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Best Practices in Education, Formative Assessment, Standards Based Grading,

The Big Glitch in the Grading Game

I have a confession: The grades I used to give out didn't mean what you thought.

Uncommunicative grade card

Yes, it's true. I once graded students on their willingness to play school for me. At least, that's the conclusion I have reached after looking back on my first years of teaching; thankfully, I have since amended my grading practices. When I started teaching in the 1990s, I was scoring my students on the same game of school (remember the old bell curve?) that I had played years ago. I had some kids that were failing for not completing homework, others with 103% averages for completing any and all extra credit work, and the majority fell somewhere in the middle. Did missing homework mean they didn't understand the concepts I was teaching? Did completing extra credit mean they did?

There was a big glitch in my grading game. What did any of this really have to do with learning? The only question that grades should answer was being completely ignored: Are my students effective learners?

A professional development series presented by my district focused on the nuts and bolts of grading and hit me over the head like a hammer. An effective learner doesn't just follow the rules of the school game; an effective learner masters the concepts of the curriculum. When I started reflecting on my own grading practices, I asked myself some hard questions about what the grades I assigned were actually measuring, and I didn't like the answers. Students' grades were a reflection of their classroom routine compliance (e.g., Was the work on time? Was every assignment completed? Was extra credit used?), and not a reflection of whether or not they were actually learning. Once I recovered from this hammer blow, I said good-bye to homework and extra credit and hello to reporting my students' tangible growth and learning.

How does a teacher determine effort? Are they sitting at the kitchen island while the tears fall over math homework?This was an arduous task which was accompanied by more than a few tears. It was a big step for me and a giant leap for the parents who had been standing on the sidelines while their children played the game of school. Parents know the rules of the school game, and many had become expert coaches. I was shaking things up a bit. I took the time to answer all the questions, and there were a lot. Parents were seeing something new, and they had every right to ask any questions that would help them understand it. In the end, parents could see the importance of separating the game of school from the art of learning.

As parents, we have to ask questions to ensure we understand what our child's grade represents. As teachers, we have to report tangible growth and learning and be able to explain how our grading system reflects it. Conversations about grades have to happen.

A colleague recently shared one such conversation about the addition of an effort score next to her daughter's traditional letter grade.

How does a teacher determine effort? Are they sitting at the kitchen island while the tears fall over math homework? Understanding the turn of a phrase that's eluding a young writer as she stares off into space searching for the words to spin the tale just right? Or are they checking the quality of the handwriting and wrinkles on a page to determine just how much "effort" was shown?

Take your pick because effort isn't a tangible factor to grade. When my colleague questioned that effort score, she learned that the teachers had been given no criterion with which to determine this unwelcome addition to the grade cards. While there is some flexibility in creating a grading system, there are also aspects that are controlled by school and district administrators, which was the case with the administrative addition of the unmeasurable effort score. It was soon removed from the district's grading system, but it took a concerned parent to pose some questions and point out the glitch.

Whether you are an educator or a parent, when the components of a grade aren't clear to you, it's time to ask some questions. Grades are sometimes the only communication between parents and teachers, so understanding what they report is imperative.

I certainly don't have all the answers, but I will tell you that it's okay to ask the questions. In fact, I urge you to do so. It's time to retire grades that reflect how well students play the game of school and embrace those that communicate the art of learning!


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