This weekend I attended ntcamp, an unconference for both veteran and new teachers aimed at providing conversation for new teachers to learn from veteran teachers.  I sat in on a session facilitated by Jason Bedell about grades that proved to be a thought provoking one.

He created a collaborative document that holds a lot of the thoughts, reflections and reactions from the session. You can access it here.

It really got me thinking about my own grading practices, which I have always struggled with. Part of the struggle has been trying to give grades to almost 300 students that I see once a week for 45 minutes (if I’m lucky).  Part of it is just an underlying feeling that I’m not ‘doing it right.’

I tend to focus on project based learning with rubrics as an assessment. I create the rubric first, outlining the learning goals and creating descriptors to support what they would look like from basic understanding to mastery. My rubrics are constantly being revised, reworded and reworked. While the project is still in progress I make notes on changes to make as I see fault with the scale or descriptors or if I find that wording is unclear. Still, I feel that I’m just not ‘doing it right.’

So I wonder: Is this because I haven’t figured it out? Is there something inherently wrong with giving students grades? Or maybe this feeling is just a necessary evil?

My struggles:

  • Even with very specific descriptors that spell out the requirements for each criteria I often find myself wondering how objective my grading really is
  • I always have students who don’t finish the project in time for the end of the marking period–why should they be penalized just because they work more slowly than their neighbor?
  • By teaching with a standard rubric I am using the same expectations for students who are not all the same. I do modify the rubric for students with IEPs, but usually it’s just a matter of deleting a criteria to simplify the project.
  • How do I get my students to look beyond the grade when I give them feedback?
  • How do I assess my students the way I think is best within the constructs of the system I am forced to use?
  • Is it OK for me to be instilling in my students the idea that they are only as good as someone else (me) tells them they are?
  • How do e-portfolios, having students develop rubrics, student self-assessment and having students explain their understanding of a standard verbally or in written form (all ideas I’ve been hearing) play out at the elementary level?

What I am going to try:

  • Using LiveBinders to have my students start an e-portfolio that we can add to each year. Students would choose what items will go into the portfolio
  • Sitting with students while they explain how their portfolio item(s) meet the standard(s)
  • Collaborating with classroom teachers to incorporate content standards into my projects
  • Making standards transparent to my students and having discussions that will help me assess understanding
  • Keeping individual records on students to track progress–it should be easier this year since I won’t be teaching 400 students a week!
  • Allowing students as much time as they need to complete assignments
  • Letting students revise a project until it meets the highest criteria
  • Have students tell me the grade they think they deserve with a justification (perhaps by having students record their grade explanations as an mp3 to hand in digitally)
  • Allowing for group work that will provide students the opportunity to use their strengths and learn from their peers.
  • Designing learning experiences that allow the students choice and that are based on real-life situations

Still unsolved:

  • How to quantify these assessments so they fit into a gradebook/report card
  • How to introduce and explain these kinds of assessments to my students
  • If I let my students take as much time as they want, what do I do if they haven’t finished by the end of the marking period?
  • If I am going to ask my students to explain their understanding of a standard that means I will still have to have deadlines of some kind
  • I will have to plan for time for the self-assessments–this will take away from instructional time
  • How will I convey expectations to my students? Will I still need to have a rubric of some kind?
  • How will I create these ‘authentic’ learning experiences while allowing for student choice and meeting standards?

I’m still on the fence about grades. I know that something is not right, but I also know that we are working within a system that is based on quantifying student learning.  My students will need grades to be able to get into a good high school (in Philadelphia you can apply to competitive high schools) and definitely to get into a good college. In addition, students want to know if what they are creating is any good. We all know that feeling when we thought we really had something good only to find out it was only mediocre. Some of my most memorable teachers were able to give me useful and honest feedback while also asking questions to push me further. Eventually, though, this feedback ended in some kind of evaluation in the form of a grade.  In addition, we spend our adult lives being rated on some kind of scale, whether it be your quarterly review or a formal observation or a raise,

On the other hand, it wasn’t the grade that I remember, it was the feedback process. So I guess I want that experience for my students. I want them to be more interested in the conversation around a concept and dialogue of learning than how I rate them on some seemingly arbitrary scale that I have concocted so that I can put a letter or number in a box.

So what are you struggling with? What are you going to try to do differently next year? What are your thoughts on grades?

For more about abolishing grades here are some resources/ideas

Joe Bower–Abolishing Grading and The Grading Moratorium
Matt Townsley — The Tenets of Assessment/Grading Reform (guest post)
Alfonso Gonzalez — Why Grade to Assess?(guest post)
Jason Bedell’s Summer Series on Assessment

 photo courtesy of pjern on Flickr

18 Comments

  1. Alan Stange

    Reply
  2. David Fleming

    Reply

    I'm actually planning on moving towards rubrics as an assessment for learning. In this way, I feel strongly that rubrics are actually key to differentiation. By demonstrating the area in which a student is struggling, we now have a goal to work towards. As a small group or even one-on-one, I am able to work with these students to get them from where they are to where they need to be.

    In some ways, it seems to be the exact opposite of what you are suggesting, or what was suggested at NTCamp (based on the tweets I read), however I agree wholeheartedly with you that the feedback process is so much more important than the actual grade. Of course, in the primary grades here, this isn't so much of a problem. Students either receive an ED (Experiencing Difficulty), an AD (Appropriate Development) or an SP (Strong Performance). It gets much more complicated in grade three, when you start working with letter grades, and then even moreso in middle school as percentages are used (at least in my province).

    I'll be interested to read more about the process you go through as you try to work out some answers to some of the tough questions you've presented here!

  3. Reply

    Thanks so much for reminding me that I meant to put some other resources/posts on grading in my post 🙂 I appreciate you sharing your post as well. I have been reading a lot of Joe Bower's stuff, so much of my musings are related to his writings and ideas.

  4. tbaldasaro

    Reply

    When I was still in the classroom, I struggled similarly with my grading. Each year, I would return with the newest and "best" grading system for my kids, only to tinker with it throughout the year. What I always struggled with was this notion of being fair – how do I fairly assess each of my 120 students in a way that best reflects both their strengths and the areas in which they need help. I never really felt as though I nailed it although I felt as though I was closest when I did two things relative to grades: (1) eliminated late grades and (2) allowed students to redo their work until they show proficiency.

  5. kcollazo

    Reply

    After reading several of Alfie Kohn's books this summer, the issue of grading has been at the forefront of my summer "redesign". I have always felt the same way you do, that my grading system is just "not right". I dread going to the "awards assemblies" and seeing the honor rolls published in the paper, it goes against everything I want for my kids. Your post helped me narrow my plan for this year as well. I have constructed a standards based report card, something we don't use in my state, but base our be-all, end-all assessments on. I plan to give the kids each a copy of the spreadsheet so they can track how THEY think they are doing toward mastering the standards. Also, like your LiveBinders idea, each of them will have a wiki where they will add portfolio pieces, and I'm going to have them create a short audio bite for each one describing why they chose it. Thanks for a great post that helped me solidify a lot of what I'd been thinking about this summer!

  6. Aaron Fowles

    Reply

    We'll always have grades, but we'll always know that grades are, at best, an imperfect measure. That's why universities don't rely on grades alone.

    My high school English teacher had the right idea. He was a few years from retirement in 1997, and I think he'd been using his system for years. Students had to track their own grades and assignments could be resubmitted indefinitely for better grades. "It's your grade; do what you want with it." You had to submit all versions of a text when you resubmitted a new version. The system was pretty much flawless.

    So it's not a new idea, really, but one that has been kept down low. The fact of the matter is that teachers tend to really like giving grades because it gives a sense of power. I say this as a teacher myself. In many environments, though, grades overtake learning as the drive for educational work, creating the "banking system" of education that leads to, well, all sorts of bad things.

    We owe our students a fair assessment, but we also need to get them to think beyond the grades. That's a community effort as well as a school effort. This kind of work requires much more communication than a letter grade, so Internet technology can be very useful for that purpose.

    Just be patient. We ain't in Star Trek yet.

  7. Old Guy

    Reply

    Many years ago I taught in a Pass/Fail school. We found that this system wound up hurting our student's college acceptances, as most colleges demanded something more specific; they generally would not take the time to read the individual evaluations that accompanied the "grade", so it was easier to just not accept them. Are colleges taking a more enlightened approach today?

  8. Reply

    These are powerful questions that all teachers need to ask far more often. It scares me how often we simply ignore such topics.

    There are skeletons piling on skeletons in the teachers' grading closets. It's time we bust it open and offer transparency not only for other teachers but for the public.

    Great Post!

  9. Reply

    Like you, I am struggling with grades. We use a Mastery scale. I have just as much issue with issuing M's (Mastery), P's (Proficient), & NI's (Needs Improvement) as I do with other letter/number grades. Using a Mastery scale, I am always left with the question: "Do we ever truly master something when we are LEARNING?" I think…no. We are continuously learning, so at best we are always proficient to varying degrees.

    I also have difficulties with rubrics, as they are fairly similar to grades. Through the years I have gone from a rubric freak (creating rubrics for EVERYTHING) to creating rubrics with the children to not using them at all. Along the issues you brought up about rubrics, I struggle with providing children with criteria to do work that may not be their best. Just putting that option out there for them is disturbing to me. Not to mention how rubrics can limit creativity & even possibly keep struggling students struggling.

    This past year, I got away from grading (except when mandated during district benchmarks). In the past I've used a combination of rubrics, grades, & feedback. I began to incorporate feedback on a more regular basis this past year. Although, it does take some time for the children to get used to (even in 3rd grade), I found it much easier for me to assess their learning. When I provided verbal feedback, I'd keep a note of it in my conference notes to remind me of what we've been working on. Now, this is where I really like technology…providing written feedback made it a lot easier & manageable to do so no matter where I was. All I needed was a computer & did not have to worry about lugging heavy notebooks around. I'm going to be doing this a lot more often this year as well.

    Another thing that I am really fond of is Academic Choice (a Responsive Classroom Practice). Academic Choice provides differentiation on a variety of levels & can be as simple or complicated as needed, but it's strength is in how it is executed: the children plan, work, reflect, & share. During the planning phase the children choose what they want to do, how they want to do it, &/or who they work with. During the working phase, they work while the teacher coaches as needed. During the reflection phase they reflect on their work: what worked well for them, what they liked/learned, etc. However, it is the sharing phase that I believe is the most powerful! It is during this phase that they stand by their work, sharing it with others. This part of the process not only lets them take ownership of their learning, but allows them to see what else is possible. It is during this phase that the children truly understand work ethic.

    I really like your idea of using Live Binder to create multi – year e-portfolios! I think this will be an incredibly reflective process for the children that they will learn a lot from. Just think about the life – long skills they will take away with them from just that process / experience! I cannot wait to hear how it goes!

  10. David Ginsburg

    Reply

    Great post and dialogue. As for my take on grades, as I said at the ntcamp session you referred to, we need to approach grades in a way that establishes for students a cause-effect relationship between strong work habits and achievement (as opposed to just ability and achievement). Work habits such as effort, teamwork, and the one I targeted most in my classroom: resourcefulness (see http://bit.ly/9sQjPC)

    And from what you’ve shared, your plan has great potential for facilitating this cause-effect relationship. One provision that seems especially promising to me is giving students as much time as they need to complete assignments—provided you hold them accountable for progress along the way (i.e., you don’t want kids to exploit this by dragging out assignments; it might help if you have each student submit a timeline to you at the start of an assignment, which you could then approve/adjust based on what you know about each student.) I also like the idea of having students justify their grades. I did this in my classroom, and it was a great way for me to teach and for kids to learn that all-important work habits-achievement connection.

  11. Lyn

    Reply

    I really like the questions you're asking about your current methods of assessment. I am going to encourage my teachers to reflect in a similar manner! Love the Livebinder idea. When I taught K-5 "computer class" I always tried to incorporate content area standards/units of study into our projects. I couldn't justify doing stand-alone projects that made no connection to what students were learning in their classrooms!

  12. Reply

    David,

    I think that rubrics are not necessarily evil and my students find them helpful as a guide when completing projects. Our primary grades get a 1-4 rating as well as their reading level in comparison with where they 'should' be <–another scale I struggle with.

    Thanks for your reflections!

  13. Reply

    I love that system. I do think those kinds of systems will never catch on because they require so much work from the teacher. I wonder how much time he spent re-grading papers over and over. I also think that system is great for high school, but my concern is that we indoctrinate our students in elementary school, so I wonder how we can change the system all the way down to the bottom.

    In the meantime, I'll be patient!

  14. Reply

    I took 2 courses P/F in college. You could actually get your entire degree P/F but you would have no GPA. Those courses I took P/F did not count toward your GPA. If you are planning on going to grad school or beyond this can definitely be an issue.

    I do foresee, however, that colleges/universities will be accepting more digital portfolios rather than traditional applications.

  15. Reply

    Great point that I don't want my kids abusing the privilege. Perhaps we as a class could agree on a timeline I'll be teaching lots of classes–it might be more manageable.

  16. Reply

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