About those grades…

11 Oct

It’s midterm grading time, and I have that perennial “meh” feeling as I try to distill my assessment of students down to one letter grade.

Only this time it’s worse. Maybe I’m getting old and cranky (at 33!), but somehow I can’t quite stomach the inaccuracy of grading anymore. I had a conversation with a colleague years ago that went like this:

Me: Gee, the ninth graders are really weak — weaker than I’ve ever seen before. And their final grades last year are all As and Bs, with a few Cs.

Colleague: Well, don’t go by grades to tell you where students are at. The grades here don’t accurately reflect their ability.

So we’ve all experienced this before at some point in our careers, but the thought really irks me this time around. I mean, what on earth is the point of grading if not to reflect accurately where students are at? Seriously.

What does a C tell you on a transcript? Or if you have a student, Jackson, with a C on his transcript and a comment that says that he reads and writes at grade level but needs to be more organized, do you still really get a feel for this student and his abilities?

I learned a cool thing from teaching in an MYP school, where criteria is set by subject. In English, for example, all grade 6 – 10 students were assessed on three criteria: Content, Organization, and Style and Language. So an essay might be assessed on all three criteria (10/10 for content, 7/10 for organization, and 5/10 for language), whereas a grammar quiz would only be assessed for language (6/10).

What was cool was to see in my gradebook how students’ grades sorted themselves, because I would keep a running tally of all Content, Organization, and Style and Language grades, so I could see at a glance that Jackson had something like this:

Content: 10/10, 8/10, 10/10, 8/10, 9/10

Organization: 5/10, 4/10, 7/10, 9/10, 9/10, 9/10

Language: 3/10, 3/10, 5/10, 5/10, 5/10

Suddenly, his strengths and weaknesses are really clear: Jackson has a firm grasp on the content, the “big ideas” in English. He struggled initially with organization and structure of those ideas in his writing, speaking, and presenting, but by the end of the term, he improved and “got there.” Jackson is still, however, quite weak in language. He’s an ESL student new to an immersion system and so his grammar and mechanics are rusty and he’ll need more support in this area.

Foreign languages at Qatar Academy had 5 criteria they had identified as being fundamentally important to asses; the science department had 7. It’s easy to grade this way, and easy to assess students more wholly.

My only beef with the MYP system is that, while we calculated each criterion grade first, we then added all three criteria and divided by the number of criteria (mean average), essentially making the whole thing one ambiguous letter grade again. Jackson would have had a 9 for Content, a 9 for Organization (based on the MYP philosophy, you are encouraged to assess students where they are at, not mean average where they have been), and a 5 for Language. That totals 23, which means Jackson would have a C+ in English.

Now I know we don’t live in a perfect world, but here’s my fantasy: Why can’t we create the report cards and transcripts we really and truly want, ones that accurately reflect student ability across a variety of criteria? Why must we average values to distill a student’s worth down to one grade alone? An average hides all the data that is actually helpful. There are many examples of elementary school report cards that report this way, and KIPP has its character grades in addition to academic ones.

And why stop at three criteria? In my perfect world, the one in which I get to sprinkle stardust and changes just magically happen, I’d have seven criteria for upper-school English.

1. Preparation, Instruction, and Organization (Is homework done and in on time? Do assignments get submitted in time and in the right format? Does the student follow written or verbal instructions accurately? Are materials brought to class regularly?)

2. Understanding and Knowledge (the “Content” one above)

3. Presentation and Structure

4. Language

5. Creativity

6. Collaboration (how well do students work with others)

7. Self-assessment (how accurately do students assess their work and their progress)

What would this look like? The sky’s the limit. Vocab and grammar quizzes? Criterion 3. Persuasive essay? Criteria 1, 2, 3, and 4. Short story? Criteria 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. Group project, team-building activities, or Harkness method? Criterion 6. Students assessing and grading their own work before they submit it? Criterion 7.

Think of how much I could learn about students if I reported in this way, designed my course in this way? I’d be able to separate the disorganized from the weak thinkers with one glance at my grade book, checking criterion 1 grades against criterion 2 grades.

And I wouldn’t average them all together; instead I’d choose the most recent, representative numbers for each criteria, and just report them in all their glory so students, parents, and other teachers could benefit from the rich, broad feedback. This way, everyone could see that Jackson has a 9/10 in criterion 1 (he’s really organized); a 10/10 in criteria 2 (deep critical thinker), a 7/10 in criterion 3 (still working on structure), and a 5/10 in criterion 4 (still needs a good deal of work on language). While his former C+ hid much of his strong abilities in criteria 2 and 3, here they are displayed clearly, and the weaker skills don’t bring down his average.

And for those who will protest that colleges will balk at this system, I’d say two things: First, most colleges that will take the time to read a transcript at all would certainly welcome more information on students’ strengths and weakness, not less. And secondly, there are schools like St. Ann’s in Brooklyn, New York, which is ranked one of the top in the nation and boasts an impressive list of college acceptances, that do not provide any letter or number grades at all — only comments.

So why can’t we do this? After all, if grading isn’t meant to be accurate feedback on where a student is at a given point in time, then what is it? And why are we doing it?

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One Response to “About those grades…”

  1. Jennie Munson October 12, 2011 at 12:10 pm #

    IB certainly does it right as should we all. This best practice research on “grading for learning” has been out for years, yet many schools, international and US, continue to do grading and assessment the same ways as always.

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