27 February 2009

Back to Grading

While I have been in absentia, various articles about grading practices have been making their way to my inbox and RSS aggregator. Some of you sent along the link for an article in the New York Times concerning Students Expectations Seen as Cause of Grade Disputes. Interestingly enough, the piece draws from a study I blogged about at the end of December in terms of What It Means to Make the Effort. I do find it interesting that the college reps interviewed by the NYT seem to be pointing fingers at K-12 education (while the original study cited parents who make normative comparisons as the major factor). I doubt that colleges should be excused from the blame game here.

At Vanderbilt, there is an emphasis on what Dean Hogge calls “the locus of control.” The goal is to put the academic burden on the student.

“Instead of getting an A, they make an A,” he said. “Similarly, if they make a lesser grade, it is not the teacher’s fault. Attributing the outcome of a failure to someone else is a common problem.”

Additionally, Dean Hogge said, “professors often try to outline the ‘rules of the game’ in their syllabi,” in an effort to curb haggling over grades.

Professor Brower said professors at Wisconsin emphasized that students must “read for knowledge and write with the goal of exploring ideas.”

This informal mission statement, along with special seminars for freshmen, is intended to help “re-teach students about what education is.”
Hmmmm....perhaps the rules of the game are leading to the haggling in the first place? Perhaps colleges should rethink their grading practices and make them in line with the mission of education? I wonder if profs at Wisconsin value reading for knowledge and writing with the goal of exploring ideas enough to not grade those behaviors? I don't care what age or ability level a teacher is targeting, if you set up the policies such that performance is valued over learning, then that is what you will get.

Meanwhile, on-line grade reporting is rearing its ugly head again. A web-based system for communicating with parents and students about course progress would seem like a desirable item. The more I travel and talk to teachers, however, the more I find that it is not of benefit because the inflexibility of the software. Teachers would like to report incomplete assignments, revise categories to reflect standards, and hide averages. Instead, they are stuck with tools that inaccurately represent student achievement and are forced by districts to use them. Now, Education Week reports "A number of Maryland schools in the D.C. suburbs and beyond are installing online grading systems so students and their parents know exactly what their test scores and grades are almost instantaneously. But parents and school officials acknowledge monitoring the daily e-mails and fluctuations can be addictive and obsessive even as it prevents surprises and offers help for failing students before it's too late." The article goes on to mention what amounts to point-whoring on the part of both parents and students---the value of the decimal over the learning. What a world of difference vendors could make if they just had an option to hide the average grade and just show scores on assignments (and incomplete work).

I also think that we have to get away from viewing grades along a bell curve. If our goal is for every child to learn and meet standard...shouldn't be okay if all of them pass a class? I'd think that worthy of celebration. Arkansas lawmakers, however, do not. Or perhaps they're just a bit mixed up on the whole idea.
Lawmakers working on a bill creating lottery-funded scholarships said Thursday they're considering easing a restriction that would exclude students who graduate from schools that have been cited by the state for grade inflation.

Draft legislation releaed this week said the lottery-funded scholarship program would exclude students who graduate from high schools cited by the Education Department as schools where 20 percent or more of the students receive a grade of "B'' or higher but did not pass the end-of-course assessment on first attempt. The students, however, would be eligible if they scored at least 19 on the ACT.

Or maybe I'm the one who is mixed up here. Let me see if I am understanding this correctly. Legislators are going to punish kids because schools didn't have curriculum/instruction/assessments that aligned with state standards and therefore the course outcomes and end-of-course assessment scores didn't match...and we're going to call this "grade inflation"?

I worry about the possibility of end-of-course exams for science in Washington. This is partly due to all of the unanswered questions about what happens when course grades and end-of-course test scores don't line up. I don't expect scholarship questions to come up as much as course credit. Does a student who can meet standard on the test (but doesn't pass the class) get credit? What about those who ace the class and can't pass the test? A few years ago when I ran a summer program for high school kids who needed some supplementary test prep, I remember a particularly angry parent who called me. She was made because her daughter had an "A" on her report card for her English class...and the girl's score on the state test was abysmal. Mom wanted to know how that could happen. The suggestion that the teacher was perhaps not addressing the standards did not go over well with the parent---and for good reason. With mandated end-of-course exams, I wonder how many phone calls just like that one will be headed in the direction of schools?

I hope you all had a good week. Now that I'm back and have caught up at work, I hope to get caught up in this space, too. Hang in there!


Jonathan M. Pratt said...

I read the NYT article with great interest when it came out - and was reminded, as you point out, of your post a few months back on the same topic. But the blame game is not productive at any level; the key is to work with the students we have in the best way that we can. Everyone in a student's past is "to blame" for their current skills and attitudes. And both are important - I'm increasingly convinced that performance evaluation is valuable and does belong in the grading mix. I think the learning v. performance grading issue is a false dichotomy - though different, they are both important. It's difficult to determine how to find a good balance between the two, but picking one and excluding the other doesn't seem like the right choice to make.

On a related note - I'm very interested in any reference pointers you could offer to current research on the effectiveness of Achievement Goal Theory.

Dr Pezz said...

"Does a student who can meet standard on the test (but doesn't pass the class) get credit? What about those who ace the class and can't pass the test?"

This is exactly my fear with these end of course exams, especially since a class can go into so much more depth than a single measure of a student's learning.

Roger Sweeny said...

FWIW, in MA we now have a state science exam (given in 4 flavors: physics, biology, chemistry, and technology). You need to pass one to get a state approved diploma and the exams are given in late May.

So students take the exam for the subject they are taking that year. If they pass the course but fail the exam, the school can (and generally does) give credit for the course and pass the student to the next level. The student will then take a different state science exam the next year corresponding to the course he or she is taking at the time.

Passing the test and failing the course discharges the student's state obligation but he or she will not get school credit for the course.

At the present time, the passing grade for the state exam has been set so low that any decent school doesn't have much to worry much about with the "passed the course, failed the state exam" situation.

The Science Goddess said...

Jonathan---There may well be room for both mastery and performance based on outcomes and application. Also, kids are going to have a personal orientation to one or the other. But we can't have our cake and eat it, too, in the sense that if we say we value learning, then our practices need to reflect that (as opposed to grades). I'll send you my bibliography I'm using for my dissertation---you can pick through that to see if there's any Achievement Goal info that sticks out to you.

Dr. Pezz---In my mind, passing the test but not the course shouldn't mean the kid gets a revised course grade. I do wonder how many parents might push for that, not understanding the test is a sample of standards (and a "floor" performance) while a class would (likely) have more standards and allow for a "ceiling" performance from students.

Roger---Looks like our state school board will be required by the Leg. to study EoC exams and make a recommendation by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what they do with information from MA.