24 September 2006

The A's, B's, and C's of Grades

Every once in awhile, I think about the students I had during my first few years of teaching...and I feel sorry for them. I did the best I could, but I now know so much more about learning, classroom management, reading strategies, and more. Even in my 16th year, I am still feeling the urge of a paradigm shift coming on. This time, it's about grading.

I wrote about the inertia of secondary ed a couple of weeks ago. I was specifically motivated about the change in our elementaries to a standards-based reporting system and how that would never happen at the secondary level because the teachers would revolt. I think that's only part of the story. The other part is simply that colleges, universities, and employers are looking for more traditional marks. I could put parents in there, but we're not finding that to be the case here. There just aren't the same hurdles for elementary because the information that's generated there is used differently from secondary ed.

Let's face it, grades are not going to go away. The shift---if and when it comes for secondary---is really going to be about how we structure grades in the classroom. Most teachers use a rewards based sort of system. Grades can be a punishment and there may be a great deal of subjectivity, even with a rubric. But what happens if the system becomes more about credit for what is done (rather than taking away for what is not)? What if teachers were to use a blend of the current system with a standards-based portfolio where students get to choose the assignments they want included for the overall grade?

I keep ruminating about these things. It is this sort of idea that will likely drive me back into the classroom---because I do want to put it into practice. In the meantime, it does bring up questions for me about how to talk about this with other secondary teachers. I think the newbies I work with would have a good time talking about some case studies...but I can think of few other touchier subjects for seasoned veterans than how they set up their gradebooks. I'm not interested in proclaiming I have the answers, mind you, but I don't know how many of the teachers I work with are willing to consider any conversation around these ideas.

I am doing a bit of reading. Some of our elementaries have been knee-deep in Ken O'Connor's How to Grade for Learning and I am psyched about joining a lit circle at one of the schools to talk about this book. It's not a book specifically geared for use with elementary grades, it just hasn't trickled up in my district. I have also been looking at Overcoming Student Failure: Changing Motives and Incentives for Learning. This book does take a more secondary focus and has some great things to say about changing the grading dynamic and how to do this.

I don't know where all of this will lead at this point. I don't think my own paradigm shift is done...shifting...but I'm appreciating the chance to learn and think at this point in my career. Maybe this old dog has a few tricks left to learn.


Anonymous said...

We teach a mandatory two-semester applied math course for all majors (enrollment combined around 2500 students per semester). We have MBA students teaching sections, none of whom have any teaching experience (or interest in teaching). In addition to producing a packet of daily step-by-step lesson plans (for the clueless MBAs), we also had to ensure that grading was absolutely fair, and an accurate assessment of what students had learned.

Students are graded solely on projects, and four exams (a midterm and final practical exam, and a written midterm and final). All exams and projects are graded by program. We use a strict point-based grading system. There are 1000 points possible, and if you get 899 points, you get a B+, no curve, no extra points.

There is not a single point that is subjective. There are no participation points, no discussion points, no attendence points. Instructors have absolutely no power to affect a student's grade. Every student is graded in exactly the same way, and wholly on performance.

A grade is an assessment of what a student has learned, or that's what it's supposed to be. Grades have become far too subjective and meaningless -- which is why we pay next to no attention to high school GPAs and look at SATs instead. We certainly would never allow a student to "pick" what he wanted to be graded. That perverts the whole purpose of the grade: Assessment.

Mrs. Bluebird said...

I teach in a middle school (newly labeled Title I) and this is a topic that our Leadership Committee is currently looking into. To make it even more confusing, more and more states (like mine) are implementing college scholarships for A & B High School students (complete with a new state issued grading scale). The potential for abuse and unfairness is frightening. Keep us posted on what you come up with!