01 November 2007

Anecdotally Speaking

The purpose of my dissertation project is to collect some data around a possible connection between teacher grading practices and student motivation. I'm still a few months away from doing so, but am using my own classroom as a bit of a lab in the meantime. I've changed my grading policy and practices this year. It's been a good quarter and I've learned a lot.

This week, I sat down with each and every biology kid to talk about their quarter grade. We looked at their marks, especially those from summative assessments. As we talked, we wrote down three pieces of information about the student's work:
  • My strengths are...
  • I can improve by...
  • My quarter grade is ____ because...
I want to refine this tool a bit before the end of the semester, but I have to say that the conversations were very productive. Many kids were very reflective about what they had and hadn't accomplished. Not once did I hear a kid blame anyone or anything. "It's your fault because you never told me about..." or "I just don't get it." or "I'm not good at science." or any other such claims ever made an appearance. I think this is because we were focused on the work---not the individual. Without effort, participation, points taken off for late work, zeros, or averages, the conversation was honed in on what learning was there that we could see and talk about.

For those of you wondering how we converted the myriad of 1's, 2's, 3's, and 4's into letter grades, I can't tell you that there was a magic formula involved. There wasn't a straight and completely objective way to do that. Kids and I negotiated for a symbol that we thought meaningfully reflected their understanding of the information thus far. I know this sounds incredibly squishy---and for a lot of teachers out there, I would guess that it seems risky. Did kids take advantage? Did they all ask for A's? Nope. If anything, some felt their grades were inflated, because they could see 1's and 2's from early attempts at learning (although more recent grades were at standard). Some kids who ended up with D's said that it wasn't the grade they wanted, but agreed that it reflected their current understanding of the material. They know that they still have opportunities to show learning between now and the end of the semester and old grades can be tossed away. At the end of the day, though, every kid can explain why they have the grade they have...and I can show parents or administrators evidence from my gradebook to support the choices. What more could I ask for?

I know other teachers out there worry that they will be taken advantage of with an avalanche of "late work" or last minute test retakes. I have to tell you it ain't happening. Do I have some kids who are finally coming in to make up a test or quiz? Sure. Am I snowed under with paperwork? Hardly. And you want to know the best part? It's the kids who really need the one-on-one time for tutoring who are coming in. Those kids who typically should come in to get help, but don't because they're so discouraged about their grades, are making appointments to learn. Come on in, kids.

Finally, I have to say that the change to a standards-based policy has taken away an incredible amount of stress from my teaching life and freed up a lot of my evening and weekend time. I don't count up every tiny point. I don't mark papers with fractions or percentages. I don't fret over weighting assignments. I give as much feedback as a kid needs about their work, make some notes for myself about trends I'm seeing, and move on. My main question in mind as I look at student work is "Does the kid 'get it'?" I actually look forward to grading, believe it or not. I enjoy what I learn as I look at what kids have produced. Oddly enough, elementary teachers in this district are being provided enormous stipends the first year they switch to standards-based grading and reporting. A few hundred grand is being tossed out of the district budget for this---when, quite frankly, it's something that takes less time and effort to accomplish (and the district is going in the hole financially...hey, it's another symptom of the exceptionally poor union leadership...but I digress).

I found that kids this week were grateful to have the kinds of conversations we had, wondered if their other teachers would do this for them, and started to think about their goals as students. All of this makes me excited to think about what I might find when I actually do some "real" research in the spring. Anecdotally speaking, my kids and I are finding standards-based grading practices very motivating. In a few months, I hope that there will be some data to back this up.


Hugh O'Donnell said...

Very refreshing post, SG.

When I asked students to participate in evaluating themselves, I also found that, rather than take advantage of the opportunity, 99.9% were either on my wavelength or too hard on themselves.

And I also share your experience with the "late paper rush." It doesn't happen! :)

When grading fades into the background and ceases to be a threat to students, I believe achievement will soar, nationwide.

Hugh aka Repairman

The Science Goddess said...

My only "regret" is that I haven't discovered a more concrete kind of way to deal with reporting these grades. I think that if I did, more teachers would be willing to give things a go. It's that leap from a set of marks to a single grade that is frightening.

Mind you, my preference would be to change the reporting system, but I don't think it will ever happen at secondary---especially with us feeding transcripts into colleges.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Ah, the ever elusive search for the perfect representation of central tendency...we just do the best we can, and maybe target higher ed as we go along.

I think a question that universities in general need to ask themselves is whether or not they are in the education business or the sorting business.

I suppose I'm dreaming that we could even provoke a response to that question.

The Science Goddess said...

It's a two-way thing. Colleges and universities are doing lots and lots of remediation for students who are obviously not at entry-level standards.

Maybe if they insisted on some meaning behind the grades...and were willing to accept some different kinds of reporting, we could make some real change happen.

Keep on dreaming!