Assessment for Learning
A blog for busy K-16 educators where we share ideas, strategies, and best assessment practices
that move the learning forward.
Cathy Box, PhD
that move the learning forward.
Cathy Box, PhD
What's in a Grade?
In 1897 Mount Holyoke University established the following grading scale: A Excellent (95-100), B Good (85-94), C Fair (76-84), D Passed (75), E Failed (Below 75). Look familiar? It should. Many K-12 schools still cling to a system very similar to this one that was established over 100 years ago for colleges and universities. Standardization in U.S. schools began during the rise of the industrial revolution and has continued to this day.
In my last post I broached the subject of grades. Ouch. For some reason this topic gets teachers and the general public riled up more than many issues in education. But teachers, I must ask you - has this ever happened to you? A student is passing your class with flying colors but the district assessment or state standardized test rolls around and your student fails? Or how about the opposite? They fail your class but pass district or state tests, demonstrating knowledge and mastery of the content. What's going on? Is there a disconnect between their grade in your class and what they really know and can do? It is surely something worthy of our consideration as we try to figure out what's going on here.
For those of you who are not familiar with a typical grading system in many U.S. classrooms, often grades are used as a behavioral blunt force instrument…points are deducted for various and sundry reasons, ie, not putting their name on the paper, messiness, wrong heading, misbehavior or inattention during the activity, or turning in late work (typically if it's one day late -10, two days late -20, three days late -30, more than three days they receive a zero). Conversely we give extra credit or bonus points for bringing supplies, returning permission slips, participation, or one of my favorites - a principal required me to give a daily grade of 100 in my science class for all students who were "dressed for success" that day. Seriously? Over time we have inextricably mixed learning outcomes with behavior outcomes. A messy proposition especially in this era of high-takes testing and accountability.
One of my favorite stories about the frustration with our grading system came from a friend whose first grade daughter was failing math. He wanted to help her with the concepts that she was having trouble with so he spoke to her teacher. The teacher encouraged him not to fret - his daughter was really good at math - the best in her class in fact. But there were two homework papers she hadn't turned in, hence the failing grade. First grade. It's an epidemic.
So I confess, when I began my career as a high school science teacher, I used grades to control behavior, strictly enforcing a grade reduction/zero policy. Here were the excuses I used. You may have heard these (or used them) as well. 1) It is my job to teach them responsibility 2) I'm getting them ready for the real world or for college or 3) How can I assess them and assign a grade if they won't turn anything in?
Here are some things to ponder. Is there any research that supports the claim that reducing their grade for behavioral infractions teaches them responsibility? Is there another way to teach students responsibility without it being part of their math or science or English grade? Shouldn't a math grade tell students, parents, and teachers what they can do in math and so on? Yes, we need to teach them responsibility - I completely agree. I just think we can find better ways to do so. For many students, deducting points from their assignment doesn't matter to them at all. Giving them a zero for a missing assignment lets them off the hook. How is that teaching them to be responsible? A responsible student is held accountable to finish what they start and to meet the requirements of the course to the best of their ability. I contend that the point deduction system may have been more of a matter of convenience for me rather than a way to teach students responsibility. It is very inconvenient when students come to class unprepared or homework is not turned in on time. We have to keep up with late papers, who did and did not turn in their work, how many days it was late, etc. Very inconvenient.
Here was another one I used frequently: "I'm getting them ready for the real world or for college." I wonder who came up with that one? It seems to have stuck and become urban legend. Why didn't I think about getting them ready for the real world or for college by making sure they know the content, teaching them to think critically and reason, problem solve, know how to learn, study, find information, make sense of information, and finish what they start, not letting them off the hook -that's real world for you. These skills are so very important but much harder to teach than "responsibility." Again, I agree that we need to promote responsibility - an important attribute that productive workers or college students need to be successful. I just don't think reducing their grade is the way to get it done.
And lastly, "How can I assess their learning if they won't turn anything in? That's why they are failing - because of all those zeroes. It's not my fault - it's on them". If the assignment is important to the learning, why would we ever allow them to get by without turning it in? Picture this: As a high school English teacher you are teaching your students to write a persuasive essay. You teach for several days then assign an essay for homework. The next day, several students didn't do their homework and have nothing to turn in. You waggle your finger at them and remind them that you are taking 10 points off each day they're late, up to three days and a zero after that. Some students never turn in their essay so you give them a zero and now their grade average in your class drops significantly. So do they (even the irresponsible students) not need to know how to write in the real world? How responsible is it to simply not do something you've been assigned? And how is it fair to the students who did their work to allow others not to? You might ask how it's fair that the responsible student and the irresponsible student end of up with same grade. Aren't we creative enough to find ways to reward those students who took care of business in a timely manner in other ways rather than on their grade? Let's start being creative and find ways to make sure that their grades really reflect what they know and can do so that we are truly preparing them for what's next.
Next blog - changing our language from a grade mindset to a learning mindset. Stay tuned!
Follow me at:
I am a former science teacher and currently work at Lubbock Christian University as the QEP Director and in the School of Education preparing future teachers. I am passionate about helping teachers find practical ways to improve learning!