03 July 2005

The Power of None

I had a routine speech to give my junior high charges. It was about the impact of a "0" on their overall grade. Their grades were reported as percentages, so a missing grade was a bit more obvious than reporting things as letter grades. I'd talk to the kids about how many outstanding scores it took to "erase" the zero and bring an average up to an A. We'd look at that vs. turning in an assignment late for partial credit. Blah, blah, blah---which is how the kids heard it after I'd given this particular speech a few times. I rarely give this same talk to my high school charges, although they still seem to need it. They don't always understand the "power of none" on their scholastic careers.

"Fair" grading practices seems to be a topic that comes up more and more these days. Should students be allowed to turn in work...whenever? Does it matter when a kid masters a task, as long as they do? Is a 100-point grading scale fair? If not, what are the alternatives?

Some schools in Virginia are taking a look at some possible alternatives. After all, they've given the goose egg speech to their students just as I have with mine. Kids still don't absorb it like they should. And yet, perhaps it isn't completely their fault. Maybe the grading scale is slightly stacked against them. An A, B, C, or D has a 10-point scale. An F (or E) has a 59-point range. But does it make sense to give a kid who has not done an assignment a "50" vs. a "0"? What if teachers just recorded things as letter grades and averaged from there? Or perhaps the whole grading scale is moved down from 100 possible points to only 50. Maybe we just adopt a 4-point scale.

Here is an idea from Robert Marzano (probably a lot of you have read at least one of his books) that I think has some promise:

Look at a student's assignment. Then, apply the heuristic below in order to assign the grade. It's simple...makes marking and record-keeping a snap for teachers...and also allows students to easily graph their progress toward a certain standard.

Are there any major errors or omissions?

  1. If no, the student's score is at least a 3.0
  2. Can the student evaluate the task and/or his or her performance on the task (i.e. Can the student exhibit Level 4 behavior?)? If yes, the student's score is a 4.0.
  3. If yes, can the student perform a rough approximation of the task independently? Then the student's score is at least a 2.0.
  4. If the student does not meet the criteria in step 3, then can the student perform a rough approximation of the task with help? If so, then the student's score is at least a 1.0. If not, then the student's score is at least a 0.0.

It's simple, but it more or less gets at what we're trying to do with kids in terms of measuring progress. It also means that a missing assignment will not have as great of an overall impact on a student's average. It seems fair (to me). Adopting this and putting into practice is another matter, I realize. (By the way, more info about Marzano's approach can be found in Transforming Classroom Grading Practices, having a training at your school or if you're lucky enough, taking a short course at MCREL based on this.)

I'll be thinking more about all of this over the summer. I'd like to find a way to unburden my colleagues of grading...a way that is "fair" to both their students and them. A way that still holds kids accountable and helps teachers see in a moment whether or not a kid is going to be able to meet a particular standard. If anyone out there already has the answer, clue me in.


Rob said...

"Fair" grading practices seems to be a topic that comes up more and more these days.

Well, I don't see how fairness should enter into it. As long as all students are held to the same standards, nothing else should matter much.

I had an engineering prof in college who took the position that his tests should be demanding enough that the students fell across the whole spectrum, from 0 to 100. If anyone got a 0 or a 100, he reasoned, then he didn't have a good enough feel for their skills. He would then fair curve through the resulting scores that evened things out. Occasionally, the high score in the class would be 67 or some such. It was nerve racking, but we got used to hearing, "OK, you got a 48 and that's a B".

That prof had a warped sense of humor, too. At finals one Christmas, he started off by handing out Christmas cards to the whold class. The cards were all alike, with a picture of Santa's sleigh on the front. There was a small titter of relief that the test - which we knew was going to be murder - hadn't started yet. That became shock as we opened the cards to see, "1) The runners of the vehicle on the reverse side are subjected to 300,000 landing cycles in ...". It was an aerospace structures class and the test was all questions about the sleigh.

The real answer is this: life isn't fair. If those kids miss an assignment in some future job by just not bothering, they may well face something a lot more consequential than a bad grade.

Mr. McNamar said...

My district is heavily influenced by Marzano and O'Connor. I fault their logice in one major area--not turning in assginments or handing them in late. Simply judging their knowlege or ability to meet academic standards is not enough, and I don't feel Marzano or O'Connor address the importance of those academic and life skills like timeliness and responsibility.
I will have to grade on a standard scale for next year's 9th grade English class. Here in WASL land, in order to be at standard, a student needs to achieve 80% (a 3 on the 4 point scale) Everything below that is deemed not at standard.
So I am currently trying to create a system that represents not just the standard that the WASL holds but a way that is fair. For instance, by breaking down the four point scale into decimals, a teacher can achieve a percentage read out--most familiar to students and parents--while still showing the grade according to a standard.
A 3.6 and up equals the A range
A 3.2 to 3.5 equals the B range
A 2.8 to 3.1 eqauls the C range
A 2.4 to 2.7 equals the D range

This way, I can report on the standard, in the way the WASL does but still allow the student to pass the class without being at the WASL standard. This scale, at least in my mind, allows me to report in both ways, letting them know where they stack up in regards to the state test, and where they stack up in terms of reality.

The Science Goddess said...

I like that idea.

Actually, you both are getting at something that I think can't be excluded from student grades (while Stiggins and others think it can): accountability/consequence.

Rob is right, in the real world, you don't get partial credit just for showing up. To "train" kids to that idea is setting them up for certain failure once they leave our hallowed halls.

I have always had a penalty for work handed in late (and a point where an assignment is "too late"). I can't imagine not keeping that as part of the syllabus.