Making the grade

Making the grade

My blog posts are meant to be reflections on teaching, but sometimes they turn out to be nothing less than confessions. Several days ago, I dutifully entered my student’s mid-semester grades onto our district’s online program, but I can’t help feeling a sense of unease. Have I rationalized those grading choices still left within my purview, and if so, what am I going to do to improve how I give feedback on student progress?

Standards have improved instruction, so why haven’t grading systems improved?

When I began teaching, there were no state, (let alone national), standards for each discipline. If a pupil was fortunate, their social studies teacher shared with the class a well-defined list of ten paramount specifications to be met during the course. Soon, written standards became part of teaching, and again, the best teachers embraced those standards, but they also folded each into one of their top ten requirements. With these changes, it was at least implied that grades were to be tied to those standards.

I’ve been able to make the case that my student’s letter grades correspond with their mastery of state standards, but there’s still something missing. Do my students understand that relationship between grades and mastery? If I continue to use averages to determine letter grades, the truthful answer is no.

What about those zeros?

Zeros may be clues as to why a student didn’t attempt a learning activity, but they certainly never correspond to a rational determination as to how far a student’s journey towards mastery is. My confession would be incomplete if I didn’t reveal that I’ve justified using zeros as a so-called consequence of student effort. The flaw with my own thinking is that including zeros in grade averages is not about the student being lazy, but rather me. I’ve fallen prey to an expediency that, despite its wide use among far too many teachers, reveals a bias, a dubious assumption, rather than the totality of all the evidence available for any given student. This brings me to the idea of grades as feedback. Students are constantly giving us information, but is our part in the exchange of equal quality?

Grades as authentic feedback

We know that students provide us with clues about their emotional and academic needs. These breadcrumbs are seldom crystal clear – but they’re there for a trained eye to discern. We know avoidance is often about not wanting to have a weakness exposed, (especially to someone with whom a trusting relationship is still in the building stages), and so doing nothing and accepting a zero is an effective strategy to that end. But using a zero, (or another arbitrary number such as 50), bears no relationship to the student’s progress or potential. Where’s the validity in that?

In my next post, I’ll outline new resolutions, (or rather, long-established grading practices I’ve known full well to use but didn’t), to be implemented upon my return from a relaxing break.

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