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.