The 5 W’s and an H of grading — Part 2 What, When, and Where

What are the criteria we use to grade students?

  1. Mastery of content
  2. Good study habits and organizational skills
  3. Classroom behavior unrelated to academics

Starting with #3:  I used to have a behavior/extra credit/participation grade in which students were awarded 10 point per 9 weeks. They all started out with 10/10 points and then would lose points for being tardy or for excessive talking (off topic). With SBG, I dropped that grade because I wanted grades to reflect only mastery of content.  Unfortunately, now I have no incentive for discouraging tardies, because we are all expected to deal with tardies within our own classrooms.  So I understand why teachers include behavior as part of their classroom grade.  It is hard not to.

#2:  I think that when we teachers intend to measure mastery of content we are really grading how well students know how to “play the school game”.  Well-organized students with planners and neat notebooks full of resources, who turn their homework in on time and are prepared for tests, of course tend to get better grades.  Teachers often assume that those students also work harder and care more about their academic success than the students who lose their homework, don’t follow directions, and forget that the test is today.  But that is not necessarily true.  Disorganized students usually care very much and are very frustrated by their own disorganization.  Such students might work hard on an assignment and then not remember where they put it or study hard for a test, but study the wrong things.  Or maybe they want to study but lose their notes or leave their textbook at school.  Giving second chances and multiple ways to demonstrate knowledge and skills helps these students to truly demonstrate what they know. I agree that life skills such as responsibility, organizational skills, and punctuality are important, but if we claim to be grading mastery of content, then our grading system should not punish a kid just for being more disorganized or less mature than another student.

#3:  Accurately measuring mastery of content is an art, one that I have yet to master.  It is fairly easy to measure skills and even conceptual understanding, but I need to work on how to measure creative thinking and problem solving.

When should we grade?

 If we want to grade mastery of content, then when we grade is very important.  We should grade in the formative sense as often as possible, with immediate feedback, so students do not reinforce bad habits.  I need to do more of this.  Students who want to learn always are eager to know if their answers are correct.  Hopefully I can help all of my students to develop that eagerness.

We should grade in the summative sense when students clearly understand what the standards are and how we expect them to be able to demonstrate their knowledge, and after they have had adequate time to practice.   This is a nice ideal but hard to achieve with limited time and a diverse group of students who learn at different rates.  Once again, it is important to give specific feedback and to allow students a chance to improve and retest.

Also, we should grade and return all work and assessments as soon as possible.  Feedback is most helpful when the work is fresh in the students’ minds.

Where should we grade?

 I mentioned in my previous post that I like to grade in my comfy chair at home with a hot cup of tea.  Also, if you are like me, you have graded papers almost everywhere and probably have a red pen in your car or purse.  However, I did have a more insightful thought.  Grading in class in front of students can be really helpful.  This could be done with sample student work, with anonymous answers collected from the class, or one-on-one with students.  Being able to discuss what work is good, what needs to be improved, what I am looking for when I grade, what common mistakes are, etc., is really helpful to students.  Grading can also could be done with video or by email to give students more personalized feedback.

The 5 W’s and an H of grading Part 1- Who?

Having just completed my first semester of Standards Based Grading (SBG), I have been doing a great deal of reflecting about what worked and didn’t work and also just thinking about the whole process of grading in general.  I have come up with more questions than answers.  But that is how we learn, right?  So I am going to write down my questions and my reflections and invite feedback from my wonderful colleagues out there in the MBToS.  After a brain wave I got while lying in bed this morning (I love sleeping in!) I decided to frame my thoughts using the traditional Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How questions.

Who is most responsible for the grade that is earned, the student or the teacher? (You may be surprised. Or not.)

What criteria should be used to determine the student’s grade? (A big debate is always raging about this one.)

When should grades be given? (Another very interesting question.)

Where does grading take place?  (For me, preferably in my comfy chair at home with a cup of hot tea and maybe a familiar movie playing in the background to keep me awake. Smile. . . . Actually, there may be more to this question.  Stay tuned.)

Why do we give students grades?   (O0-00, this should be a good one.)

How do I implement what I consider to be best practices in grading?  (Ay, there’s the rub.)

This post (and hopefully I will have time to go through all of these) will concentrate on Who.  Who is responsible for the grade that is earned?

All teachers with any sense realize that both the student and the teacher contribute to the grade, but we like to think, especially as math teachers, that our grading system is a reasonably objective reflection of what students actually know–their mastery of the standards of our class.  Ideally, if a student is willing to put in the time and effort, he should be able to master the standards and earn a good grade.  I switched to SBG this year in part because my previous system of grading was flawed in this area and I wanted something better.  However, who sets the standards? The teacher (OK, the state and the district and the school, too, but certainly not the student).  Who is responsible for creating or procuring lessons, resources, and practice activities to help students master the standards?  The teacher.  Who decides how to measure the mastery of those standards? The teacher.  What I choose to measure and how and when I choose to measure it, along with how well I teach, has a huge effect on student grades.

And how objective am I in my assessments?  I have trouble being totally consistent from student to student on a single quiz, so how consistent am I from unit to unit or from year to year?  I know that I cover fewer topics and different topics than I did 10 years ago or even 5 years ago and I wonder if I am grading more strictly or more leniently from year to year.  Does an A in my class vary from year to year?  Do I sometimes give the benefit of the doubt to my good students but not to my poor students when deciding between two grades?  I will not answer those questions because I know the answer.  Guilty as charged.

We all know those extremists in the teaching profession:

  • The teachers who never give A’s and who delight in failing everybody, nobly clinging to their “high standards” while their colleagues “slide down the slippery slopes of academic mediocrity”.  Any failure on the student’s part is solely blamed on the student, of course.
  • The teachers who ensure the “success” of their students by giving generous test curves and copious amounts of extra credit, giving high grades for learning almost nothing.  (There are various reasons for this behavior:  Feeling sorry for the students, lack of time or effort to fix the real problem, compensating or covering up for inept teaching or grading practices, and/or bowing to administrative or parental pressure to bring up grades are the ones that occur to me.)

Although I am not either of these, I have sometimes leaned one way and sometimes the other in my grading mentality, even compensating for one by doing the other.  (Am I the only one?  I think not.)

The point I am trying to make in all of this rambling reflection is that not matter how hard we try to be objective, assigning grades is very subjective.  I wish–oh, do I wish–that I could just teach without giving grades.  (Am I the only one?  I think not.)

What brought on all of this agonizing self-reflection, you ask?  My final exam.  After a semester of SBG quizzes with multiple chances to retake, I gave a cumulative, mostly multiple-choice final exam with no retake, worth 20% of the semester grade.  My reasons for giving a one shot cumulative final:  College-bound juniors and seniors need to learn how to take these types of tests, students review and relearn material they would otherwise completely forget while studying for the final, part of mastery is retaining material and being able to recall more than a few isolated skills at a time.  I stand by these reasons for giving the test.  I even had several students finally figure out some concepts for the first time while reviewing for the final.  My reason for the 20%?  I wanted it to affect their grade.  An A student who couldn’t get at least a B- on the final was not an A student in my mind.  Yet 20% allowed a student to get even a low F without lowering their grade more than one letter grade, so it wouldn’t destroy all of their hard work over the semester.  I have always had a wide spread of grades on the final, from perfect scores all the way down to the 30% range.  But I didn’t expect the grades I got this year.  After a semester of SBG, with multiple retakes, I anticipated a higher level of mastery than previous years.  Instead, I got 6 A’s, 19 B’s, 3 C’s, 4 D’s, and 22 F’s.  I believe that my test and my grading of it was comparable to previous years.  I have always had more low grades on the final than on other tests, but the number of F’s and the huge gap between the A’s and B’s (about half my students) and the C’s , D’s, and F’s was more pronounced.  I know that some of the F’s were due lack of study and effort.  I also anticipated F’s from some students who had struggled all year long.  But it doesn’t seem that allowing multiple retakes on concepts all year really helped my lower students retain concepts any better than they did before SBG.  However, the almost total absence of C’s indicates that my average students did seem to benefit and achieve higher mastery then previously (I think).

I know that grading policies are only part of teaching, but how did my grading policies affect student learning?  I’m not sure.  I was definitely hoping for better results.  Everybody ended up passing the class (without any tweaking on my part) and I only had a few D’s, but 14 of my 54 students had lower grades (1/2 to 1 letter grade lower) as a result of failing the exam.  It seems a fair assessment of their mastery (retaining concepts), but perhaps is also an indictment of my teaching and grading methods.  I’d love to know what you think.