, the question as to whether he should be in an Honors class or not arose. I, of course, thought he was more than capable. But his report card said otherwise and the high school questioned the placement. This is when I started to wrestle with the idea of taking points off. This student had clearly mastered the material. He was an A learner; a C student.

We need to differentiate between learning and work habits.

Instead of taking points off, I have taken the advice of Rick Wormeli and have students call home during class when they show up without their work. Ultimately, it proves to be a much more effective technique than taking points off.

Taking points off for no names
No-name papers are an annoyance, as well. I have a portion of my ancient chalkboard called No Name Land where I hang un-named work, and I am amazed that papers will sit there for an entire trimester, unclaimed.  Even after the kids who have zeroes are told to go look at their work, they insist that absolutely nobody did it. It is a phenomenon that I simply cannot wrap my head around.

The other day my son came home with a paper of nautical terms that he had to know while he read The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle. He had every single term correctly labeled and spelled--he knew 100% of the material. Yet, the fifth grade boy that he is, he had not written his name on the paper. Now his grade is a 90%. So does that mean he only knows 90% of the material?

Again. We need to differentiate between learning and work habits.

Averaging grades
If my grades represent what a student knows, and my job is to help move a student to mastery of my subject, then I have to allow re-dos. Many teachers believe this, but many teachers average the grades together--and some will not allow students to get more than a 75% on the final average.

But if I have a student who is really wrestling with linking verbs, and he is working hard at mastering them, then when he finally does, shouldn't he get full credit for being a master? If you miss a shot in a basketball game, you still get full points for the ones you make after--you don't only earn 75% of them.

If a student shows she knows 100% of the material, she receives a 100%, no matter how many times it takes her.

Weighing homework heavily
Recently I was looking at a classroom's grading policy on its website. Homework was worth 25% of the overall class grade, while tests were worth 35%.

To go back to the sports analogy, the homework is the practice, the test is the game. You have to be accountable to show up for every practice, but if you don't, chances are, it will reflect on the game. During practice you should be able to take risks, try new things, make mistakes, and learn what works for you. This is what homework should be for students. It should be meaningful practice that moves them towards the success of the final, summative assessment, aka "the game." When we give too heavy a weight to this practice, we skew our final grades--they no longer measure what students know; they measure what students do.

I now weigh homework as 5%, classwork as 5%, test grades (& major pieces of writing) as 60%, and quizzes (or on-demand pieces of writing) as 30%.

In the end...
If I were in charge, I would not give letter grades at all because I want my students to come to class to learn and not to get grades, and I don't think the grades ever fully represent what a student knows (can I really defend the difference between an 89% and 90% on a piece of writing?). But the reality is that I cannot change that larger system today, and for the time being, I must enter weekly grades on a traditional 0-100 point-based computer system. And while I further wish that I could move to standards-based grading, the other reality is that the rest of my school is not ready to take on that philosophical conversation. So that has left me in the confines that many teachers find themselves--having to follow school policies while also ensuring that their practice stays true to their philosophy.

Homework should be completed. Work should be turned in on time. Names should be on papers. It isn't about making things easier for students or making excuses for them. Somewhere on a report card (we have an effort grade on ours), students should be held accountable for their scholarly habits--these skills are important to teach as well.

But in the end, I truly believe that we need to keep two beliefs in mind every time we sit down to design our classroom policies:

1. Using grades to punish student habits does not create accurate data. 
2. If we must give grades, they must represent what students KNOW, not what they DO.

What do you think about your grading policies and the confines you must work in? Has your district adopted a standards-based or competency based grading system? Do you work for a school that does not give grades? What struggles do you have with grading?

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