What Grades do Students Deserve?

During a recent conference on Grading and Assessment my thinking shifted about how we determine and report grades for our students. My grading practices in my secondary science classroom reflected how I was graded in school – how else would I grade? It was the only model I knew and saw practiced around me. Percentage grades and weighting different elements of grading (exams, quizzes, labs, homework) helped me determine which students had earned A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s. On the flip side, I believe that all students could learn what I and my colleagues determined were the essentials for our course. I would give students the opportunity to achieve mastery of those standards but I always struggled with how to reflect that effort and growth in their grades.

As I listened to national speakers share their beliefs about standards, assessment and grading, I realized that my grading practices didn’t reflect my beliefs. My thinking shifted when I heard Thomas Guskey speak about standards-based grading. He said it best in his article, “Five Obstacles to Grading Reform” (Guskey, 2011):

“Those who enter the profession of education must answer one basic, philosophical question: Is my purpose to select talent or develop it? The answer must be one or the other because there is no in-between. If your purpose as an educator is to select talent, then you must work to maximize the differences among students. In other words, on any measure of learning, you must try to achieve the greatest possible variation in students’ scores…If, on the other hand, your purpose as an educator is to develop talent, then you go about your work differently. First, you clarify what you want students to learn and be able to do. Then you do everything possible to ensure that all students learn those things well. If you succeed, there should be little or no variation in measures of student learning.”

Now, that matched my beliefs! If my expectation was that all students should learn the essentials in my course, then all students should be attaining high scores on the measures of achievement I was using to determine grades.

So I dug deeper into standards-based grading by taking a self-assessment, a “Grading and Reporting Questionnaire” developed by Guskey (look in the Questionnaires and Activities section of the guide), and, then used it again with a group of secondary teacher leaders who were on the journey to change their grading practices. We explored the purposes of grading, the elements we were using to determine grades, and the grading policies of the schools, departments and classroom teachers. Together, we evaluated grading methods to determine which method is best or fairest by analyzing performances of students with various score patterns (look in the Questionnaires and Activities section of the guide). All of these conversations helped build our background knowledge and shaped our beliefs about standards-based grading.

To further my understanding of how standards-based grading can be used in the classroom, I turned to Myron Dueck’s book, “Grading Smarter Not Harder: Assessment Strategies that Motivate Kids and Help Them Learn.” You can find this book and a study guide in our ASCD collection. This book opened my eyes to the fact that many assessment policies I used were detrimental to the motivation and achievement of my students. Every time I marked a zero in my grade book for missing work, instead of an Incomplete or reporting the behavioral aspect separately, I was using punitive grading to manipulate behavior. Was the reason the work wasn’t completed out of the student’s control? Did I even ask why the work wasn’t completed? Were any of these factors that are outside the control of the student the reason the work wasn’t completed: poverty, ability, confidence, environment, substance abuse and emotional struggles, or parents? Another question to consider: should a zero be a score for a missing assignment and for an assignment in which a student doesn’t show understanding of the material? How do you tell the difference in a reported grade? The best aspects of this book are the personal stories this teacher shares about grading experiences with students and how they changed his grading beliefs. In each chapter, he also gives multiple strategies for addressing the problems.

If you’ve been thinking about how to change your grading policy to reflect a more standards-based approach OR you don’t feel that your assessment strategies help students learn, then I encourage you to do some further reading (click on book images below). Let me know how it goes!

Keim_Joanne_SMALLJoanne Keim

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