I hate grading. It’s kinda funny because I didn’t really care about grades when I was in high school. I loved learning, but since I knew I was going to a two year college, and I didn’t care much for my future anyway, I never bought into the stress of grades. Boy has that changed. When you are a teacher, grades are the worst, and I’m not alone in those feelings. Our students are more stressed than ever when it comes to grades and college, and this is making kids care more about achievement, than helping others. I’ve had a lot of thoughts about grades over my last 21 years of teaching, let’s both go down the rabbit hole of grading and see what we discover.
Part I: Down The Rabbit Hole
I’ve never taken a class on grading; I’ve never had a professional development session on grading. We’ve never made grading a school study topic (We’ve explored the concepts of Fs, but not grading). Let that sink in for a bit.
For 21 years I’ve been on my own when it comes to determining grades. We learned how to grade from our Master Teachers when we student taught. We modify those grading practices in conversations with other teachers, but where did THEY learn how to grade?
Here is a quote from a friend of mine who teaches:
“In my eight, or nine, or ten year career, I’ve not once heard a single discussion about how to effectively score assignments. It’s probably a meaningless conversation because it disrupts the all-too-familiar teacher attitude of I-Do-What-I-Do-Because-It’s-Always-Been-Done-Like-This.”
This teacher is not alone; not a single teacher I talked to had taken a class on grading in their credential program, and yet it’s one of the most stressful and important things we are tasked with. I’ve calibrated writing assessments and I’ve developed rubrics both collaboratively and based on various college level and college prep standards, but I’ve never calibrated grades and frankly when I look at other teacher’s grades I’m not sure I want to.
But what I want you to understand is that while teachers get very defensive over the grades they give, I’m not sure what that defensive attitude is built on.
Our grading systems are a carefully constructed well-defended castle… built on sand.
These are from the 2015 incoming freshmen class statistics generated by each school’s admission office.
Part II: A crooked game of croquet:
Even if you have a system, your final grades are, like painting white roses red, ultimately arbitrary. How much is homework worth, does the teacher accept late work, how much is taken off for late work, do they give extra credit for not going to the bathroom, do they give extra credit for bringing in tissue boxes with quotes on them, do they give extra credit period, do they give a participation grade, do they give scantron tests, do they give essay tests, how much are each of those weighted in the overall grading?
Getting the “hard teacher” or “easy teacher” is a matter of luck, so therefore a kid is more likely to get a low grade or a high grade merely by random computer registration, and therefore their final grade has an element of luck and is therefore, in part, or in whole, arbitrary.
“My grades are built on the standards.” Let’s say there are 20 standards. Is each one worth 5 percent? Is there nothing not covered by the standards that you think is important to do? Are the standards the floor or ceiling when it comes to grading? What if a kid can do the standards, all of them, but doesn’t want to do the work? Then are your grades really tied to a student’s ability to demonstrate the standards? What if they did at least one assignment for each standard at mastery level proving their ability and then didn’t do anything else?
There is no national or state standard for grading so even if your department or school has a systematic grading system, you could be putting your students at a competitive disadvantage for college admissions. Students come to FVHS because they think it gives them a competitive edge to get into college, if it doesn’t then what’s keeping them from leaving? We are seeing an increasing number of successful, CP and Honors students taking the HS Exit Exam when they turn 16 and enrolling in a Two Year College because it is more realistic as far as GPA to transfer into UCLA than to try and get there straight from HS. What if this trend expands? What will our honors and AP classes look like if students realize that staying in our classes and earning FV grades is hurting their chances of getting into the school they want?
Students ultimately don’t need HS to become successful in college. A student can earn all Fs and still enroll in a community college when they turn 18. We need them more than they need us.
If your class weights or gives HW more than other classes, then you are creating a class that is intrinsically unfair. The only fair place to conduct learning is in your classroom. Once you send a kid home to do work the following happens:
- Students with big families, or no privacy have a difficult time reading/getting computer time.
- Students with more money can hire tutors.
- Students who do sports, band, cheer, drama etc… have less time to do HW or to go see a tutor.
- Students who have parents who weren’t good at school can’t ask their parents for help.
- If a student is confused or stuck, then it can quickly turn a family night into a nightmare.
Why would you want to create that kind of situation at home by assigning daily HW? Why would you want to create this disparity every night? Why would you want to ruin a weekend, spring or winter break with a learning environment that is by default unfair? You’re better than that. At the very least never assign HW that is due the next day. Give students at least two or three days to negotiate their obstacles. Or let them do the work in class where YOU and not a tutor can help them.
I hear this far too often: “I don’t give a grade; the student earns the grade.” That sounds very pragmatic, but it’s just not true. Teachers are very much involved in “giving a grade” you choose the categories you will grade, you choose if you will “bump” grades, you choose how much of what type of assignments to give. It’s “funny” but the same teachers who say “I don’t give a grade, my students earn their grade” are often the same teachers who say “why does so and so GIVE out so many As or Fs?” Kinda interesting, isn’t it?
If your grading is black and white, if there is no wiggle room, no gray in your grading, then your grading can be done by a robot or a computer.
I hear teachers all the time say that there is no wiggle room because it wouldn’t be fair, what they really mean is that they don’t want to do the messy work of judging each situation on its own merit. I see this often when it comes to late work. A teacher will have a one size fits all policy when it comes to late work. This takes the humanity out of teaching. If your job can be done by a robot or computer, then you should start worrying a little, because that means that you are replaceable. According to some studies robots can already grade essays just as well as humans.
If on the other hand, your grading relies on compassion, context, professional judgment, a talk with a parent or student, empathy, love etc… then those things are going to be very difficult to be replaced by a computer.
There is an economic element to the most recent raising of the stress bar for teachers, parents, and students when it comes to grades. Universities are more expensive and more difficult to get into than ever before. Most of this is economic, in that Universities want the full tuition paying students from abroad and outside their state, AND they want more students to apply to their school than can get in. They want to build a desperate craving for entrance. When schools raise the number of students applying to them and lower their acceptance rate, they get a better credit rating from the credit rating institutions. The middle class is now caught in a surreal game where everyone is out to “cut off their heads.” We can ask students and parents to “not buy into this stress and game” but kids are just kids, and it’s hard for parents to maintain emotional distance in the process. As professionals what can we do to push back or ease the situation. What indeed…
Part III: Trying To Wake Up
Obviously I don’t have all the answers, and grading still stresses me out, but after 21 years of teaching here are a few things I try and do with my grading.
1. I’ve replaced “participation” with student reflections. These are a big chunk of my grades. Students write reflections, include evidence, talk about aspects of their learning that I couldn’t possibly see. They identify areas of growth and generate plans for improvement. If you want to see what these look like come by my class.
2. I’ve almost entirely eliminated tests and quizzes. This only happened about three years ago. I was very proud of my “difficult tests.” Now I’m more concerned with what my students can DO with what they have learned. I want to see them create and make something with what they read in my class. It was easier for me to grade quizzes and scantrons, but I discovered, over time, that my best students were not my best test takers. I also don’t see a lot of scantrons being used in the workplace. But I do see a lot of writing…. so
3. Writing is a huge part of my grade. If you struggle to read and grade writing, come and talk to me. It’s not easy. But easy is not always best when it comes to teaching or parenting.
4. Since writing is so important to me we spend 1.5 periods a week on it, or more. I give my student a class period of Chromebook time every week to get their blog posts done. I do this so that they don’t have to fight for computer time at home and so that I’m there to help them with their writing.
5. I rarely give HW over the weekend and I don’t assign work over Christmas or Spring break.
6. I accept late work. I mark it down on a sliding scale based on how late it is and how good it is. It’s easier for me to keep track of late work since most of our work is turned into our LMS Canvas and I don’t have to find the right pile of papers to put the late work into. But I want the work done, even if it’s late. The work was important otherwise I wouldn’t have assigned it, so I want them to do it, not to take a zero. But I won’t take late work the last 2 weeks of the semester.
7. I don’t worry how many As I give out. If it’s 20 that’s okay. We are not hurting our students or their education by giving out 20-25 As if they did enough of their work at A level. I might give out 10 (or less) I might give out 20 (or more), it all depends on the type of students that were put in my class, and how they respond to what I challenged them with.
8. I don’t give out specific extra credit, but every assignment has the chance to earn above 100% if they are willing to blow me away. This allows students to use their strengths to make a difference in their total grade, just like students are rewarded for their strengths in the workplace. I do like Sean Ziebarth’s publishing extra credit. Ask him about it.
9. I don’t assign book reports, but I still value outside reading. I share books with students and encourage them to read in many different ways. Thoughts on Grading: David Theriault “just a pack of cards, trying to wake up part 4 of 5” Obviously I don’t have all the answers, and grading still stresses me out, but after 21 years of teaching here are a few things I try and do with my grading.
10. Everything I assign has an element of student choice and relevance to their current and future lives. I want my students to use their unique skills to grapple with the difficult world of written and oral communication, storytelling, and art. Students are encouraged to shift the expectations of the assignment if they can create a more memorable and more awesome experience.
11. To every student teacher and new teacher I ever talked with grades about: Everything I told you I thought was true, but I’m shifting as I gain experience. If you thought what I told you was the gospel truth and something to hang onto forever, please use your mind and heart to reconsider anything I ever told you about grading. I still believe in the grades I gave out. They were a reflection of the class I had built at the time, but I like what I’m doing in class more than ever.
Thank you for following me down the grading rabbit hole. Please leave any thoughts, comments, suggestions or resources in the comments below. Grading is a wicked problem. If there were easy solutions, we would have solved it long ago. Thanks.
PS: In our district we don’t use +s and -s. It’s just a B. This drives me crazy. I have to give the same grade to a student with an 89 as to that student with an 80. This is why I tend to bump students’ grades. It’s not systematically accurate, but it’s the right thing to do, until we fix the system.
of course there’s more…
I’ve been thinking about grading and grading for 25 years. I never thought about what Jo-Ann Fox just tweeted about. I guess my journey down the rabbit hole might never end, maybe that’s a good thing because I’m glad I saw Rebecca’s tweet about a Students’ Grading Bill of Rights, what a cool idea thanks Rebecca.
If you want this entire post as a Google Slide deck, just open this Google Slide Presentation and read it full screen. The entire post on grading is in this presentation.
Other resources, articles, posts about grading that you might want to read.
- “Averaging Grades? Just Stop” by Neil McNeil
- “The Homework Myth: The Back To School Night Speech We’d Like To Hear” by Alfie Kohn
- “Why Girls Tend To Get Better Grades Than Boys Do” by Enrico Gnaulati
- “Educational Standards And The Problem Of Error“
- “Are Grades Utterly Useless” by Bill Ferriter
- “The Case Against The Zero” by Douglass Reeves
- “Do No Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students” by Emelina Minero
- “Teaching More by Grading Less” (or Differently) by Jeffrey Schinske* and Kimberly Tanner†
I will add more…