I had an administrator ask me last week how I was able to make such dramatic changes in my grading practices. The question came from someone who is wanting to guide these sorts of changes in her own staff---and, perhaps, has already tried. It's one thing to understand that change can be painfully slow. It's quite another to be faced with staff who don't change at all. She was looking for a catalyst. Maybe in listening to my own story she would find a nugget to use with others. I don't think that I was of great help, but the question has made for some nice reflection.
In terms of grading, what I said was that until a few years ago, I wasn't even aware that there were alternatives. I only had one kind of system used with me during my own schooling. Grading was not something that was discussed during my teacher education courses. And I have yet to have any formal professional development offered to me regarding grading practices. We talk about instruction a lot. We even talk about assessment. Evaluation, however, never seems to come up. I suppose that sounds silly---never to even question the way grading is done. Bertrand Russell said that "In all affairs, it's a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted." While I can be certainly be accused of having some sense of intellectual curiosity about teaching...I never did about grading. How many experienced teachers would say the same, I wonder?
I told the administrator that when I did have the opportunity to do some reading, thinking, and chatting with colleagues, what I found was that these practices were a good match for my own philosophy about the classroom---that what happens there should be about kids. I was a traditional grader for most of my career, but to her, it appeared that this was something that was always part of my teaching life. I think this was because best practices in grading are so congruent with what I believe about education. When I finally stumbled upon them, the only intelligent response was "Duh."
The level of cognitive dissonance around grading practices is jet engine in scale for most teachers. It is too noisy to comprehend. I've seen several who take a look at things and can't talk about it for awhile...and still others who understand what they should do, but can't take that final plunge. They inch toward the edge, making small changes as they go---no more zeros, only considering summative information, and so on. But the full meal deal is too frightening a prospect for them. I don't have an answer for this. Maybe it's okay to go with small changes. Or perhaps we as professionals need to shout "Cannonball!" and just dive into the deep end, pulling our colleagues along with us.
In the end, I didn't know to how to steer the administrator. On one hand, I think she is well within her rights to insist that best practices be used---as long as she is willing to support that with intensive professional development and other help. I don't want to go to a doctor or other professional who justifies doing something the same way as was done 100 years ago for no other reason than "That's how I've always done it." I think our children at all grade levels deserve evaluation of their learning based on a reason better than "That's how my work was graded when I was in school." Using best practices doesn't devalue a teacher's professional judgment---that is still going to be a large part of evaluation. Instead, we can be assured that we are doing the right thing for our students. Jump on in, teachers and admins, to the standards-based grading pool. Take off the water wings. I know you can swim.