Common Core Compassion David Theriault Doubt Education Reform grades Grading School Leaders Teaching

Down The Rabbit [Grading] Hole

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.

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Part I: Down The Rabbit Hole

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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.

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Part II: A crooked game of croquet:

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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

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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.

 

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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. 

  1. Averaging Grades? Just Stop” by Neil McNeil
  2. “The Homework Myth: The Back To School Night Speech We’d Like To Hear” by Alfie Kohn
  3. Why Girls Tend To Get Better Grades Than Boys Do” by Enrico Gnaulati
  4. Educational Standards And The Problem Of Error
  5. Are Grades Utterly Useless” by Bill Ferriter
  6. The Case Against The Zero” by Douglass Reeves
  7. Do No Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students” by Emelina Minero
  8. Teaching More by Grading Less” (or Differently) by Jeffrey Schinskecorresponding author* and Kimberly Tanner

 

I will add more…

 

 

 

20 comments

  1. This post is gold. I’m in my fifth year teaching language arts. It’s fascinating to me that people accept that vastly different subjects can all be boiled down to numbers that go into identical boxes in a spreadsheet. Reading some of your commentary on grading made me think that you had bugged my living room and captured my occasional rants about grading. How is it conscionable that most teachers are required to grade students today exactly the same way they were graded 100+ years ago?? ABCDF… Nothing makes me want to scream “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of simple minds” more than grading! Why don’t we give Es? Is it possible to earn an F+? You see: I’m ranting now. I’ll stop myself before I go too far. Thank you for so eloquently expressing many problems inherent in most grading practices.

  2. Well done! Grading discussions at school are a giant can of worms. There is such a discrepancy between subject areas, grade levels, and teachers. We need to have a major overhaul of our practices, and I think this post is an excellent way to start the discussion. Thank you!

  3. Wow…where to join in on the conversation… Is there a word limit on the responses? Great post full of bombs and mic drops. (Great t-shirt idea) I was frustrated this year [putting it very mildly] when a colleague, who teaches the same subject, had well over 50% of the students “earn” an A – I assume this is “normal” for all schools. This year, both because of WASC and – finally! – because the conversation needed to happen, we started asking “What’s an A?” We’re moving, glacially, but at least we’re moving.
    I’m pleased with the conversations we’re been having in my department (not giving extra credit, why assign HW? using common rubrics more consistently, having norming sessions, etc…), but the HW question is really at the heart of this post and it’s the tyranny that rules (and ruins) our students academic and emotional lives.
    I’m in my 18th year of teaching h/school English and in the last 4-5 years I’m finally feeling like I am being equitable with HW and grading in general, which means that there’s probably a host of things

    I could go on and on, but kudos for a challenging post.

    I’ll end with this: science teachers tend to give girls lower test scores when they know the test taker is a girl:
    http://arstechnica.com/science/2016/01/give-teachers-a-physics-test-from-a-girl-and-theyll-give-it-worse-grades/

    Thanks David!

  4. I loved what I read of this post…not so much the picture format. On a mobile device reading from the pictures is straining on the eyes-I might just be old. I do always find your take on things refreshingly unique.

  5. I appreciate a lot of what you say and agree in many respects, but in England for sure – teachers in departments are expected to ‘moderate’ their grading and compare all the time. This is a form of checking, and in fact the administration checks how teachers grade and teachers are GRADED on their grading. I’m not joking. I personally, along with tens of thousands of other teachers, find this offensive, make-work and unnecessary nannying. How many times have I thought: get out of my way so that I can teach? And this is not to say that I’m not a reflective teacher, but…some days it all gets to be a bit much.

    Benchmarks mean something. Rubrics mean something. But I remember years ago attending an assessment workshop and hearing the following: wholistic grading pretty much results in the same grades being given as highly detailed (aka: English grading of English summative assessments…kill me now) grading. I apply the simplest grading structure of a rubric of 4, along the lines of other training I’ve had, to essentially be able to distinguish work from Poor to Acceptable to Good to Excellent, removing all the vagueness. That is fleshed out in detail using the criteria of what is being assessed. I find it works well.

    I have students self assess. Some get it totally wrong, and are in la-la land. Others are right on the mark. I decide, but their input is valuable. And for group projects, I can’t be in all places and conversations at once, so…this is critical.

    But as you say, sometimes you just want to learn for the pleasure of learning, and my brain implodes with the lack of real understanding of Montressori teaching and the like. I do cling in some ways to some rather probably-old-fashioned grading methods because, well, it’s worked fairly well so far.

    I agree, students should NOT have to all turn everything in on time – I differentiate totally as needed, if a kid needs extra time or help. I expect it also as a university post grad student, and I usually am granted some leeway, so long as it is not abused. Being able to negotiate a deadline is as important as hitting it.

    I agree that more assessment should be done on assessment, but it would be incorrect to say no research has been done to measure or analyze the number of A grades from year to year. In England, for sure, this does happen, as it affects the distribution of grades in the final instance re. GCSE exams, a process I find totally loathesome. Totally. The question you rightly ask is what are we learning? And what are we doing to make things better?

    I apply the method of student reflection constantly to my work as a teacher, and acquired that technique from a few years in the IB system internationally. I like it – a lot.

    I have the memory of a university professor who allowed us to ‘determine’ our own grades on the basis of:

    1. no of books read in 14 weeks (18 got you an A)
    2. no of pages of reflections on the books (18 pgs min for an A); if you watched a 3 films for 6 hours, that equated a book.
    3. a midterm paper and final exam finally got you that A. I opted for a B.

    This professor dressed up as Socrates and challenged our thinking; I remember avidly debating him hotly about Freudian theory in his office, yes, literally over a glass of brandy. Nothing untoward happened at all. I walked out of the conversation feeling respected for trying to figure out my own ideas on the subject, while he never stopped playing devil’s advocate. After our Socratic seminar was over, I walked home with two books from his shelves, a ‘gift’. To this day I have them. I’m sure I wrote a rather messy and ridiculously bad final exam for my B, but I ‘earned’ it because I wrote the exam and, erm, tried…a bit.

    But guess what? I have never forgotten the essence of that philosophy of education class, and it has shaped my character in some way – I allow my students flexibility. I play music in class like my prof did, which helps them learn sometimes, or it spices things up for the better. Sometimes, as we have been debating in the car on the way home from my workplace today, you make decisions that border on wrong to keep things safe for a child. I’m not saying it’s right, but if a kid got 89 on a report for a term, and a parent was going to beat her for not getting a 90, an A, well…you know what happened, and that was with the prompting of a principal who rightly noted, “We’re not that exact as teachers…bump it up.”

    I truly think we have lost the plot regarding grading, but I also recognize that it is the necessary stick and carrot that keeps students motivated – and so I tread carefully with this. I respect the need to grade things. But I still hate it, and I appreciate the flexibility to make decisions myself as a teacher in the international and N. American systems – unlike in the rigid British system where there is literally no real flexibility.

    So, all in all, thanks for a provocative read. Now if I could just teach and never have to give a ‘grade’ again, but could do only student end of project and exit interviews, self reflections, peer assessment and more…how happy would I be?!

    1. Thank you. That was amazing. My brother teaches in London right now and I’ve seen snippets of talk about UK educational protocols in Tweets and blog posts, but you took me on a deep journey and my mind just went a little herk and jerk… I’ll be reading this more than once.

  6. Thank you for all the work you put in to put this post and presentation together. I like the Google Slides angle! Every time I read your blog, I see a great idea for presenting information. Of course, I liked your ideas and reflections on grading. I hope young teachers read this and take the time to understand what you are saying and the implications on them and their students and parents. I also hope administrators take the time to read and digest this and understand that every serious teacher battles with grading all that grades mean to their farflung audiences. Thanks again, man. I need to cut this off as I have to grade…

  7. You are so right, we were never taught how to grade, not in my School of Ed and not on the job. I totally agree, and went “rogue” at my middle school…I accepted late HW (if it was completed it was a “C,” if incomplete 50%- at least it wasn’t a zero), had lots of formatives that I quickly graded and were part of their grade, asked for revisions and if they took the time they got the grade (I’ve never believed in a first draft being the final draft). Many of my colleagues did let HW ruin the grade, and never accepted late work. I had to give tests, but I supplemented with projects that really showed me what they knew. I probably wouldn’t have done this if I was a new teacher, but given my age & experience…I went for it. Great post, and it’s good to know others feel the same way.

  8. The fact that teachers across a school typically do not sit and calibrate grades means that they are arbitrary – a school issues report cards but the information going onto those report cards is not a representation of
    an organization acting in a cohesive fashion. This is demoralizing to kids and corrosive to school culture.

    The pressure to get into good colleges (never mind the perception that some are better than others, more prestigious than others…) means that a lot of high school kids’ learning is poisoned by extrinsic triggers – scores, numbers, percentages. The question “How can I raise my grade?” is the canary in the coal mine – many students are focused entirely on outcomes and not on the learning. Very little room for joy, curiosity and discovery in this kind of climate.

    I recently did a mid-cycle WASC visit to a high performing school. We asked the kids: “Describe in a word or two what it’s like to be a student here.” Words they used: “Stressful.” “Competitive.” My heart sank!

    I did fine grade-wise in high school, but ended up choosing UC Santa Cruz in part because of the opportunity to have narrative evaluations instead of grades. I kept them all, and in them I have a record of the actual work I did in those classes – a story about what I created and learned. This would be very tough for a high school teacher with 150 kids – or would it? Recording 30 assignments and performing weighted category hocus-pocus for every kid, every grading period demands SO much of a teachers’ time; perhaps a narrative evaluation format would actually require less time and provide MORE depth to how we report out evidence of student learning.

    Thanks as always for your thinking and sharing.

      1. The school-as-island reality that makes education less of a system and more a compilation of happy accidents mixed in with deep pockets of dispiriting practices/outlooks/outcomes/inequities.

    1. I’m trying to get my site to let students give PD so I gave my students a poll on what would they teach teachers about being a student (or about how they learn); here’s the most consistent message I saw: we’re busy with homework. One wrote, “It’s hard to be a student right now because we are expected more that we used to be.”

      1. Students busy w/HW. Teachers too busy to review that same HW in class meaningfully because they’re too busy. Hmmm. Maybe education can start to embrace that less can be more. So what are site leaders doing (or not doing) to encourage that. We’re crafting a new HW “purpose statement” as a school that I’ll blog about soon on cougarslearn.wordpress.com.

  9. The arbitrariness of ‘marks’ has finally done me in. In my career (16 years), I have participated in a whole school effort to motivate students by giving zeros for lates to my current practice of giving absolutely no marks. What happened? Or the bigger question, why did it take me so long to figure this out?

    I think, in part, the advent of technology in our lives helped. When I could learn from people like you David, and I could witness the rapidly changing world that no longer needs us to sort students into piles, this one for higher learning and white collar jobs, that one for everything else, the ideas pushing at the edges of tradition, training, and conformity suddenly felt possible. For me, that was 2008 when I realized that the learning had to go to where the students are. I managed to teach using Facebook for one semester before it was permanently blocked. But the idea was born. Learning wasn’t about how much a student did, or when he or she did it. (Meeting deadlines is for me about personality. Some of us meet deadlines, some of us don’t. My partner of 30 years works best at the 11th hour and yes, he misses deadlines. He is a dedicated father, a willing volunteer, and a successful entrepreneur. I can only hope that all my students have such a life.)

    Formally, I use something I call assessment conferences at which students share what they are learning with me. They have class time to prepare using a number of support tools to help them think about their learning. For example, they can look back at their weekly learning reflections in Sesame, review the work that they have done that’s tracked in a Google sheet, and select particular activities that demonstrate their learning for each of the course overall expectations from a live chart that I manage. Informally, I provide students feedback daily both verbally and in writing.

    Students do say that determining their mark is tough to do, but no one is balking completely.

    I haven’t yet blogged about the transformation of my assessment practices, hence the lack of hyperlinks, I guess this is a dry run.

    Thanks for the opportunity. 🙂

    1. jacbalen–I would love to know more about how you organize your student-centered and led grading process. I just embarked on curriculum compacting with my high flyers this year and that seems like a potential next step.

      1. Oh Alison! I had to let this slide because in the midst of the work, I struggle to synthesize the work. I have been catching up with making the work in my classroom visible this week, and on my list is to write about student self-assessment. There also has been some interest by others to run a live hangout and record the conversation. One way or the other, I will get something published.
        So if you’re still interested, hang in there!

        What a ride!

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