Tensions in the room were running high. I sat with the chair of the English Department and the mother of a struggling student. At issue was one question: Did my grading system offer a fair reflection of this young man’s work?
“What do you have against him!? This is his junior year! His future is at stake? Why are you ruining his life!”
What she didn’t know was that his grade, a C+, was close to the class average. In fact, if I were to raise his grade, I would have to lower someone else’s. You see, he was in “regular” English, not the “honors” class. School policy stated that class averages should be 90% for honors and 80% for regular classes.
And by the way, we weren’t to share this information with parents.
My Grading System on Trial: Guilty as Charged
At the time, I was a bit of a perfectionist when it came to grades. Papers were measured in four categories: Ideas, Mechanics, Organization, and Style. (A system borrowed from my junior English teacher and mentor, Rob Myslik). Test questions balanced factual recall with deeper thinking. I reviewed the CliffNotes to make sure my tests could not be gamed.
The meeting was like a trial. I presented my evidence in sequence and explained what each artifact meant. My department chair nodded in agreement, confirming to the distraught mother that everything was in order. At the time, I felt vindicated.
In retrospect, I realize that nothing we could say would convince this parent that she had a C+ child. What’s more, despite my complex calculations, my grading system was completely arbitrary. And the hard truth is that almost every grading system in every school is just as subjective.
Tying Grades to Standards?
Some schools are turning to standards-based grading in an attempt to make report cards more “accurate.” Rather than an overall average, students receive a rating for each standard. Teachers cannot factor in participation, completion, or “bonus points.”
The problem is that SBG assumes that grades just need to be more accurate. While accuracy is a concern, the bigger question is “Why?” Why do we grade students?
If our job is to rate and sort students, SBG is a major step forward. But I think schools should prioritize helping students over evaluating them. And I don’t believe that more accurate rating and sorting really benefits students.
Can Grades Actually Drive Learning?
If schools prioritized student needs, we would design a very different grading system. One that motivates students. One that helps them understand their strengths and areas for growth. And one that prepares them for the world outside the classroom.
I still haven’t found a job where performance reviews emphasize what an employee knows over what he produces. The real world doesn’t disregard participation and completion. In fact, an authentic system might only measure participation and completion.
A student-centered approach would provide students a non-judgmental way of understanding their strengths and needs. It would recognize that comparing students to their peers is not the best way to build intrinsic motivation. In fact, the evidence suggests that over time, the way we use grades actually erodes student engagement in learning.
“There are many other means to communicate progress to students,” says Amy Butler Tillman, Assistant Principal of McDavid Jones Elementary in Alabama. “I don’t NEED a grading system to do that.”
5 Signs Your Grading Systems Is Sabotaging Students
Grades tell parents whether their child is “ok” or “not ok.” We send grades to schools, summer programs, and scholarship committees. We use grades to decide who goes to the honors track and who goes to the resource room. It’s not that reporting is unimportant. It’s just hard to imagine that the same system that rates and sorts students is also the best for nurturing individual learners.
If we are going to grade students, we should do so intentionally. We should design our grading systems to help students reach their potential. In a recent poll, we asked teachers and administrators what they believe is the primary purpose of grades.
Teachers chose “communicating performance to students.” Administrators chose “communicating performance to parents.”
It’s clear that educators want their grades to support students and help families. But here are five signs that your grading system is having the opposite effect.
1. Struggling Students Give Up
We like to assume that grades motivate students. But as Stanford researcher, Carol Dweck, addressed in Mindset, motivation is tied to an “internal locus of control,” a belief that your efforts matter.
When students struggle year after year, many feel that their efforts don’t make a difference. And when students are significantly below grade level, it’s nearly impossible for them to earn high grades.
Personalized learning is one way to empower struggling learners. This approach lets students work at their own level and have a voice in setting goals. Grading students on work that’s on their level (as opposed to grade level) may not be as accurate, but it does increase motivation.
2. Advanced Students Get Complacent
Traditional teaching methods rely on a “teach to the middle” strategy. This approach leaves some students overwhelmed and others bored. Many top performers have become so accustomed to good grades, they lose the drive to work for them.
Some schools address the issue by creating honors track or gifted and talented programs. But these solutions create other problems, particularly with regard to equity. By incorporating projects and using rubrics, we can measure students on what they produce, not just what they know.
3. Strained Student-Teacher Relationships
Throughout my teaching career, nothing challenged my relationships with students more than grades. There is no way for teachers to serve as a mentor and guide, while also being responsible for rating and sorting their students.
Few teachers have the option to stop giving grades, but there are some things we can do. For one, make sure to differentiate assessments. This gives each student a chance to play to her strengths. The strongest writer may not be the strongest public speaker. By grading one skill and not the other, we send a clear message about who we value in our classrooms.
I also do everything I can to keep grades high. We need to get past the myth that low grades get students to work harder.
4. Wasted Teacher Time
Grading was always my least favorite part of classroom teaching. While some amount of feedback is essential, some is just wasteful. And grading takes away time that could be better spent planning engaging lessons.
If you spend hours writing detailed feedback, only to see your students flip to the grade, the system is broken. I find students benefit more from a short conference than from pages of written feedback.
For repetitive grading, such as fill-in-the-blank or multiple choice, use technology. A Google Forms Quiz or online personalized learning platform like Khan Academy can shave hours off your grading time each week.
5. Reduced Student Ownership
One of the saddest side-effects of grading is when students feel like spectators of their own education. Rather than pursuing learning that excites them, they do what what they need to get the grade.
Cheating and grade-grubbing aren’t inherent human qualities. They’re signs that students have learned the system we taught them. The lack of ownership leaves them unprepared for the world outside of school. Instead of exploring options and taking initiative, they wait for someone to tell them what to do.
Instead, Give students some agency over how they are graded. Incorporate goal-setting and reflection to balance teacher-assigned grades. Not only will students be more motivated in class, they’ll be better prepared for life after school.
Ready to Update Your Grading System?
Are you ready to make your grades work for you and your students? A student-focused grading system can increase student engagement, improve behavior, and save grading time.
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