On Compliance [Part 3: Assessment & Grading]

I’ve written about standards-based grading before (check it out here), so it’s no secret that I am supportive of this movement. In my recent reflection on the ways schools can promote compliance, it occurred to me that some of the traditional assessment and grading practices do just that.

Our traditional grading systems tie an arbitrary percentage to an even more arbitrary letter. Students, parents, and other stakeholders are incredibly invested in this system, which is viewed as ‘concrete’ and unquestionable. Points are awarded and taken away based on a set of standards, and assignments have a quantified value. All seems to be very objective. But, the fact of the matter is that a lot of times it isn’t so black and white.

By taking time to assign numbers to a student’s learning, to give and take points away, what are we communicating about their progress? Does this grade offer any specific feedback on an academic skill? Does it give students an idea on how to improve? Does it offer a way for them to demonstrate new learning? Does it truly accomplish the purpose of a grade–which is, objectively, to report academic ability?

In some cases, the answer can be yes. When teachers truly put in the effort to give quality, timely feedback, grades can communicate academic proficiency. If a grading system is in place that allows for reassessment and focuses on student growth, reports do tell students and parents meaningful academic information. When students are given freedom to demonstrate their understanding and teachers are focused on communicating progress, we accomplish this goal. Fortunately, the movement toward standards-based learning has shifted our mindset and allowed us to achieve this more seamlessly.

On the other hand, there are still some assessment practices put in place to make our students compliant. They are designed to get our students to produce a formulaic result, follow a specific method, or generate an expected response. There are still entire systems, ones that we have relied upon for years, that work against our students.

And here’s where I get on my soapbox (or in my classroom, it’s usually a stool) to talk about zeros.

Before you grab the pitchfork and hang me out to dry, let me start by saying that I was a firm proponent of giving a zero when nothing was done. I still struggle with the notion of a student doing absolutely nothing in class and getting credit. But the fact of the matter is this: when a student is doing ZERO work in a classroom, there’s got to be something more going on. And it’s up to us to figure out what that is and advocate for our kid to get them what they need. If we do give a zero and work with the student to get back on track, we have to offer an option to earn back the credit for that zero. But I digress…

A couple years ago, I was sitting in a conference where the speaker, Adam Dyche, brought up the idea of zeros. I was pretty confident he was going to support giving 50% for no work, and I was already preparing to shut down and stop listening. But he started off by saying something that caused me to pause and take heed.

“The only students who are afraid of getting zeros are the ones who never get them.”

I had to stop for a minute there. I was taken completely off guard. Because the only thought running through my mind was, Oh my gosh he’s right. The students who consistently get zeros didn’t magically change this behavior because they got no credit for their work. They didn’t see the zero, do a 180 and begin to work harder. The only thing that happened was that they failed my class. And the students who did attempt to improve their grade had little to no chance of being able to do so.

In this same session, and again in a piece by Thomas Guskey, another compelling reason is presented. In our current system, a huge amount of the grading scale is devoted to failing grades. More than half, in fact. When considering how a zero impacts a student’s overall course grade, both Guskey and Dyche consider strict percentages and numbers. By putting in a zero, a student has to make gain of 60-70% to pass the class. When compared to the gain needed to improve a letter grade, the difference is astronomical because to improve, they need to increase by 10%. But to come back from a zero, they need to earn 60%. And even if they do that, they end up with a D, which in some schools isn’t a passing grade anyway. Does that amount of work seem worth it to you?

In a system with zeroes, we’re putting students in a position that is nearly impossible to rectify, even if they earn perfect scores on every assignment that follows. Especially if we don’t allow a re-assessment. So really then, what is the purpose of the zero that can be re-assessed? To communicate academic progress in our content areas, or to get our kids to comply with the rules?

The same goes for re-assessment. I’ve heard many people say that we shouldn’t offer retakes in school because “there are no retakes in life”. Honestly, that’s just not true. When we mess up, don’t understand something, or just can’t do a given task because we’re having a bad day, we have options to get it done. We have the ability to do something again so it achieves the intended outcome. We learn to ask for those opportunities so we can do our best work. Shouldn’t our students have that same opportunity?

Aside from zeros, our percentage and point-based grading system may seem objective, but in reality, that is not always the case. In some cases, the points we award rely heavily on the student whose paper we are looking at. We’re skewed based on how much effort they put in, whether they are a “good student”, and the like. We’re humans, and that’s human nature. But in that kind of reporting system, are we truly communicating our students skill in an academic area? Or are we actually reporting a murky judgment that mixes academic proficiency and behaviors?

Sometimes, the percentages reflect the number of days an assignment was handed in past the due date. Even if the student did incredibly well, their grade can be influenced by how late the assignment was. In that kind of system, we’re communicating to the student that even though they took the time to engage with our content and do the work, it matters less because it didn’t get turned in on time. It’s not as good because it didn’t get to us when we wanted it. Often, I hear about how there are deadlines at work and consequences when those deadlines aren’t met. That is absolutely true, and I do not advocate here for students to not be held accountable for their behavior—they absolutely should be. But, that accountability should not be in their grade. It should not be communicated through a measure of academic proficiency, because when it is, we are telling our students that their grades are a vehicle for compliance and not a report of their progress.

The fact of the matter is this. This supposedly objective system for grading, for communicating and reporting student proficiency, can include factors that are completely unrelated to academic skill. So when we use this system, are we truly using it because it is good for student learning?

It seems to me that the answer is no. Many of us fall back on the argument that this system worked for us and we turned out successful. However, when we think about the learning we did, the skills we mastered, I’m not sure our grades really reflected that. I believe that the system as it stands encourages students to “play the game” and learn to be good at school. It seems that the grades earned in that system show how well a student meets the requirements on the good student checklist and not how much progress was made. This system encourages students to be compliant, to figure out what they need to do for each teacher so they can earn the maximum number of points in a class. And that just doesn’t sound like learning to me.

It’s time now to recalibrate. And while, as teachers, we don’t have a lot of control over some of these factors—the grading scale, the grade reporting system—we do have control over our attitudes. We do have the ability to communicate progress more effectively to our students through rich, constructive feedback. We do have the ability to try new methods of assessment and reporting with an open mind. We do have the opportunity to weigh in, as experienced stakeholders, to the conversation surrounding grading practices. We can try to make small, but effective changes to the systems that aren’t within our individual control. And when we do this, we can ensure that the focus is on learning and not on compliance.

Guskey, T. 2013. Solving the problems of zeros in grading. Thomas Guskey & Associates. Retrieved from https://tguskey.com/solving-problems-zeros-grading/.
Dyche, Adam. Future ready grading practices. Powerpoint presentation. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1TT8x3Cya5w4LSPYgGpjNlqpX6Przk53mRoT5Lnsy4-Y/edit#slide=id.g2a7a5e5695_0_396.

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