Grading to Communicate: Discussion

We had a faculty learning session during our weekly meeting time this morning. You might recall that we were asked to select, read, and think about an article on assessment provided to us.

Today we broke into groups based upon our article of interest. My group consisted of my principal, a Judaics teacher, a history teacher, and me. Our biology teacher popped in, too. One of the things I was wondering about what how my administration might feel about Tony Winger’s ideas — I suppose that question was answered.

My principal made the valid point that in our school, in a culture that is so grade conscious to the point that students will want to discuss and argue about a few points, how do we get kids to see the value of a grade that is reflective of their performance, that communicates areas of strength and deficiency? This is something I wonder about, too.

I would say that my grading is tough, but fair. I feel as if I am in line with my school and department in that area. However, students expect to make A’s and B’s. In fact, students in Honors classes expect to make only A’s. It is frustrating for me to communicate to them that a B is a very good grade. In most grading scales, it means “above average.” The A grade means “excellent.” I don’t know about you, but not everything I do is “excellent.” This conveys a level of mastery that is impossible to achieve on every assignment in every class. Yet I feel that I must have too many conversations with students justifying grades when I gave given, in most cases, copious comments and clear rubrics. I am not saying that I don’t have room to improve in communicating expectations, but I feel that at least as far as major assignments, such as the research paper, students are very clear about expectations. I think they don’t always believe I will adhere to the rubric, but that’s a different issue.

Grading to Communicate

As part of our professional development focus on assessment, my colleagues and I were asked to read from our choice of several articles (many of which came from the November 2005 edition of Educational Leadership, which focused on “Assessment to Promote Learning.” One article I found particularly interesting was Tony Winger’s “Grading to Communicate.” If you are concerned about the recent trend in grade inflation, I have to highly recommend that you read this article.

Winger proposes that teachers assess students in specific areas, such as formal writing, application, and conceptual understanding. The specific areas upon which each individual teacher focuses would vary according to subject matter, grade level, and individual course emphasis. Winger’s contention is that too often, students who do the homework are able to make excellent or above average grades — A’s and B’s — when their understanding is lacking as shown on tests or writing assignments. As teachers, we understand that the students’ true understanding and/or ability to apply or synthesize material is not what is reflected in their grades; rather, their work habits are the focus. As a result, we have a school culture that values the grade above the learning. Student assessment is not a reflection of what the student knows, but how well the student plays the school game. I think we have all had a student who demonstrates a firm grasp of the concepts we teach but has poor work habits that keep him/her from earning a grade commensurate with his/her true understanding of the material. I have several every year. These students don’t do the homework, but in spite of that, they still ace the test. On the other hand, we also have those little worker bees who do each and every assignment, but demonstrate large gaps in writing or on tests. In our hearts, we feel as if we are not sending them an accurate picture with that A or B, but as grades are most commonly assessed, it is more likely that the student who demonstrates little or no understanding but has excellent work habits will have an “inflated” grade.

As I read through this article, my mind started swimming with the possibilities. If I could make this work out, I could genuinely show students where they are, what they know instead of how hard they work. Don’t get me wrong. Strong work habits are necessary, and they should figure into the grade. Winger suggest making Work Habits about 10-20% of the average. Thus, a student who turned in a paper late, as in the example he gives in the article, might earn an A for conceptual understanding, but an F in work habits. The student is still penalized for not turning the assignment in on time, but he/she still has a true picture of his or her understanding rather than a grade that has been deflated due to lateness. In addition, in Winger’s configuration, homework assignments are part of the work habits grade; therefore, a student who always does his/her homework and turns work in on time is still rewarded and students who do not will earn poor work habits grades.

I think this system could give a student a clear picture of exactly what his/her strengths and weaknesses are, once the different areas of assessment are broken down. For example, students may discover that their poor work habits are truly an issue if isolated from their other grades — there is a direct correlation between whether they do their homework and turn in assignments on time and a percentage of their grade.

I think one thing a teacher would have to do to make this work is to grade assignments from several angles, which may not be feasible. I admit to feeling daunted by the prospect of grading an assignment in three areas or more — for example, work habits, conceptual understanding, and formal writing skills. On the other hand, I think this sort of feedback could be so critical for students in helping them to see a true picture of their progress.

I would like to learn more about it before I proceed to try it out, but the prospect of this sort of assessment really excites me. Some things I need to do to make it work:

  • Probably weigh grades by percentages instead of figuring by total points, as I do now.
  • Collect fewer work samples, or I will go crazy with grading.
  • Create more rubrics.
  • Do more formative assessment, less formal assessment.
  • Figure out what to do about parents and students who “treat a ‘C’ grade the same way that students a few years ago would have treated an ‘F.'”
  • Determine whether or not this is something my department and administration buy into and support (my gut feeling is yes, but it’s better to know before I start).

School Websites

I just visited a school website (I won’t link it) looking for an old colleague of mine, and I have to say there is just no excuse in 2006 for a school to have an awkward, poorly designed, clunky website.  There are a plethora of resources available to schools.  In fact, in many cases, I’d be willing to bet their students’ Xanga blogs and MySpace sites are better looking (well, maybe not MySpace, but you get the idea).  Why not tap into their talent?  There might be business owners in the area who would be glad to sponsor a website redesign.  In many cases, the first impression a prospective student or teacher has of the school is the website.  I know that’s the first thing I have checked out in the past when I’ve been up for an interview.  And a poorly-designed site has always put me off because it tells me that the school does not take its presentation to the public seriously.


Have you ever used Rubistar to create rubrics?  I just found out about this site this week.  It’s AMAZING!  Go check it out.  It took me a matter of minutes to create rubrics for a Power Point/oral presentation and a reading journal I want my students to do as they explore the Harlem Renaissance.

Apostrophe Project

I started teaching apostrophes to my ninth graders today.  I think links to these blogs have made the rounds, but I wanted to mention Apostrophe Abuse and Apostrophe Catastrophes as good resources.  You can download my student instructions for an apostrophe project in both Rich Text and PDF format.

Understanding by Design

Understanding by Design: Professional Development WorkbookI have been looking through Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ Understanding by Design: Professional Development Workbook most of the day today. I am working on a unit on the Harlem Renaissance using the ideas behind UbD, and I would appreciate feedback. You can download the unit (one page) in MS Word. I am most concerned that my performance task, while authentic, doesn’t explicitly address the Understandings and Essential Questions. Let me back up — it does address those issues, but it is more of an inference than an explicit relation.

One of the things I like about the workbook is that there are plenty of examples of how other educators have created units based on UbD. Since Jay McTighe discussed the importance of models when he visited us for a workshop on Thursday, I find it refreshing that he “practices what he preaches,” so to speak. So often educators insist we should do this or that, but they don’t explain how in a way that’s easy to understand. I also like the fact that templates are included in various formats to enable easy photocopying.

I can’t remember the last time I walked out of a professional development workshop this excited about trying what I’ve learned.

On an unrelated note, I have noticed that many of you still have me linked at There is a redirect in place there that will bring you here, but I was concerned that those of you who might be reading via a news reader would not have seen that I’ve updated in the last couple of months unless you’ve seen the updated link.

Looking at Assessment

Our school was fortunate to be involved in a meaningful professional development opportunity led by Jay McTighe today.  I think it might revolutionize my teaching.

McTighe’s contention is that we as educators think about what objectives we need to assess — state or school standards, for example — then we think of activities.  What we don’t do is think like assessors.  We don’t think about how we are going to assess what the students have learned.

McTighe calls his model for planning “Backward Design”:

  1. Desired Results — these are the standards with which we work; objectives, essential questions, etc.
  2. Evidence — how are we going to “determine the extent tow which students have achieved the desired results”?  What performance tasks and rubrics are involved?  What other evidence (quizzes, tests, prompted writing, etc.) will we use?  What sorts of self-assessments will we ask students to complete?
  3. Learning Plan — this is a reference to the activities and assignments we will do to ensure students learn the material.

I found this interesting, because I usually construct assessments after I’ve planned what we are going to do — not before.  What often results, I think, is that students aren’t clear about what they need to do to demonstrate their learning.  They want to make good grades, but they don’t know what I’m looking for.

McTighe suggests models of assignments.  Three examples each of exemplary work, good work, average work, and poor work.  This can take years to collect, but I see the value.  Students know exactly what they need to do in order to get the grade they’re after.  In the words of a teacher McTighe referenced, “No mysteries, no excuses.”

I think some of the things we learned are so intuitive — I wonder, and I think I wasn’t alone, why I wasn’t doing it.  Of course, I do some of it.  It’s strange, because it finally dawned on me why one of my projects usually works so well.  All I knew about it was that it worked, but I didn’t really know why.  I know this sounds strange, but bear with me.  McTighe contends that authentic assessment asks students to apply what they have learned to solve real-world types of problems.  I’m not sure this is something you can do every time, but I think it needs to be done often.  My project is a blind date between Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman.  Students record the results of the date and use some of their writing in the poets’ conversation.  Students frequently get “into” this project and do a wonderful job with it.  I didn’t realize it, but the reason it was good is that I was asking students to apply literature.  I was asking them to take to very different, very influential American poets and compare/contrast them.  Inevitably, students do very interesting things with the poets’ divergent philosophies.

McTighe shared a great unit plan for Catcher in the Rye constructed by English teacher who attended his workshop.  After having taught this novel, one thing I’ve noticed is that despite the fact that the novel explicitly describes Holden’s current location as a mental hospital, students become so lost in the story Holden tells that they forget that.  The English teacher’s plan places students in the role of an expert — “the member of an advisory committee to the hospital where Holden Caulfield is telling his story.”  After students read the novel, they will be asked to “write 1) a summary report for the hospital; 2) a letter to Holden’s parents explaining what is wrong with Holden.”  Students also do conventional work, such as an essay, quizzes, and a reading journal.  It’s a great plan, and if any teachers wish to see a copy of it, just let me know, and I’ll figure something out.

One of the things I like about McTighe is that he sees traditional assessments such as quizzes and tests as important, but also encourages assessments that ask students to apply, to self-assess.  His analogy of assessment was likened to photography.  We should not rely on a single snapshot depicting what a students knows; rather, we should help students construct a photo album.

McTighe shared links from his website.  My favorite was the one to Greece, NY Schools ELA Home Page.  English teachers — you need to check this site out.  Lots of great rubrics!  Another thing I found interesting is a mathematical formula for use with rubrics.  Here is an example from Fairfax County (VA.) Public Schools.  I know that scoring students in four different criteria on a four-point rubric, for example, doesn’t work if I give students threes across the board (which would yield 12 points) and divide that by 16.  The score is too low.  This has been a problem I’ve had with rubrics for years.  Finally!  Someone told me what was wrong.
This was exciting.  I love it when professional development is energizing and invigorating.

Gatsby Redux

I want to try to get started restoring older blog posts later this upcoming week. Midterm grades are due, and I’m still behind, so I don’t see having time to start until after that.

I did briefly want to share some of my experience teaching The Great Gatsby this year. About midway through the book, one of my students said she was sitting outside reading the book, and at least five older students stopped to tell her how much they loved the book. Another shared that he didn’t want the book to end because it was his favorite book this year. Discussing this book with my students has been a treat. My Honors class was asked to read a segment of Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (when Nafisi’s students put Gatsby on trial) for Monday, and I’m really looking forward to that discussion. I really wish I had taken the time to record some of my students’ insights earlier this week; now it’s Friday, and I’m too tired to do them justice!

Each year, students invariably ask about the book’s cover, Celestial Eyes by Francis Cugat. If you teach Gatsby, you might want to point your students to “Celestial Eyes: From Metamorphosis to Masterpiece.” It is a very interesting essay about the evolution of one of the most famous book covers in American literature. Also, you may be interested to learn that it was on this date, March 10, in 1948 that Zelda Fitzgerald died in a fire that swept through Highland Mental Hospital.

I’m Behind

Once again, I have fallen behind. I have stacks of papers to grade. I have about three or four education articles to read and write about. Oh, wait. Make that five, because Jay McTighe is coming to our school for a professional development day, and I have a large article to read in order to prepare for that. On top of all that, this blog sits, neglected. I haven’t had time to work on restoring it, nor have I had time to write much new content. I know that people are having trouble finding their way around, too, because my statistics show what I imagine to be desperate searches for material I had in a more easily accessible place on the old server.

None of it goes away if I procrastinate, either, darn it.


OK, there is a way to restore my blog posts automatically by converting the HTML into an import file. The trouble is, I can’t figure it out. My technological understanding doesn’t extend quite that far, I’m afraid.

I still have the posts. I am just going to have to go the manual route, which means it will be some time before they are all restored. Just bear with me! I think the most important parts of the site, at least as far as teachers go, have already been restored (my web activities for students). You don’t know how bad I felt when the site went kaput — I knew teachers had been using the online activities, because my site statistics would show something like 40 computers logging on to the site from a school computer lab all at the same time. I thought about how I would feel if my lesson plan was disrupted by the sudden unavailability of the website I was using. Of course, the best of us have a plan B, but still… Anyway, that part of my site was the first to be restored.

Keep watching this space!