12 July 2010

Trying Times These Are

Yoda by Orange_Beard CC-BY
One of the most common points of discussion I have when I'm talking grading with teachers is "effort." Both teachers and students like the idea of putting a price on the perception of trying. Some even go so far as to equate effort with learning. (If a student "tries hard," but can't demonstrate any learning, then they still get some points.) I hear this refrain most often in reference to SPED and ELL students. "Gosh, they just tried so hard."

I understand the desire to reward effort. We want to be supportive of kids and coach them along. Work ethic is something we value. I also advocate for embracing subjectivity in grading. And yet, I think we are making a real mistake in including effort in the mix.

I can think of numerous times in the classroom where I had a student tell me that they should get an "A" on a project because they tried really hard. From the demonstration of learning I saw (i.e. poor quality work), I usually disagreed on both counts of trying hard and earning an A. As I think about those times now, what I realize is that we is that we had a major communication issue: We had no common definition of "trying hard." To a teen, procrastinating until 1 a.m. and then staying up the rest of the night to complete a project that had a month long timeline represented a diligent work ethic. Furthermore, they wanted that recognized by the grade---not the content of the actual project. I saw things differently. I didn't think waiting until the last possible moment and getting no sleep represented a disciplined approach to one's work. And while I might not have directly given a grade for that, the low quality work that resulted from such an ethic was reflected in the score.

There are relatively simple fixes for something like this. More specific communication and agreement about what the grade for learning represents, as well as a separate score for work ethic, would be a good start. Believe it or not, I have seen a decent attempt at a rubric for work completion. As long as you don't mix the scores during reporting, it's all good.

But this doesn't solve the "pity grade" issue---the one created when teachers are the ones who want to trade credit for trying as a replacement for meeting standards. If you have students who are eligible for modified grades (SPED, G/T), then you have some options. This doesn't help in the area of science, however, as there is no such thing as an exception for that subject area. According to the feds, everyone can learn grade level science. I don't know that I have a good answer for the kid who doesn't qualify for special services of any sort, stays engaged in class, comes in for extra help, gets tutoring---and still can't meet the standards. The sad fact is that "trying" does not equal "learning." I'll bet none of us wants to depend on a physician who got through med school by trying hard. If you're sick, you want the most knowledgeable person about treatment that you can find. So what do we do with kids who "try hard" according to both their and our measures? 
  • Report progress whenever possible. Maybe the kid isn't at standard yet, but capture and share whatever growth you can. 
  • Report work ethic---not as part of the grade, but as one of your observations of the student.

I used to tell my students that my classroom was a place where equal meant that everyone had to get to the same minimum point (the standards), but fair was up to the individual. There were trying times for all of us along the way, but perhaps there will be better solutions in the future.


    Hugh O'Donnell said...

    Good job capturing the conflict.

    Although the ideal would be to report (from Guskey) product, process, and progress, we're often limited by reporting options/software.

    In Hillsboro, after having adopted a standards-based grading policy, we will be reporting on product (assessments "of a summative nature"), and putting process and progress in the comment section.

    We are working toward being able to report all three adequately.

    And as you say, a well-drawn set of grading guidelines and a frequent clarifying conversations with students and parents will mitigate the angst caused by differing grading expectations.

    Ms Characterized said...

    I see this all the time in my classes. My honors or AP kids think that making it into an advanced class is the big achievement, and that the A's that follow are both inevitable as they are abundant. They think that getting into a college is the same thing as graduating from there. They think that getting married is the same thing as staying married. They're young.

    While I certainly don't assign and assess specifically to disabuse them of the notion that being in my class is the same as having an A in my class, that awakening is often a byproduct of the process. For some it's truly painful.

    I try to tell them what A work looks like, and what the process of A work looks like -- I'm thinking of asking some of my recent students to describe it so that I can post or read those to my students. I've shared my own experiences with lucky, last-minute A's, and with the habits that caught up with me sooner or later (the not-so-lucky D-). But I think I need to tell them more often, or better.

    I've posted about this frustration myself. I don't want the heart surgeon, pilot, or contractor whose sole virtue is that s/he "tried hard." Do they want to be taught by someone who tries hard, or who knows the material and can guide her students through learning? They usually pick the latter, even though there are jokes that the former wouldn't make them write so many essays or be so picky about details.

    I try to work in a process score on some long-term assignments, but I need to improve my rubrics (or make some, in some cases). But the advice you give for SPED or other students on IEPs, etc. is just as good for regular or honors students as well. Report progress. Communicate better.