College admissions is extremely competitive and far too many quite capable students find themselves unable to gain admissions into colleges where they have the academic ability to perform well, due to grading practices that routinely punished such students for classroom behavior or lack of organization. Perhaps the beginning of the conversation about grading should begin with reviewing grading distribution patterns in schools by asking such questions as:
- Which students are concentrated in the higher grade ranges and which students are concentrated in the lower grade ranges?
- How great is the impact of late or missing assignments on student grades?
- How accurately do grades reflect student learning?
- What impact does a student’s behavior have on his or her grade?
Because grades have such a significant impact on course enrollment opportunities during middle school and high school, class ranking, scholarship consideration, and college admissions, teacher grading philosophy can have a profound impact on student opportunities. Although many teachers make the argument that punishing students will low grades for missing/late assignments and classroom behavior is important to “teaching students ’ a lesson,” the reality is that when students fail to qualify for scholarships or admissions into colleges that can provide families with much needed financial aid, the punishment is really directed at the parents. Beyond all of the philosophical diatribes, my question as a parent is, “Does my child’s grade fairly reflect his academic ability and whether or not he did the required work for the class?” This is precisely the question that colleges and scholarship committees want to know the answer to, i.e., “If we admit this student into our college, does he have the academic ability to be successful?” Or, “If we award this student a scholarship, does he have the academic ability to do well in college so that our money will be well spent?”
Susan Brookhart, in her article, “Starting the Conversation About Grading,” provides some important points that parents might use to initiate a conversation either with teachers on through their involvement on the School Advisory Committee or Local School Council. When initiating the conversation about grades, attempt to keep the conversation focused on purpose, i.e., assessment, measurement, motivation, rather than philosophy, punishment or preparation for what teachers or parents believe to be the “real world.”
Ms. Brookhart suggests:
- As school districts contemplate a journey toward standards-based grading, they must make quite a conceptual and practical shift. With most conventional grading practices, one grade sums up achievement in a subject, and that one grade often includes effort and behavior. With standards-based, learning-focused grading practices, a grade sums up achievement on standards—there are often several grades per subject—with effort and behavior reported separately.
- As they attempt to make this shift, many schools go off track or get swamped by side issues. They waste energy having hard discussions about details of grading practice that, by themselves, cannot accomplish real reform. Merely tweaking the details of a grading system can result in a system that makes even less sense than the one it was intended to replace. Any school that is interested in reforming grading needs to talk about it in ways that challenge colleagues on the right questions.
- Standards-based grading is based on the principle that grades should convey how well students have achieved standards. In other words, grades are not about what students earn; they are about what students learn. To what degree do you and your colleagues believe that? If you do agree, what are the advantages to you and to your students? If you don’t agree, why not? That’s the discussion to have.
The conversation about grading is perhaps one of the most telling conversations of how vested teachers are in student success. For example, when any teacher assigns a ‘0’ to late or missing work and establishes a policy that does not provide an opportunity for a student to submit or make up the work, such a teacher is not vested in student success. No matter what you believe, when an assignment has no value because it is late, then 100 percent of the assignment’s value is assigned to timeliness! What value is to be attributed to learning? Through such a philosophical approach to grading, a ‘C’ student who submits all assignments on time is considered a smarter student than an ‘A’ student who is highly unorganized and submits every assignment late, thereby resulting in a failing grade for the class. It should also be noted that a highly unorganized student, with parents who can ensure that all assignments are submitted on time will have substantially higher grades than the student living in foster care or who does not have a similar support system. Clearly the grades of such students will not fairly reflect their respective ability levels, but rather their inequitable support systems.
No matter how difficult the conversation about grades may be, it is one of the most important conversations to occur in schools if we are to ensure equity, fairness, and achieving grades that are more reflective of student learning and less reflective of student behaviors, organizational skills, or support mechanisms.
1/7/2015 Update to the original posting
Since writing this original posting on 11/13/11, there have been additional articles and research on this very important area that many teachers continue to struggle with “philosophically.”
“By refusing to be lenient when students submit assignments late or do not know the material on the day of the test, I am preparing students for the real world–for college. In college professors are not lenient.”
When teachers make this statement, they are expressing a distorted worldview and basing their argument on their limited college experience–typically, the one college they attended as an undergraduate and perhaps the graduate program they attended, even if this was actually their experience.
Cornell University professor, Dr. Andy Ruina, provides insightful comments from the vantage point of a professor at an Ivy League institution, one of the most difficult to gain admission provides insight into the college grading system that teachers may find helpful to stimulate a classroom discussion (elementary, middle, and high school) as they explain their own grading philosophy:
- What are grades for?
- What’s wrong with grades?
- Grading schemes.
- Grading on a curve?
- What does your grade really really mean, in a deep sense?
- Grade cutoffs
Douglas Reeves, in his Educational Leadership article, “Leading to Change/Effective Grading Practices,” (2011) notes:
“If you wanted to make just one change that would immediately reduce student failure rates, then the most effective place to start would be challenging prevailing grading practices…To reduce the failure rate, schools don’t need a new curriculum, a new principal, new teachers, or new technology. They just need a better grading system.”
“Guskey and Bailey (2001) and Marzano (2000) have synthesized decades of research with similar findings. Neither the weight of scholarship nor common sense seems to have influence grading policies in many schools. Practices vary greatly among teachers in the same school—and even worse, the practices best supported by research are rarely in evidence.”
“Contrast these effective practices with three commonly used grading policies that are so ineffective they can be labeled as toxic. First is the use of zeroes for missing work. Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work (Guskey, 2000) and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale (Reeves, 2004), many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance. Defenders of the zero claim that students need to have consequences for flouting the teacher’s authority and failing to turn in work on time. They’re right, but the appropriate consequence is not a zero; it’s completing the work—before, during, or after school, during study periods, at ‘quite tables’ at lunch, or in other settings.”
The Handover Research brief, “Effective Grading Practices in the Middle School and High School Environments,” (2011) notes five ineffective grading practices:
- Grading for Behavioral Issues
- Incorporating Teacher Expectations and Judgments into Grades
- Using Zeroes as a Punishment
- Using a Points System and Averages
- Grading Homework and Other Formative Assignments
- Grading on a Curve
- Allowing Extra Credit
The research provides insight into standards-based grading models and notes a standards-based grading model implemented in Oregon public schools, that many teachers, who are dogged in their belief that zeroes have value:
“In some standards-based grading models, students can redo summative assessments until they have demonstrated proficiency. This method ensures that students have multiple chances to become proficient at their own pace. An article published in The Oregonian on standards-based grading in Oregon public schools notes, ‘It used to be in the first six weeks, if a student got an F, they gave up,’ says Principal John O’Neill. ‘Now, they have all year to bring up the grade by retaking until they ‘get’ that skill’”
The University of North Carolina – Charlotte’s Center for Teaching and Learning notes nine principles of good practice for assessing student learning. The first principle addressing a critically important concern that is frequently absent in teacher discussions on grading practices:
“Assessment is not an end in itself but a vehicle for educational improvement. Its effective practice, then, begins with and enacts a vision of the kinds of learning we most value for students and strive to help hem achieve. Educational values should drive not only what we choose to assess but also how we do so.”
The School District of Waukesha, Wisconsin’s, “Best Practices in Grading” provides an extensive overview of research pertaining to grading practices and provides insight into practices, deemed by research, to inhibit learning:
- Not providing objective or targets
- Grading students against a norm-referenced curve
- Not using rubrics for scoring student work
- Grading by comparing students to each other (p. 12)
- Using grades as punishment does not work and does not create responsibility
- Averaging grades is not fair, it can given an inaccurate picture of student achievement
- Using zeros as grades in a 60 to 100 or 70 to 100 scale vs. a 1,2,3,4 scale makes unequal intervals
- Basing grades on things like attendance, attitude and work habits is not an accurate account of what students have learned academically, and is unfair (p. 14)
- Playing “gotcha” with expectations
- Only communicating expectations verbally
- Not communicating methods for determining grades (p. 16)
Research shows that using grades as punishment actually serves to de-motivate students. O’Connor (2002) lists seven pointers for getting work in on time (p. 19):
- Set reasonable and clear targets
- Ensure clear communication of tasks
- Support struggling students
- Find out why work is late and assist
- Establish reasonable consequences such as:
- – After school follow-up
- – Make up in a supervised setting
- – Parent contact
- Provide an opportunity for extended timelines
- If all else fails, use small deductions which do not distort achievement or motivation, not zeros
Robert Marzano and Tammy Heflebower, in their Educational Leadership article, “Grades That Show What Students Know,” (2011) outline four recommendations regarding standards-based assessments. Their final recommendation notes:
“Our fourth recommendation is probably the most transformation in its implications. As the school year progresses, teachers should allow students to upgrade their scores from previous grading periods. To illustrate, assume that the teacher addresses six topics during the first quarter. At the end of the grading period, he or she translates these into an overall grade. Now assume that he or she addresses six more topics in the second quarter. At the end of this grading period, the teacher once again translates these scores into an overall grade. But what if during the second quarter, students work on content to raise their scores on the six topics from the first quarter? Of course, this means that the second quarter’s overall grade would be based on the six topics addressed during the second quarter as well as on the six topics originally introduced during the first quarter. One interesting option some schools have reported is to allow students to earn a score of 4.0 if they can tutor another student to score 3.0 status.”
Barbara Moore’s Southern Regional Education Board presentation, “Effective Grading Practices: 12 Fixes for Broken Grades,” highlights a number or research findings:
“…(grading) practices are not the result of carful thought or sound evidence, …rather, they are used because teachers experienced these practices as students and, having little training or experience with other options, continue their use.” (p. 5)
“Assigning a score of zero to work that is late, missed, or neglected does not accurately depict students’ learning. Is the teacher certain the student has learned absolutely nothing, or is the zero assigned to punish students for not displaying appropriate responsibility?” (p. 27)
The YouTube video by Jessica Lovett, examines Tom Gusky’s article, “Are Zeroes Your Ultimate Weapon.”
A report by the University of Chicago, “Reading on Grade Level in Third Grade: How Is It Related to High School Performance and College Enrollment” provides important tips for parents and teachers:
“For children, a critical transition takes place during elementary school: until the end of third grade, most student are learning to read. Beginning in fourth grade, however, students begin reading to learn. Students who are not reading at grade level by third grade begin having difficulty comprehending the written material that is a central part of the educational process in the grades that follow. Meeting increase educational demands becomes more difficult for students who struggle to read.”
The study followed student performance data from third-grade through potential college enrollment. Some of the important findings from the study were:
- The proportion of students who are below grade level is highest for male students, for African-American students, and for students who ever spent time in the foster care system.
- Students who are above grade level for reading in grade 3 graduate and enroll in college at higher rates than students who are at or below grade level.
- Third-grade reading level is a significant predictor of eighth-grade reading level.
- Eighth-grade reading achievement and the ninth-grade school that a student attends account for many of the differences in performance among the below, at, and above level groups in ninth grade.
- Eight-grade reading achievement and the ninth-grade school a student attends explain differences in graduation and college enrollment rates.
From the report, parents (and schools) should be concerned with the results—students who are below or at-grade level in third grade reading, influences their eighth-grade reading level, eighth-grade reading level influences their ninth-grade course performance, and students’ ninth-grade course performance will influence their high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates!
The results of this report are even more disturbing when considered within the context of the NAEP 2011 Reading results. Following are the percentages of students, by racial group, who are reading at or above the proficiency level:
4th-graders reading at or above the proficiency level:
- 16 percent of Blacks
- 19 percent of Hispanics
- 44 percent of Whites
- 49 percent of Asians
8th-graders reading at or above the proficiency level:
- 15 percent of Blacks
- 19 percent of Hispanics
- 43 percent of Whites
- 47 percent of Asians
Although there clearly are huge gaps between racial groups, no matter what racial group a child may belong to, over half of all children within his or her racial group are not proficient in reading by the fourth grade!
For parents of students currently diagnosed with a learning-disability or who are currently enrolled in elementary, middle, or high school special education classes, please reading the October 18, 2011 USA Today article, “Learning-disabled students get a firmer grip on college” by Mary Beth Marklein. Ms. Marklein highlights some of the challenges confronting students as well as the increased college opportunities available to such students. Nearly nine out of ten of the country’s two-year and four-year colleges enroll students with disabilities. And, while 86 percent of such schools enroll students with learning disabilities, only 26 percent provide sufficient support mechanisms in place. Nearly 11 percent of college students have some sort of disability. Students with attention-deficit or related disorders have increased to 19 percent. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, all colleges are required to provide accommodations to college students. However, unlike elementary, middle, and high schools, which are required by law to identify, evaluate and help students with disabilities, colleges do not have to do anything unless a student asks for help.
Landmark College in Putney, Vermont hosts summer boot camps to assist students in developing strategies to prepare for a successful transition into their first year of college. Students learn how to cope with academics, speak to instructors, and advocate for their rights such as extra time on tests, access to a professor’s notes, or a distraction-free place to study. The program stresses the importance of students learning how to advocate for themselves. Most most students had parents advocating for them throughout their K – 12 schooling and teachers who failed to effectively prepare students for college.
One of the greatest challenges facing such students is the lack of postsecondary preparation that they received in their K – 12 schooling. Many students were not taught note-taking, test preparation, or public speaking skills or how to maximize their strengths while minimizing their weaknesses. Few Special Education classes engaged students in the type of critical-thinking discussions they would be expected to engage in at the college level. In essence, the disabilities that they entered school with were oftentimes worsten during their K – 12 schooling. To fully understand what I mean, visit the Special Education classrooms one of your local schools and observe how little expectations teachers have of student performance. Then visit one of the athletic fields or gymnasiums and observe the stark contrast in the expectations that coaches have of their athletes (who also special education students). This is the best example of mainstreaming special education students. If you are truly interested in preparing your children or students for college, adopt a coaches’ mentality–expect more and they will give you more!
What you should do if you have learning challenges and you are planning to attend college:
- Research scholarships for students with learning challenges
- Thoroughly research colleges to identify those that offer the best support programs
- Research colleges that offer special degree programs for students with learning challenges (e.g., Sage and Excelsior colleges in Troy and Albany New York, University of Alabama, University of Arizona)
- Be honest and upfront, tell colleges what your challenges are and ask how they can support you in being successful
Watch the video “The Importance of Parent Involvement.”
The Common Core State Standards Initiative is an important effort to move states in the direction of developing a common curriculum and shared expectations in what students should learn, know, and be able to do. The initiative states:
“Building on the excellent foundation of standards states have laid, the Common Core State Standards are the first step in providing our young people with a high-quality education. It should be clear to every student, parent, and teacher what the standards of success are in every school.
Teachers, parents and community leaders have all weighed in to help create the Common Core State Standards. The standards clearly communicate what is expected of students at each grade level. This will allow our teachers to be better equipped to know exactly what they need to help students learn and establish individualized benchmarks for them. The Common Core State Standards focus on core conceptual understandings and procedures starting in the early grades, thus enabling teachers to take the time needed to teach core concepts and procedures well—and to give students the opportunity to master them.
With students, parents and teachers all on the same page and working together for shared goals, we can ensure that students make progress each year and graduate from school prepared to succeed in college and in a modern workforce.”
However, the real challenges of teaching and learning will not change, nor will they be solved by simply adopting a common curriculum. Teachers will still have to teach effectively and students will still have to apply themselves to learning what is being taught. In this regard, my starting point as a teacher is not to begin with telling students what I am going to teach, but asking students where they want to go, in essence, “Pick a Box.” This illustration outlines the general choices after high school that every young person will be confronted with, e.g., will you go to work, go to college, or enlist into the military? The salary is the median salary for each level of education, i.e., high school diploma, 4-year college degree, graduate degree, etc. (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2010).
Raising this question and getting students to affirm where they believe that they wan to go is as important for the kindergartener as it is for the twelfh-grader, perhaps even more so. The kindergarten student who affirms that he or she wants to become a doctor has 12 years to place learning within that context. He or she must apply his or herself to math and science, not to simply learn, but to know! If he or she is affirming that he or she wants to pursue a law degree, then developing language, critical thinking, debate, and an expanded vocabulary makes sense long before he or she begins prepping for the SAT or ACT as a high school student.
Once we better understand where students think that students want to go, then we can better connect them to the curriculum, albeit the Common State Standards or what is currently being taught. Interestingly, the vast majority of students affirm that they want to attend college as they enter elementary school, however, few students are prepared for college as they exit high school. The conversation is long overdue… “Pick a Box!”
The Wednesday, August 17 2011 edition of the Chicago Sun Times headline reads, “Illinois ACT scores: 3 in 4 NOT READY FOR COLLEGE.” However, the folk in Illinois may take some consolation in the fact that the same is true of student performance in most other states.
In a recent posting regarding the concept of “Backwards Mapping” I referred to student performance on the 2010 ACT. Unfortunately, there was little improvement in student performance on the 2011 ACT. English and Reading performance remained unchanged, Math performance increased 2 percentage points and Science performance increased 1 percentage point.
- 66 percent of students were considered college-ready in English
- 52 percent of students were considered college-ready in Reading
- 45 percent of students were considered college-ready in Mathematics
- 30 percent of students were considered college-ready in Science
The huge differences in the level of college readiness by race continued to be disappointing:
- 41 percent of Asian students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
- 31 percent of White students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
- 15 percent of Pacific Islander students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
- 11 percent of Native American students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
- 11 percent of Hispanic students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
- 4 percent of Black students demonstrated college-readiness in all subject areas
Although student performance is bad, it is worst when considered within the context of student postsecondary expectations. Following are the percentages of students demonstrating college-readiness in all areas and the percentages of students with aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher:
- 41 percent of Asian students are college ready while 84 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
- 31 percent of White students are college ready while 85 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
- 15 percent of Pacific Islander students are college ready while 84 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
- 11 percent of Native American students are college ready while 78 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
- 11 percent of Hispanic students are college ready while 78 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
- 4 percent of Black students are college ready while 80 percent have aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher
Clearly, something is wrong! How can so many students go through high school with aspirations of pursuing a 4-year college degree or higher and so few students are graduating from high school ready for college? Either our high schools are out of touch with what will be required for their students to succeed in college, our teachers are teaching students less than what their subjects require for students to be ready for college, or our children are out of touch with how they should be applying themselves in their high school coursework so that they are ready for college (which is what they are claiming to want). Perhaps there is a perfect storm in which all of these are true?
Nevertheless, as I previously posted,
“If you are a parent of an elementary and middle school student, then you should get copies of the ACT and SAT sample tests. Ensure that your child is being introduced to the type of problem solving, language, vocabulary, and core content necessary to perform well on either the SAT or ACT. Compare what your child is expected to know on the tests with what he or she is learning in school. As more schools focus almost exclusively on preparing your child for grade-level and standardized tests, your child may be short changed when it comes to developing the broad range of critical thinking and reasoning skills that he or she will need to ensure that he or she is ready for college.”
The American Youth Policy Forum paper, “Key Considerations for Serving Disconnected Youth” outlines the type of strategies needed to reach youth who have become “disconnected” from both education and productive employment. The report indicates that in the U.S., 3 out of every 10 students fail to earn a high school diploma and that 5.3 million 15-24 year-olds (16.4 percent of all such youth) are disconnected from both education and the work place at any given point in time. For youth from low-income households, 56 percent are among disconnected youth.
The paper suggests three important strategic approaches:
- Use data to better understand how to engage disconnected youth in matching educational outcomes and postsecondary plans to their needs
- Ensure that educational pathways are relevant to career options, academically rigorous, and adaptive to student needs
- Build cross-sector collaboration and partnerships to develop the services and support that such youth need
Our foundation, which has long recognized such needs and pursued such strategies, has learned that so many youth remain disconnected due to the refusal of schools and school districts to support such strategies.
For parents interested in researching K-12 schools, the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics will allow you to pull up data on most U.S. Public/Private k-12 school, colleges, and technical schools:
Go to the National Center for Education Statistics website and select the pull down menu “School Search.” From there you can research K-12 public/private schools and colleges.
You may find the following sites helpful.
Two other helpful websites School Data Direct and School Matters are currently being redesigned.
In U.S. Department of Education research, the level of math and science that a student completes in high school is the clearest predictor of a student’s success in college. 2010 ACT results indicate that all college-bound high school seniors had their lowest scores in math and science. A recent University of Missouri study notes, “beginning first-graders that understand numbers, the quantities those numbers represent, and low-level arithmetic will have better success in learning mathematics through the end of fifth-grade, and other studies suggest throughout the rest of their lives.”
Lead researcher, professor David Geary, also notes, “This study reinforces the idea that math knowledge is incremental, and without a good foundation, a student won’t do well because the math gets more complex.” The paper, “Cognitive Predictors of Achievement Growth in Mathematics: A Five Year Longitudinal Study,” will be published in the journal Developmental Psychology.
Parents should be particularly concerned with the 2009 NAEP Results (National Assessment of Education Progress), which indicate that most U.S. 4th– and 8th-graders are not proficient in math.
4th-grade performance by racial group:
- 50 percent of White students are below proficiency
- 79 percent of Hispanic students are below proficiency
- 85 percent of Black students are below proficiency
8th-grade performance by racial group:
- 57 percent of White students are below proficiency
- 83 percent of Hispanic students are below proficiency
- 88 percent of Black students are below proficiency