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On grades

by admin

Grading has gone through a lot in the past decade. It’s been through a massive overhaul, coming out the other side looking quite different from when it began. Some of the changes, necessary ones in my opinion, are finally beginning to become commonplace in our practice. They are starting to take hold.

I’ve written previously about standards-based grading practices, briefly reviewing some of the literature out there supporting it while offering my own opinions. When I wrote this piece, I was in a grad class on assessment and tasked with doing a literature brief on a topic related to the class. Standards-based grading was a hot, controversial topic in my district at the time and a few of our teachers were piloting it. I was not one of them, and, quite honestly, I didn’t know all that much about the reasoning behind doing it. But since we were moving in that direction at my middle school, I decided to take the opportunity to familiarize myself.

Both the instructor in my assessment class, Dr. Todd Reeves, and the research I found were enlightening. Prior to educating myself on the topic, I had been a staunch opposer of standards-based reporting. I craved the ‘concrete’ nature of points and percentages, the black-and-white, non-negotiable practice that was the outdated, traditional grading system.

It’s hard to admit that as an educator, especially a proud one, which I am. Even now, looking back, I cringe at my opinions on grading and how loudly I proclaimed them. This transformation in reporting academic proficiency is one that has been wholly personal for me, and it’s really changed my approach as a teacher in some incredibly positive ways.

The big turning point for me was when I began considering what a grade is supposed to do. It’s function, reason for existence. When I thought about it, the real message behind a grade should be to communicate academic proficiency—i.e., how well a student understands a given academic skill. Do points, percentages, and letters actually tell that? Truthfully, I don’t see how they can. When a student takes a test and earns 15/20 points, a 75%, a C, do they actually know what they do and don’t understand in that content area? Do they know how well they mastered the skill? Do their parents? Probably not. They know they got a C, and their overall grade for the course went up or down depending on weight, total points, or what have you. Their focus is totally, completely on earning a specific number of points and definitely, certainly not on learning.

I can say this with confidence because I was that kid. My goal in school was to get the required number of points to earn the grade I wanted, and I got very good at it. I knew what I needed to do, depending on the teacher I had, to get the points I would need to earn an A. Couldn’t have told anyone how well I could understood the theme of Siddhartha, or analyze it’s deeper meaning, but I knew I got a A on the test, so I was good to go.

In many of my courses, I wasn’t really learning. I was making my way through the classes, memorizing what I needed to for assessments, gathering my points, and earning a grade. There came a time, however, when I had some teachers who really challenged me. Their idea of assessment was different, unfamiliar. Even then, 10 years ago (still unsure how ten years happened), some educators were starting to make changes. Forcing their students, like me, to learn instead of earn. I remember sitting in a biology class, knowing my teacher would curve the grades, FREAKING OUT because the test sitting in front of me had a 67% on it. Nevermind the fact that I still remember to.this.day. how the human immune system works and could explain it to anyone who asked—I didn’t earn the right number of points, so it didn’t really matter that I had learned anything.

I never, ever want my students to think this way. It can be damaging, destructive even, to their educational lives. When they align their ability, their worth sometimes, to a letter grade, we’ve lost them. They are not there to grow, make progress, and learn. And it’s really hard to get them back from that.

Moving to a proficiency-based grading system this year has been amazing. It’s been a lot of work and there’s been some discomfort along the way, but that’s to be expected when trying something new. I’ve loved the switch, even the tough conversations I’ve had while communicating the philosophy behind the change and the logistics of how it works in our ELA class. The difficult conversations challenge me, as an educator, to review and reflect on my practices. They cause me to think deeply about why and how I assess my students’ learning. They keep me on top of my game in my practice, and give me the tools I need to face the same questions or concerns in the future.

I’ve seen huge shifts in my students too. Some of my most stressed out students are calmer knowing they are not defined by a grade in my class, instead focusing on how much progress they’ve made since the beginning of a unit. We have targeted, productive conversations about their learning rather than discussing extra credit points. Kids can talk knowledgeably about what they understand and what they don’t, referring to specific feedback they’ve gotten on formative assessments. They are able to communicate with both myself and their parents where they are in their reading and writing skills. And, most importantly, they come to class and learn. They work hard, put forth their best effort, and ask questions, knowing that our focus is solely on making progress toward our goals.

On top of the well-being bonuses, standards-based reporting also removes a lot of the additional factors that tend to get included in a percentage, points-based grading system. Often, teachers using points assign them arbitrarily, awarding points for punctuation or appropriate capitalization. I know they do, because I did it. A lot. My favorite thing to do was round out an assignment’s point value to a nice even ten by adding a couple extra points for complete sentences. I still remember the beast that was a 127-point pronouns “portfolio” where I added 3 additional points to a page because the correct answers had 2 pronouns instead of 1… just so I could get the even 130.

The point is that the points don’t matter. They don’t tell a student, a teacher, or a parent how well a student understands an academic concept. And they often include items unrelated to the actual skill being assessed, like adding extra points to a literary themes quiz for using periods at the end of statements.

One might make the argument that these grades offer a concrete, no nonsense communication of a student’s ability. I would say that they absolutely do not. Within a student’s grade could exist points for effort, loss of points for turning something in late, added points for extra credit because they dressed up for a speech, or subtracting points for not following directions. These are behaviors that students exhibit, not academic proficiency levels. And when you begin mixing the behavior in, are you really getting that concrete, clear picture of academic ability in a class? Definitely not.

Not only does standards-based reporting clarify a student’s actual academic proficiency, but it also provides a basis for teachers to see their students’ learning as a process. A skill is reviewed and practiced multiple times through activities and formative assessments, giving students opportunities to learn new information and apply it. Teachers will see these changes in real time as the students complete formatives, and we offer suggestions to help students keep improving each time. This allows teachers to more clearly see their students’ progress on a specific standard or learning target because your feedback is focused on growth.

It’s a beautiful thing, this proficiency-based reporting.

It changes so much about your practice in such positive ways. As a former, now sheepish, naysayer I suggest spending some time with the research and doing some reflection. Have conversations with people who have tried it and allow them to share with you the changes they’ve seen, as well as the struggles they’ve had. You’re not in it alone, and many have come before you. I’m always available if you want to chat. And I won’t deny that it is a lot of work, much of it personal and philosophical, nor will I tell you that the communication with students and families is always a breeze. But the benefits of making this change far outweigh the startup struggles, and the changes you will see in your students and in yourself are so very worth it.

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