Having a Conversation About Grading
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.”