For many teachers, summer has commenced, while for others like myself, the beginning of a school year is right around the corner. I’ve seen so many teachers on various social media sites using their summer to plan for new and exciting things they plan to do the next school year – new labels, bulletin board decorations, seating arrangements, lessons, and classroom procedures. However, I have yet to read about how teachers plan to change anything about the way they grade, or more specifically, how grade their gradebook.
This year will be my 16th year of teaching, and while one would think that I have all of my systems down pat, I actually reevaluate every aspect of teaching EVERY YEAR. I consider what I’ve successfully taught, where I missed the mark, what I completely failed to do (because it’s REALLY hard to get to EVERYTHING), class routines and policies, and most importantly, what I can change that will benefit students and improve their learning. It’s easy to think about what texts, units, activities, etc. I want to keep and which ones I hope to teach next year, but I think the most important exercise that I consistently do is a complete audit of my year. This may seem daunting, or it may be the last thing you want to think about right now, but I assure you that taking even an hour to do this will provide you with valuable insight, and will most likely lead to next year being one of the best.
Why do we have grades?
Before I dive into my process, let’s think about the point of grades. Not assessments, GRADES. If you take the time to Google “Why do we have grades,” you’ll notice that on the first page of your search, the majority of the results contain an overall disdain for grades. It wasn’t until the third page that I found an answer from the Seattle PI: “Issued up to four times throughout the school year, “letter grade” report cards detail students’ general academic performance.” Let’s work with that definition.
If grades are meant to communicate how a student is performing, then let’s consider what “academic performance” means. This conversation makes many of my colleagues bristle (and perhaps you as well), but stay with me. I’ve seen many a gradebook with a series of points for an assignment called “Homework 1/22” or something to that effect, with a score of 67%. As a student, I may remember what my homework for January 22 was, but as a parent, probably not. Therefore, in this instance, I have no idea if my darling child only knows 67% of the material, did 67% of the work, or if there are other factors involved with that assignment. How is this grade detailing academic performance?
When grades are used for other purposes
We have to admit that not all teachers use grade to communicate academic performance. Some use them as punishment and as motivation for students to do their work and do it well. Some teachers assign points for showing up, writing something down (that wonderful participation grade), or offer extra credit when the original assignment wasn’t even completed. I had several college professors whose only grade in the gradebook was the final exam (EEK!). Consider these 5 questions: More thoughts to consider (especially if you teach at the middle and high school level):
- If I gave a student an F – or even if I chose to believe that they earned an F – what does that communicate to that student about their level of mastery?
- How will that F motivate him or her to be a better student?
- How will giving him or her a zero – which, mathematically, is a score that no student can truly recover from – lead to more positive behaviors? (Think about averages and how a zero brings that down)
With that in mind:
- If a student turns in an assignment a week late, but it’s completed perfectly, will taking off five points for every day it’s late reflect their level of mastery?
- Will that penalty encourage that student to be more conscientious with his or her deadlines?
- When we look at that same student’s grades in the gradebook, will we see a D or F because of lack of understanding or a lack of time management?
- Should we really be assessing students based on their ability to meet deadlines?
- If not, where should we include that in our gradebook?
- Think about how many of your students chronically turn in late assignments?
- Make a hypothesis as to how many of those students eventually just stopped turning anything in because the late penalty dropped their grade so low that it didn’t matter?
Practice makes perfect, but failing at practice means a failing grade?
Are students being punished for each time they practice a skill? We wouldn’t unfairly judge someone if they fall the first time they put on roller skates. Would we in turn unfairly penalize a student when he or she first tries a new skill? Are your formative assessments equally weighted with the summative assessments? Are students allowed opportunities to improve a grade on either assessment?
This idea also includes the ongoing debate about homework. I don’t want to get into it in this post, but I think it’s worth asking yourself if you’re inadvertently punishing students for trying out a new skill. How could that affect their willingness to take risks if they’re being penalized every step of the way to mastery?
One of my colleagues recently started teaching only a few years ago. When she came to my school, I immediately took her under my wing and did everything I could to help her get acclimated to school procedures, discussed ideas for starting off the school year right, and provided general support and encouragement. I knew that being in a new school was confusing enough, but being a new teacher as well? I wasn’t going to let her go at it alone, and I remember one morning before school I had a conversation about her grading policies. She told me that she didn’t accept late work on homework because students needed to learn responsibility. I smiled since I’d heard this before, particularly from fresh new teachers, and then proceeded to ask questions similar to those above. By the end of the conversation, she came to her own conclusion that she needed to reevaluate her grading policies, especially so soon in her teaching career.
I’m not here to tell you how to grade. But I think that it’s worth mulling over the questions above in terms of your own policies.
Grading your grades
What do your grades communicate? Take a look a this example of a gradebook: Can you guess which subject area these assignments belongs to? Can you tell what standards or skills are being assessed? Imagine a student going back and looking at these 1st semester assignments. How many do you think he or she will actually remember?
I encourage you to go back and examine your gradebook. If possible, select a random student without looking at their name. Look at the assignments and the corresponding scores, while consider these three questions:
- What do these grades reveal about this student?
- What do these grades communicate to the student?
- What do these grades communicate to the parent/guardian?
I’ll be the first to admit that my grade book was terrible in the past. Here’s a snapshot from 2011:
- Notice how this student earned A’s on the “Barrio Boy” Annotation and the Highwayman comic, which gave them an A+ for category “Assignments.”
- Look at how they earned Ds and Fs for every other category, including Tests, Essays, and Quizzes.
- If this student aced his or her assignments, but was generally failing everything else, what does that say about the level of rigor of the activities in the “Assignments” category? How much of it was teacher or group led versus individual work?
- Based on this snapshot, can you determine which skills and standards need improvement?
Adjust assignment names
After doing this exercise, it’s time to think about possible simple changes. Even just renaming assignments to reflect the skills/standards assessed would help all stakeholders understand a student’s areas of improvement. Here’s a snapshot of last semester’s gradebook: If a guidance counselor is meeting with a student in an effort to help them academically, clearly named assignments allow them to easily target the areas in which a student would need additional support.
Consider your assignments categories and weights
I’m not a fan of too many categories, and I carefully weight them based on what I want students to get out of the class. I want students to be able to read, analyze what they read, and communicate well through their writing. We do quite a big of practicing these three skills in my class, however I don’t count those attempts at mastery as much as the main essays and projects, which reflect what a student can do individually. If you’re not familiar with it, Achieve 3000 is a reading program that provides non-fiction texts for students at their personal lexile level. Therefore, reading fiction and non-fiction are both assessed.
If you can, consider tying assignments to standards
I’m lucky enough to use an online learning management system, JupiterEd, which allows me to align assignments with their respective standards. This gives me a better picture of how students have progressed with a standard, and which areas they may need reteaching or additional support.
There are other gradebooks such as Kiddom that allow you use standards-based grading. Alternatively you can use a spreadsheet program such as Google Sheets. I’m not going to go into the merits of standards-based grading, but I will say that it is the clearest way to “detail students’ general academic performance.”
I hope this post gives you some ideas on how to evaluate your grading system so that it informs you as a teacher, as well as your students. The subject of grades can be contentious in some circles, but as long as you grade with intent and in a fair and consistent manner, you can feel good knowing that your practices are in place for the benefit of student learning.
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