Tag Archives: grading

What to Assess? Ask.

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I had a great discussion with my students today. A couple of them asked me why I don’t grade participation in Socratic seminars. I used to. I stopped because I find that grading participation is slippery. If you quantify it, you run the risk of encouraging shallow participation for points. In their reflections, students share what they have learned as a result of the seminar. I think part of the concern the students shared is that their reflection must include a summary of ideas discussed in the seminar, and the students who raised the concern did not earn full points for their summaries. They argued that if they are trying to capture the discussion in their notes, they will not be as present in the discussion.

What I told the students is that grading is a means of communicating their learning, and if they would prefer to be assessed on participation because it helps them learn, then I will do what helps them learn. I asked that we have a discussion about it as a class. We had that discussion this morning, and I was really impressed with how the students were able to articulate what works for them in assessing seminars and why. They have a strong sense of what kind of assessment feels equitable and what does not. They were able to articulate why setting goals and assessing progress toward the goals was helpful, and why grading participation didn’t work for most of them.

I pointed out that the skills of note-taking and listening are important for success. Students need to listen to their teachers and peers—now and later in college—and be able to take notes on what they hear, so my rationale for assessing these skills is that they are skills that are important to practice. Yet, I understand their arguments as well. We cannot have a good seminar if students do not participate. On the other hand, their classmates insisted that participation was not a problem in our first seminar. At one point, they asked me to display our discussion map from last time (thanks, Equity Maps!). Did we actually have a problem that needed solving, or was our discussion working without grading participation?

The class consensus was to leave the assessment as is, particularly as they have only experienced one seminar so far and judgment based on one experience would not tell the whole story. I don’t think everyone was happy, and frankly, the discussion did become a bit heated. I don’t think that made the students feel comfortable. I asked them if they felt heard—not agreed with, because that’s not the same thing—but heard. I think the net result is that students appreciated the opportunity to share their ideas. I was super impressed with them, and I shared that feedback with them.

We have our second seminar tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see how this debate informs the discussion. In the end, the compromise/consensus seemed to be that students want to be assessed on making progress on their goals. Part of their reflection is to identify their goals for the next seminar. This means I need to go back into their last reflections and refresh my memory about what their individual goals are and ensure I give them feedback on their progress toward meeting their goals. They also asked for feedback on their contributions, though they recognized that one person’s idea of an insightful comment may differ from another’s.

The bottom line is that it’s important to engage students in the assessment of their learning. Some of the best discussions I have had with my students have centered on grading and assessment. They have a lot to say about assessment, but they are not always a part of the conversation about how they’ll be assessed. It was a good exercise for my students today to hear others’ perspectives on this topic and take those perspectives into consideration.

5 Myths About Grading

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In June I successfully defended my dissertation at Northeastern University. My research focused on grading and assessment, which will likely not surprise anyone who has been reading this blog for a while, as I have written about grading and assessment frequently.

My dissertation was qualitative action research, a dissertation in practice grounded in the Carnegie Project on the Education Doctorate. Grading and assessment are ripe for qualitative action research because we have over a century of quantitative research in grading and assessment, and not as much positive change, at least with grading, as we might like to see. I might argue we are seeing more authentic assessment in schools, but grading remains, well, stuck. One of the reasons I think we’re stuck is that we believe persistent myths about grading.

Grades Communicate Students’ Proficiency

One of the most persistent myths about grading is that we agree on what grades mean. As long ago as 1888, researchers were raising questions about inter-rater reliability (Edgeworth, 1888). Study after study indicates that grades are highly inconsistent measures of students’ learning. Starch & Elliott (1912) conducted a study that examined consistency among graders and found that scores on student writing varied by 30-40 points out of 100, or a probable error of 4.5. You might be thinking, “yes, but isn’t writing a little subjective anyway? I’m sure that doesn’t happen in, say, math.” Well, the following year, Starch & Elliott (1913) found that scores on a geometry exam varied even more widely—as much as a probable error of 7.5. They ascribed the difference to several factors: the possibility that graders differently evaluate the students’ methods for reaching the solution, that they assess quality of the students’ drawings, and that they assign different values to problems.

Naturally, things have changed in a hundred years. What do more recent studies say? Brimi (2011) sought to answer that very question. Brimi (2011) engaged 73 participants working for the same school district trained to use the 6+1 Traits of Writing Rubric developed by Education Northwest to score the same argumentative essay using the rubric. The participants’ grades ranged from an A to an F on the traditional grading scale; furthermore, the range of scores assigned to the essay spanned 46 points (Brimi, 2011).

Grading is inconsistent for many reasons, but one of the chief reasons is that teachers evaluate different things when they grade. Some teachers offer extra credit or give students points for bringing supplies (Townsley & Varga, 2018). Teachers can be highly individualistic in selecting criteria for students’ performance (Bloxham et al., 2016). Other factors also impact how teachers evaluate students’ performance. For example, Brackett, et al. (2013) found that a teacher’s mood while grading can impact students’ scores—teachers in a bad mood tend to rate students’ performance lower. This holds true even when grading more objective criteria such as correct spelling (Brackett, et al. 2013). Think what this means as we are teaching in the midst of a pandemic and during a time when it feels as though teachers are being attacked from all sides.

One of the reasons traditional letter or number grades emerged is due to perceived inconsistency, inefficiency, and complication involved in narrative grade reports (Feldman, 2019). It was thought that letter grades could communicate learning both efficiently and plainly (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). By the 1940s, the A-F letter grade system had become the most popular grading system (Schneider & Hutt, 2014).

Traditional grades tend to be derived by averaging the performance on all assessments during a grading period; this average may not capture students’ eventual proficiency in learning and can place undue emphasis on performance anomalies rather than tendencies (Feldman, 2019). In addition, traditional grading sometimes incorporates assessment of student behaviors, such as participation, engagement, and effort (Feldman, 2019).

We might think that grades communicate students’ proficiency in learning, but there are simply too many variables to say this definitively.

Grades Motivate Students

One fear many educators express is that if students are not graded, they will not be motivated to do the work. At best, grades serve as extrinsic motivation for learning. When students care more about the grades than the learning, they are more likely to resort to academic dishonesty. In fact, pressure to earn high grades contributes to academic dishonesty and mental health problems (Rinn et al., 2014; Villeneuve et al., 2019). Grades affect students’ achievement, self-concept, and motivation (Casillas et al., 2012; Pulfrey et al., 2011). Students who earn low grades tend to achieve less and feel lower self-esteem over time (Klapp, 2018).

Fear of earning low grades or focus on earning high grades both serve as extrinsic motivators for learning rather than intrinsic motivators, which demonstrate more effectiveness in supporting learning (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Intrinsic motivation is positively associated with both engagement and achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016; Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Helping students develop their intrinsic motivation to learn may increase students’ achievement (Froiland & Worrell, 2016). Extrinsic motivation to earn good grades or avoid the negative consequences of poor grades drives many students rather than the desire to learn, and over time, extrinsic motivation decreases students’ achievement (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). In addition, the reward of good grades tends to decrease motivation for otherwise engaging learning (Hattie & Timperley, 2007).

It’s worth noting that motivation appears to change depending on the grading system used. When students are graded using a 100-point system in which the sum of all student work is worth a total of 100 points, students tend to view each point deducted as a loss (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies-Hernandez (2012) describes such grading systems as “loss-framed grading” (p. 179). However, when students are graded using a total points system tallying all points earned, they tend to view grades as opportunities to improve and build toward a desired grade (Smith & Smith, 2009). Students who are graded with a system weighting assignment categories by percentage fell in between students in the other grading groups (Smith & Smith, 2009). Even if controls ensure that the resulting grade is the same regardless of the calculation system, students’ responses on a Likert scale questionnaire indicate they still perceive greater risk in 100-point systems and were less motivated and self-assured (Smith & Smith, 2009). Bies- Hernandez (2012) replicated these findings and further found that students’ performances in courses with a loss-framed grading system also decreased. Thus, the framing of the grading system not only has an impact on students’ perceptions of their performance but also on their actual performance (Bies- Hernandez, 2012). The implication is that teachers’ approaches to grading may affect students’ academic achievement (Brookhart et al., 2016).

However, proficiency-based grading (sometimes known as competency-based grading, standards-based grading, or mastery-based grading) has the potential to make grades more meaningful and purposeful (Buckmiller et al., 2017; Guskey, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also lead to greater academic achievement, particularly if the grades are paired with formative feedback (Hattie & Timperley, 2007). Proficiency-based grading practices may also foster more cooperation and less competition (Burleigh & Meegan, 2018). Taking academic risks, weighing differing conclusions, and considering varied points of view are all necessary for developing critical thinking skills, but if students must risk failing grades in order to do so, they are much more likely to take the safer route to earning a higher grade (Hayek et al., 2014; McMorran et al., 2017). Knowing that they could continue to learn, revise, and reflect on their work may increase students’ motivation to learn (Hattie & Timperley, 2007; McMorran et al., 2017).

100-point Grading Scales are More Precise than A-F or 4-Point Grading Scales

Do you know why we use the 100-point scale? It’s not because it’s more precise. It’s because it’s the scale in the gradebook software (Guskey, 2013; Guskey & Jung, 2016). The 100-point scale is terrible, and that’s a hill I’m willing to die on. The 100-point grading scale has become one of the most common scales for reporting students’ grades, but it is one of the most unreliable scales in use (Guskey, 2013).

The 100-point scale is inaccurate and inequitable because the scale is skewed toward failing grades (Feldman, 2019). Passing grades comprise only 40 points of the grading scale, spanning typically from 60 points to 100 points (or from 70-100 points in some systems!), while failing grades comprise the remaining points possible spanning from 0 to 59 (or even 0-69). Serious mathematical errors arise when teachers input zeros in the gradebook when students are missing work (Feldman, 2019). While this practice ostensibly holds students accountable for handing in work, it can make it impossible for students to recover academically (Feldman, 2019). The literature suggests that teachers may compensate for the 100-point scale’s mathematical errors by artificially raising grades in a number of ways (Schneider & Hutt, 2014), including grading formative assessments and executive function skills (Bowers, 2011; Brookhart et al., 2016; Townsley & Varga, 2018).

Unfortunately, a lot of educators perceive the 100-point grading scale to be more accurate (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019; Feldman, 2019). While using 100 points as opposed to four or five points may seem more accurate, it results in a probable error of five or six points; teachers find it difficult to distinguish levels of performance on a 100-point scale (Brookhart & Guskey, 2019). Some grading reformers advocate for the use of minimum grading, or inputting a minimum grade such as 50 percent, rather than inputting zeros for missing work; this practice reduces mathematical error (Carifio & Carey, 2013; Carifio & Carey, 2015; Feldman, 2019). Essentially what educators are doing when they use minimum grading, however, is compensating for the deficiencies of the 100-point scale by converting it to a rough approximation of the 4-point scale. In a four-point scale, failing grades span from 0-0.99 of a point, while passing grades span from 1-4 points (or 2-4 points in a system without a “D”).

Grades Reduce Bias

Variable and unreliable grading practices also introduce equity problems. Black students have less access to AP courses all over the United States (Francis & Darity, 2021). Schools that use gatekeeping methods (Francis & Darity, 2021), such as teacher recommendations and prerequisite grades, may be basing their decisions about students’ fitness for advanced coursework on subjective measures common in traditional grading (Feldman, 2019). Students of color are most impacted by teachers’ implicit bias (Feldman, 2019), especially if subjective, non-academic factors are included in assessment (Cvencek et al., 2018). Implicit bias may especially play a role in lower grades assigned to students of color when the criteria for proficiency are unclear or undefined (Quinn, 2020). Traditional grading’s subjectivity can harm all students, but students of color may be most impacted due to implicit bias (Feldman, 2019; Quinn, 2020).

However, proficiency-based grading can make grades more equitable and more reflective of students’ actual learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Proficiency-based grading may include using practices such as rubrics for evaluating student work and student-generated portfolios; however, it may also include traditional assessments such as tests (Baete & Hochbein, 2014; Buckmiller et al., 2017; Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Students’ grades are tied to their mastery of content, such as standards, knowledge, and skills, as opposed to an average of all the grades earned during a grading period or course (Iamarino, 2014; Miller, 2013). Teachers using proficiency-based grading typically provide students with feedback on formative assessments (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Students may revise and resubmit work in order to demonstrate their proficiency in learning (Buckmiller et al., 2017). Through revision, students demonstrate their learning of the content and skills. As a result, proficiency-based grades may more accurately reflect what students have learned rather than a snapshot of their performance on a single assessment.

We Have to Use Grades

Grades have actually not existed, at least not in the form we’re familiar with, for a very long period of time (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). One of the worst reasons to perpetuate any system is the notion that we’ve always done it that way, especially when it’s not even true that we have always done it this way. The A-F grading system gained popularity as late as the 1940s—as I mentioned before—as educators saw a need to establish more uniform methods for determining students’ proficiency (Schneider & Hutt, 2014). For many years preceding the establishment of “traditional grading,” we used all sorts of other systems (good and bad) for measuring learning. This system is entrenched, but it’s not as old as people might think, and if we decided, collectively, that it no longer worked for us, we could find a better system. The problem is, well, that it’s a system, and systems are notoriously hard to change.

I have heard many educators express anxiety that students will either not be prepared for college or will not get into college unless they are graded. Many schools, however, have successfully eliminated traditional grades. Colleges understand the transcripts these students send them, and these students are able to go to college. For example, the Watershed School, a member of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, does not issue traditional letter grades or test students through final exams and has a 100% college acceptance rate (Plaskov, 2019). A college counselor I worked with told me anecdotally that “colleges are fine with grading that’s ‘non-traditional.’ Parents usually get very concerned about going off the A-F standard, but college admissions folks are experts on grading scales, and what I’ve consistently heard from them is that the most-accurate/least-translated reporting is what they like.”

My own personal experience is that some schools’ grading practices are more entrenched, and while another system of evaluation would work, it wouldn’t be politically feasible. Proficiency-based grading shows additional promise here. Attaching grades to standards or competencies can make grades more accurate reflections of students’ proficiency in learning. Proficiency-based report cards have the potential to be more useful in understanding students’ learning than traditional report cards including only a letter grade (Blauth & Hajdian, 2016; Swan et al., 2014). Swan et al. (2014) found that parents and teachers generally find proficiency-based reports more helpful and easier to understand, in addition to having more and better information about students’ progress.

It’s worth noting that one study I examined indicated parents reported feeling less confidence in the standards-based grade reports because they were unfamiliar and felt the school had not taken their feelings as stakeholders into account before implementing standards-based grade reports (Franklin et al., 2016). These parents also reported finding the grade reports unclear (Franklin et al., 2016). Importantly, Franklin et al. (2016) indicate the parents in their study were all dissatisfied with standards-based report cards; these parents also described themselves as strong students who enjoyed school. Their study did not include parents who expressed satisfaction with the reports. (Franklin et al., 2016).

The Bottom Line?

I think it’s important for teachers to open dialogue with students and parents, read the research on grading and assessment, and work within the system they’re in to make grades more accurate and meaningful. I highly recommend the works referenced in this post, which is derived largely from my dissertation. For a good deep dive, Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity is excellent.

References

Baete, G. S. & Hochbein, C. (2014). Project proficiency: Assessing the independent effects of high school reform in an urban district. The Journal of Educational Research, 107(6), 493-511. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2013.823371

Bies-Hernandez, N. J. (2012). The effects of framing grades on student learning and preferences. Teaching of Psychology, 39(3), 176-180. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628312450429

Blauth, E. & Hadjian, S. (2016). How selective colleges and universities evaluate proficiency-based high school transcripts: Insights for students and schools. New England Board of Higher Education. https://www.nebhe.org/info/pdf/policy/Policy_Spotlight_How_Colleges_Evaluate_PB_HS_Trans cripts_April_2016.pdf

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. https://doi.org/10.1080/020602938.2015.1024607

Bowers, A. J. (2011). What’s in a grade? The multidimensional nature of what teacher-assigned grades assess in high school. Educational Research and Evaluation, 17(3), 151-159. https://doi.org/10.1080/13803611.2011.597112

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. https://doi.org/10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Brimi, H. M. (2011). Reliability of grading high school work in English. Practical Assessment, Research & Evaluation, 16(7). http://pareonline.net/getvnasp?=16&n=17

Brookhart, S. M., & Guskey, T. R. (2019). Reliability in grading and grading scales. In T. R. Guskey & S. M. Brookhart (Eds.), What we know about grading: What works, what doesn’t, and what’s next (pp. 13-31). ASCD.

Brookhart, S., Guskey, T. R., Bowers, A. J., McMillan, J. H., Smith, J. K., Smith, L. F., Stevens, M. T., Welsh, M. E. (2016). A century of grading research: Meaning and value in the most common educational measure. Review of Educational Research, 86(4), 803-848. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654316672069

Buckmiller, T., Peters, R., & Kruse, J. (2017). Questioning points and percentages: Standards-based grading (SBG) in higher education. College Teaching, 65(4), 151-157. https://doi.org/10.1080.87567555.2017.1302919

Burleigh, T. J. & Meegan, D. V. (2018). Risky prospects and risk aversion tendencies: does competition in the classroom depend on grading practices and knowledge of peer-status? Social Psychology of Education, 21(2), 323-335. https://doi.org/ 10.1007/s11218-017-9414-x

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2013). The arguments and data in favor of minimum grading. Mid-Western Educational Researcher, 25(4), 19-30.

Carifio, J. & Carey, T. (2015). Further findings on the positive effects of minimum grading. Journal of Education and Social Policy, 2(4), 130-136.

Casillas, A., Robbins, S., Allen, J., Kuo, Y. L., Hanson, M. A., & Shmeiser, C. (2012). Predicting early academy failure in high school from prior academic achievement, psychosocial characteristics, and behavior. Journal of Educational Psychology, 104(2), 407-420. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027180

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self-concepts, self-esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12802

Edgeworth, F. Y. (1888). The statistics of examinations. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 51(3), 599-635.

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Francis, D. V. & Darity, W. A., Jr. (2021). Separate and unequal under one roof: The legacy of racialized tracking perpetuates within-school segregation. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 7(1), 187-202. https://doi.org/10.7758/RSF.2021.7.1.11

Franklin, A., Buckmiller, T., & Kruse, J. (2016). Vocal and vehement: Understanding parents’ aversion to standards-based grading. International Journal of Social Science Studies, 4(11), 19-29.

Froiland, J. M. & Worrell, F. C. (2016). Intrinsic motivation, learning goals, engagement, and achievement in a diverse high school. Psychology in the Schools, 53(3), 321-336. https://doi.org/10.1002/pits.21901

Guskey, T. R. (2007). Multiple sources of evidence: An analysis of stakeholders’ perceptions of various indicators of student learning. Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, 26(1), 19-27.
https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1745-3992.2007.00085.x

Guskey, T. R. (2013). The case against percentage grades. Educational Leadership, 71(1), 68-72.

Guskey, T. R. & Jung, L. A. (2016): Grading: Why you should trust your judgment. Educational Leadership,
73(7), 50-54.

Hattie, J. & Timperley, H. (2007). The power of feedback. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 81-112. https://doi.org/10.3102/003465430298487

Hayek, A., Toma, C., Oberlé, D., & Butera, F. (2014). The effect of grades on the preference effect: Grading reduces consideration of disconfirming evidence. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 36(6), 544-552. https://doi.org/10.1080/01973533.2014.969840

Iamarino, D. L. (2014). The benefits of standards-based grading: A critical evaluation of modern grading practices. Current Issues in Education, 17(2), 1-11.

Klapp, A., (2018). Does academic and social self-concept and motivation explain the effect of grading on students’ achievement? European Journal of Psychology of Education, 33(2), 355-376. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10212-017-0331-3

McMorran, C., Ragupathi, K., & Luo, S. (2017). Assessment and learning without grades? Motivations and concerns with implementing gradeless learning in higher education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 42(3), 361-377. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2015.1114584

Miller, J. J. (2013). A better grading system: Standards-based, student-centered assessment. English Journal, 103(1), 111-118.

Plaskov, J. C. (2019, October 23). Reimagining college admissions season. The Mastery Transcript Consortium. https://mastery.org/reimagining-college-admissions-season/

Pulfrey, C., Buchs, C., & Butera, F. (2011). Why grades engender performance-avoidance goals: The mediating role of autonomous motivation. Journal of Educational Psychology, 103(3), 683-700. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0023911

Quinn, D. M. (2020). Experimental evidence on teachers’ racial bias in student evaluation: The role of grading scales. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 42(3), 375-392. https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373720932188

Rinn, A. N., Boazman, J., Jackson, A., Barrio, B. (2014). Locus of control, academic self-concept, and academic dishonesty among high ability college students. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. 14(4), 88-114. https://doi.org/10.14434/josotl.v14i4.12770

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Smith, J. K. & Smith, L. F. (2009). The impact of framing effect on student preferences for university grading systems. Studies in Educational Evaluation, 35, 160-167.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1912). Reliability of the grading of high-school work in English. The School Review, 20(7), 442-457.

Starch, D. & Elliott, E. C. (1913). Reliability of grading work in mathematics. The School Review, 21(4), 254-259.

Swan, G., Guskey, T., & Jung, L. (2014). Parents’ and teachers’ perceptions of standards-based and traditional report cards. Educational Assessment, Evaluation, and Accountability, 26(3), 289-299. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11092-01409191-4

Townsley, M. & Varga, M. (2018). Getting high school students ready for college: A quantitative study of standards-based grading practices. Journal of Research in Education, 28(1), 92-112.

Villeneuve, J. C., Conner, J. O., Selby, S., & Pope, D. C. (2019). Easing the stress at pressure-cooker schools. Phi Delta Kappan, 101(3), 15–19. https://doi.org/10.1177/ 0031721719885910

Grading for Equity: A Brief History of Grading

Steamer Glass [i.e. class]” in Hancock School, Boston. Immigrant children.
Abstract: Photographs from the records of the National Child Labor Committee (U.S.)
I have a copy of my great-great-grandmother Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary from 1893-1894, which I transcribed. It’s a fascinating window into history for many reasons, one of which is that while Stella was writing the diary, she was a teacher. She married in May 1894, after which she had to quit teaching and keep house.

Her primary concerns as a teacher seem to center around keeping order in her classroom. She remarks very little on what she actually taught her students, but she mentions whether or not class was unruly a few times. I also have a copy of a letter she wrote my great-uncle Alvin, who must have been assigned to write to grandparents and ask what school was like when they were little. Stella’s letter is wonderful (I reproduced it on this blog about 14 years ago).

I think I have always found the history of education, particularly schools, fascinating. I really enjoyed reading Joe Feldman’s chapter on the history of grading in  Grading for Equity. Much of it was material I already knew, as one of his sources, Schneider & Hutt’s (2014) article “Making the Grade: A History of the A-F Marking Scheme” was one my own sources as well. If you can get your hands on this article, I highly recommend you read it (the full citation, including DOI, is at the end of this post). I learned some really interesting things from it, particularly the fact that the A-F grading system is not really that old. It quickly became entrenched in schools, and it seems nearly impossible now to imagine schools with A-F grades, but they actually didn’t become entrenched until about the 1940s. My grandparents were still in school in the 1940s, though my grandfather would have graduated in the very early 1940s. The history of letter grades as a method for communicating learning isn’t that old.

First, yesterday I promised to continue reflecting on Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” for chapter 1 today; however, on reading them more closely, I’m not sure you care over much why I am reading this book or who I’m reading it with, so I’ll skip those, except to say that  I’ll reconsider anything I’m doing if it means my grading practices will be more equitable. Chapter 2 dives into the history of schools and grades a bit more.

How do schools in the first half of the twenty-first century—their design, their purpose, their student—compare with schools in the first half of the twentieth century?

I have actually sat in desks that were bolted to the floor. Have you? I find that the design of classrooms, at least in schools where I have taught, is much more fluid. Desks are mobile, sometimes even on wheels. Students sit in a large circle or square in my classrooms. My classroom looks different from the classrooms I sat in and from the images of vintage classrooms (like the one at the beginning of this post). We also have projectors and computers. My students learn from viewing images and watching videos in addition to reading. Most stakeholders would probably agree that my school’s purpose is to prepare students for college. I don’t think that was the goal of most schools in the early 20th century.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was one of the first people to propose schools as we might describe them today? In his Notes on the State of Virginia (which isn’t read enough and is why people don’t realize how complicated and problematic Jefferson’s ideas could sometimes be), he wrote (emphasis my own, spelling his):

This bill proposes to lay off every county into small districts of five or six miles square, called hundreds, and in each of them to establish a school for teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. The tutor to be supported by the hundred, and every person in it entitled to send their children three years gratis, and as much longer as they please, paying for it. These schools to be under a visitor, who is annually to chuse the boy, of best genius in the school, of those whose parents are too poor to give them further education, and to send him forward to one of the grammar schools, of which twenty are proposed to be erected in different parts of the country, for teaching Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of numerical arithmetic. Of the boys thus sent in any one year, trial is to be made at the grammar schools one or two years, and the best genius of the whole selected, and continued six years, and the residue dismissed. By this means twenty of the best geniusses will be raked from the rubbish annually, and be instructed, at the public expence, so far as the grammar schools go. At the end of six years instruction, one half are to be discontinued (from among whom the grammar schools will probably be supplied with future masters); and the other half, who are to be chosen for the superiority of their parts and disposition, are to be sent and continued three years in the study of such sciences as they shall chuse, at William and Mary college, the plan of which is proposed to be enlarged, as will be hereafter explained, and extended to all the useful sciences. The ultimate result of the whole scheme of education would be the teaching all the children of the state reading, writing and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten others annually, of still superior parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to: the furnishing to the wealthier part of the people convenient schools, at which their children may be educated at their own expence.

Pardon the long quote, but I find it worth quoting at length because it several ideas come into focus if you read the whole thing:

  1. School was never envisioned to be equitable, not even the mind of the guy who wrote that “all men are created equal.” It was made to sort people, which is why tracking is still so common.
  2. The language Jefferson uses is telling: he describes students as “rubbish.” He didn’t include girls or BIPOC in the calculation at all. It’s a pretty classist idea even if you remove the sexism and racism. You know the boy children of poor farmers weren’t going to college.
  3. If you’re struggling to parse the language, the proposal is as follows:
    • Send one boy per “hundred” to a grammar school. The remaining students would end their schooling after three years in the “hundred” school.
    • Of those boys sent to grammar school, competition for continued education would be fierce: Jefferson suggests one or two years of grammar school to separate the wheat from the chaff, after which one of those grammar school students could continue his education for six more years.
    • Half of those boys lucky enough to continue their education past grammar school would then be able to go to college after that six years of education.

The competition among students was baked into American education early on. My great-great-grandmother Stella describes such competition when she describes spelling class: “We sat on long benches and a class would go up to the teacher to recite and sit on a long bench, only the spelling classes would stand in a row and “turn down”, when one missed a word.”

I would argue school has changed a great deal since the early 1900s but some aspects of school haven’t changed much. I have cited studies ranging from 1888-2019 in my research that document traditional letter grades’ issues with reliability, consistency, motivation, and self-concept. Grades seem to be the one aspect of school we are resistant to changing, in spite of a large body of evidence supporting change.

Once again, I’ve gone on too long and you’re probably not reading anymore. More tomorrow on how I see ideas and beliefs of the early 20th century at work in schools where I have taught.

Citations for further reading:

Feldman, J. (2019). Grading for equity: What it is, why it matters, and how it can transform schools and classrooms. Corwin.

Jefferson, T. (1787). Notes on the state of Virginia. Prichard and Hall. https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html

Schneider, J. & Hutt, E. (2014). Making the grade: A history of the A-F marking scheme. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 46(2), 201-224. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220272.2013.790480

Towards More Equitable Grading

grade photo
Photo by mikefisher821

I’m not sure how many folks know this, but I’m currently entering the dissertation phase in my doctoral program at Northeastern. in fact, I’m hoping to defend my dissertation proposal before the month’s end. One reason this blog has been quiet for so long (until recently) is that I just haven’t made time to write here. I was doing so much writing for graduate school, and coupled with my teaching responsibilities, it was hard to find the time. I should have made the time because documenting my thoughts as I participated in the 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge © (created by Dr. Eddie Moore) reminded me of the critical importance of regular reflection, here, for me as a teacher. I attribute most of my growth as a teacher since 2005, when I started this blog, to regular blogging here.

Back in the day, I sometimes reflected on professional reading on this blog, and sometimes, book clubs resulted. Blogging has fallen by the wayside in favor of Twitter, which makes me sad because sometimes the long-form reflection is better than a tweet thread. The UbD Educators wiki grew out of the reflection I did, and until Wikispaces went defunct, it was a promising project, though I confided to Grant Wiggins that it was hard to find teachers to commit to adding to the wiki. He wasn’t surprised because lack of time makes it difficult. I always say that we make time for the things that are important to us, and this blog is pretty important to me, but I hadn’t made a lot of time for it for some years. I’m going to try to change that, and one thing I want to do is document my thinking as I read Joe Feldman’s Grading for Equity. I joked to a couple of colleagues that I am finally making time to actually read this book, which has been on my radar for a long time, and I realize I should have made the time to read it as soon as it was released because Feldman is citing much of the same research as I am citing in my dissertation. I could have saved myself a lot of searching through the library database!

First of all, I encourage educators to take the quiz How Equitable is Your Grading? on Feldman’s website. If, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, you are examining your curriculum’s diversity, equity, and inclusion, I think that’s great. I think it’s great if you are engaged in movements to #DisruptTexts and #TeachLivingPoets. You also need to take a hard look at your grading practices, too. If, as Feldman says, you are implementing some equitable practices, such as “responsive classrooms, alternative disciplinary measures, diverse curriculum—but meanwhile preserve inequitable grading,” you are perpetuating inequity in schools.

I’m going to start by using Feldman’s “Questions to Consider” at the end of chapter 1. I’ll just answer the first two and update tomorrow with responses to the remaining three questions. Otherwise, this post will be way too long. Maybe it already is!

What are some deep beliefs you have about teenagers? What motivates and demotivates them? Are they more concerned with learning or their grade?

After over 20 years of teaching mostly teenagers, I have concluded that a lot of adults expect them to be more “adult” because they tend to look more adult. What I mean is they expect teenagers have developed an internal locus of control. Not even all adults have an internal locus of control. Teenagers tend to still mostly have an external locus of control, which means they are more likely to attribute a poor grade to a teacher’s lack of regard for them instead of a lack of proficiency on their part. I think we need to remember that when we are grading. As such, they might be motivated to earn good grades (carrot) or avoid bad ones (stick), but grades in an of themselves don’t motivate them to learn. I think they do help give students some kind of yardstick they can use to judge their performance, but I didn’t think grades had even this utility until I started doing research. Grades might not communicate what we think or wish they would, but they communicate something. I think students are much more concerned with grades rather than learning when they are in classes in which all high-stakes assessments result in grades that cannot be improved through revision and in which all earned grades are averaged together. If, however, they are in a classroom that encourages revision and focuses on proficiency, they focus a lot more on learning. Teenagers actually love to learn things, but the trick is that teachers need to communicate the relevance, and the wrong answer is “I’m the adult, so I say it’s relevant.” And if what you are teaching isn’t relevant, you need to figure out how to Marie Kondo the curriculum.

What is your vision for grading? What do you wish grading could be for students, particularly the most vulnerable populations? What do you wish grading could be for you? In which ways do current grading practices meet those expectations, and in which ways do they not?

Before I started my research, I wanted to eliminate grades a measure of student learning. There is a movement to do just that, and many schools successfully use other methods for reporting learning, and yes, their students still get into college. I no longer think grades are entirely useless. I think we have just perpetuated inequitable grading for so long that I couldn’t figure out another way aside from burning the whole system down. Now I advocate for proficiency-based grading, and that means that students might revise their work, sometimes several times, in order to reach a level of proficiency in learning content and skills. In almost any aspect of life, we have chances to practice a skill until we master it, and no one says it is unfair. There was a time when every musician we know didn’t know how to play their instrument, when every athlete didn’t know how to play their sport. But we don’t judge their current competence by where they started. I think grading based on reaching proficiency, whenever it happens or however it happens, is much more equitable.

My dissertation is a dissertation in practice, meaning I need to take an action step and evaluate its success. My action step is to create a proficiency-based grading and authentic assessment guide for a pilot group of faculty, to implement the practices therein (along with a focus group), to evaluate the guide’s success and revise it accordingly, and to present the findings to my colleagues. Feldman’s ideas will be invaluable in framing the guide, grounded also in my own research. I am hoping implementing this action step will make grading less of a chore for me, too—I related so much to Feldman’s argument that teachers don’t like grading (p. 5).

What I need to do is figure out a system that is more mathematically sound and use it. I am doing fairly well on most equitable grading practices according to Feldman’s quiz, with the exception of that one. For example, I already:

  • Don’t weigh homework much. Homework is preparation for class, such as reading and writing. I don’t even really use the homework category in my online grade book for graded work.
  • Don’t calculate behavior and executive function skills in my grade.
  • Allow students to revise their work and replace the grade entirely with the new grade.
  • Don’t subscribe to the idea that grades need to fall on a bell curve or that I need a certain distribution of grades.
  • Don’t count participation as a grade category. It is part of the rubric in a Socratic seminar.

I do not have students asking me to create homework assignments, and they mostly do the preparation I ask them to do. Students sometimes turn work in late for me, but it doesn’t bother me. Other than that, I don’t feel I miss anything by excluding executive function skills. Students actually work harder knowing the grade can entirely be replaced if the work improves. I don’t subscribe to fears about grade inflation or worries that students have too many high grades, and I find conversations with others who are still hung up here to be maddeningly frustrating. I have long felt participation was too slippery to calculate, and sometimes students are super engaged but don’t say as much. I still get excellent participation from students without grading it.

More tomorrow on the first chapter reflection questions. Let me know if you want to “book group” this book.

Some Reflections on Being a Student Again

Photo by Chris Wormhoudt on Unsplash

One of the many reasons I haven’t had much time to blog lately is the fact that I went back to grad school in September. I’m working on my doctorate at Northeastern University. Working full time and going to school has meant all the writing I’ve had time to do has mostly been for school, but it’s been a fantastic learning experience so far. I have learned so much from the reading and writing I have done. I can’t even compare my experience with earning my master’s degree to my experience working on my doctorate, and I’m only sorry I wasted so much tuition money and time on the master’s. Here I’m showing my ignorance, but I didn’t realize one could go right into a doctoral degree program with a bachelor’s degree.

My dissertation in practice is an action research investigation on grading and assessment practices. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, it’s perhaps not a surprise, as assessment has been an interest of mine for a long time. I have come to the conclusion that grading impedes not only motivation but also learning, as students tend to focus on the grade at the expense of the learning. It’s true that some students don’t find grades to be a motivator, and those students tend to view them more as a stick than a carrot. Whether grades motivate students or not, however, they do encourage students to focus on the wrong thing, and even students who truly want to learn find grades demotivating. Students have told me they are afraid to take risks. They select “easier” options. They try to figure out what the teacher wants to hear and parrot it back rather than think for themselves. All of this is anecdotal—I’ve seen it many times over the years; however, I see no reason why students would be dishonest about their feelings regarding grades.

Going back to school has put me in the same position as my students. The anxiety I have experienced over my grades has been difficult to manage at times. Of course I want to learn, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to please my professors. Even though I’m actually studying the effects of grading and know exactly what is happening to me, I find myself unable to focus only on the learning. I want to earn good grades too badly. It’s utterly ironic on a few levels. I’m actually doing very well, for one thing, and for another, the research is quite clear that grades are subjective, demotivating, and even contribute to poor performance (Bloxham, et al., 2016; Brackett, et al., 2013; Cvencek, et al., 2018; Klapp, 2015). My hunch is it has to do with mindset. I noticed my students relaxed quite a bit once I instituted a liberal revision policy.

One of my classmates mentioned that a professor I will have for a summer course is a hard grader. So naturally, I’ve already started worrying about a class I won’t start for nearly a month. It made me reflect a little bit on reputation. I don’t think I have a reputation for being a hard grader. One person told me my reputation was my expectations are “reasonable,” and I’ll take it. My students this year seemed to be happy in my classes, and my course surveys revealed they felt cared a for and that the choice and agency they had was important for their growth. I relaxed a lot on my own grading practices as a result of the research I have done and because of my own experiences as a student. I truly do not understand the need for a graduate program to use grades.

We know what to do about grading and assessment. I think one reason I was not accepted to another graduate program to which I applied is that my research does not examine a gap in the research. On the contrary, there is plenty of research on grading and assessment, and going all the way back to the 1800s, the research has been fairly clear. And yet, we keep reporting learning by using grades. So even though there is no gap in the research, it’s clear to me that classroom practices haven’t changed as a result of the research, and that’s what I’m interested in: change. We need to do right by our students and fix this problem that has plagued education for far too long.

References

Bloxham, S., den-Outer, B., Hudson, J., & Price, M. (2016). Let’s stop the pretence of consistent marking: Exploring the multiple limitations of assessment criteria. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 41(3), 466-481. doi:10.1080/02602938.2015.1024607

Brackett, M. A., Floman, J. L., Ashton-James, C., Cherkasskiy, L., & Salovey, P. (2013). The influence of teacher emotion on grading practices: A preliminary look at the evaluation of student writing. Teachers and Teaching, 19(6), 634-646. doi:10.1080/13540602.2013.827453

Cvencek, D., Fryberg, S. A., Covarrubias, R., & Meltzoff, A. N. (2018). Self‐concepts, self‐esteem, and academic achievement of minority and majority North American elementary school children. Child Development, 89(4), 1099-1109. doi:10.1111/cdev.12802

Klapp, A. (2015). Does grading affect educational attainment? A longitudinal study. Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy & Practice, 22(3), 302-323. doi:10.1080/0969594X.2014.988121

Sunday Grading

red pen photo
Photo by faungg’s photos

I spent most of the early afternoon grading today. I am a bit mad at myself for forgetting my notes about my AP students’ poetry presentations at school. I would have liked to have graded those presentations as well. Perhaps it’s for the best, as one group still needs to present tomorrow, and it’s probably better to put in all those grades at the same time, though I’m not usually picky about that. I am really glad to be caught up otherwise because our mid-semester comments are due on Tuesday. I can usually write these comments fairly quickly because I leave comments on just about every assignment in the grade book as I go, so checking progress is not hard for me. We have an open grade book, and students and their parents and advisors can see the comments I leave on assignments as well as updates like mid-semester comments, so I think the communication is pretty clear. At any rate, I have never heard otherwise, and I was actually told by at least one parent that my comments were clear.

Over time, evaluation has become one of those things I can do fairly quickly and still point right to the heart of how and what the student is doing with an assignment. It is like anything else, I suppose. It takes practice. Would you believe, though, that I grow more and more frustrated by the fact that grades even exist? I was actually reading this article this morning (and tweeted it out). If grades are not really considered by graduate schools and employers (unless they are so low as to provoke alarm), then what are we doing here?

I allow my students to revise their work. I think it’s more important that they learn instead of that I am a hard-ass about a grade. I evolved into this belief. For one thing, my previous principal didn’t give me the kind of license to hold it, but for another, I had been conditioned to think grades were the only way to show what we’ve learned. Going back to school and getting my master’s really opened my eyes. I found that I, too, started to care more that I earned A’s than that I learned. In the end, I found the whole process of earning that degree frustrating, and I can’t say I feel like I learned a whole lot in that program. In some instances, I did, but overall, it was a waste of money that makes me angry all over again each month when I pay my student loan bill and wonder if I’ll ever pay it off. Did it open some doors? I guess you could say that it did, but I really wish I could also say that it was a valuable experience in the same way that my undergrad experience was. There was no emphasis on grades in my English education program. We did earn them, but the emphasis was on the learning, and that’s how I felt. B’s didn’t bother me. A’s were not all I was after trying to do in those classes. My motivation to learn was so much more intrinsic because I valued what I was learning. I was invested. I saw how it would fit with my chosen career. I can’t say that about most of my master’s classes.

So as I sat here grading my students’ work, I thought all these thoughts and felt all these feelings. I do want my students to see value in the work they do for my class. I want them to view it as more than a grade and be intrinsically motivated to learn. Grades stand in the way. I wonder if I am brave enough just not to assign grades. My school still gives grades, so it would be problematic. My students seem to appreciate the fact that they can revise writing, however. I am hoping they at least know that they don’t need to be satisfied with a grade. The learning is their own, and it decisions about what to do about their learning, when, and how should be in their own hands, too.

Slice of LifeSlice of Life is a daily writing challenge during the month of March hosted by Two Writing Teachers. Visit their blog for more information about the challenge and for advice and ideas about how to participate.

Evolution

gardening photoI have been writing this blog post in my head for months now, and I’m not sure I will really capture what I’m thinking.

I have changed a lot as a teacher over the years. I no longer agree with many of the ideas I expressed earlier in this blog. Perhaps some of the ways I have changed can best be expressed by exploring some of those opinions, why I held them then, and why I no longer hold them.

I used to be strict about late work. As in, I didn’t want to take it. Sometimes, I still would, despite saying, here on this blog, that I didn’t do it. I struggled with the issue of keeping track. It was easier for me, organizationally, if I asked students to turn in work on time. And that has not changed. It is still easier on me if they turn their work in on time. However, despite the fact that my school has a policy about late work, I take work late, and I don’t really penalize for it unless it becomes a chronic issue with a student who is clearly taking advantage of the situation. I have come to believe that perhaps students do not always meet a standard at the same time. Sometimes, some students need to take a little longer. Sometimes, things happen, and maybe it’s not even that catastrophic. Maybe they forgot. I forget stuff, too. That’s why, when I asked a student about a late project today, and she sheepishly said, “I’m still working on it,” I replied, “Okay, I just wanted to make sure it was on your radar.” It does cause a bit of an organizational issue for me, but one way I manage it is to have students do work electronically (which, by the way, was a suggestion from a commenter on the blog post I linked above). Keeping track of Google Docs and online quizzes works better for me than having bits of paper everywhere, and I find I can manage the work more easily.

Students also ask me if they can revise their work, and I always let them. Why? Because I think it helps them become better writers when they do. And I care more about that progress than I care about keeping a grade at a certain level. Some folks disagree with that stance and call it grade inflation. I used to have some real issues with grading myself, but partly those issues were based on expectations of an administrator who thought I was too easy on the kids. I was actually threatened with my job, so I decided I needed to be harder, and I tried to justify it to myself philosophically as part of being a rigorous teacher with high expectations. I just don’t think my students would say I don’t have high expectations today, even if I allow late work and revision. If I didn’t have to give grades, I don’t think I would. I have come to see them as a false construct. They have the value that we give them, and we can’t really even agree on what that value is. Some folks bestow A’s on students unwillingly and always sparingly, but the grade inflation battle was lost a long time ago. We can keep trying to defend that hill if we want to, I suppose, but I don’t want to die on it myself. So, I have a lot of high grades, and I didn’t used to have as many. I don’t think they came easy. I am quite concerned that students and parents focus too much on grades and not enough on the learning, and the funny thing that happens when you allow students to revise and to turn in late is that it doesn’t really become about the grade. It does seem to help students understand that the issue at hand is the learning, and they will work harder for me and do more than they did when I felt like I had to keep grades lower to please my administrator. At the time, however, I was very concerned that too many A’s said something negative about my expectations and the level of challenge in my class. Now, I think they tend to say students are learning the material successfully.

I used to talk too much in my classes, and some days, I probably still do. But I have really worked on it over the years. I can remember writing lectures that were basically scripts, if you can believe that, when I first started teaching. I had to have complete control and go bell to bell. My second day in my own classroom was a complete disaster. I had just received my 33rd student in the class, and I was trying to get him sorted. I only had 28 desks, I think, and the kids were being too talkative, and I wasn’t starting class on time because I was dealing with this new student, and I said to the kids that they should be working quietly while I handled the situation, adding that “It should be so quiet I could hear a pin drop.” Geez, does that make me cringe. Guess what happened? Every kid in the class dropped his or her pen. I was furious, but then we “started” class, and I pushed through. That first year is not something I like to think about at all. I made so many mistakes. Part of the issue, though I didn’t understand it at the time, is that it was all about me and my control and not about the students. Today, one of my classes had a Socratic seminar. They are actually one of my favorite things to do with students, and I should do them more than I do. Students do all of the work in a seminar. I look down at my notes and do not say anything. Students run the discussion themselves. One of the girls in the class today remarked that it was the best Socratic seminar she’d had in school. The students really need to be taken seriously as leaders of their own learning, and they need to be given the control. Giving students control doesn’t mean we have lost control. Letting them take control of the class, the direction of the discussion, tells me much more about what students have learned than standing in front of a room talking at kids did.

I actually sent this article to my students, my students, today. I honestly believe that ten or fifteen years ago, I never would have shared it with them because I wouldn’t have wanted them to get ideas. A few years ago, I heard a student ask one of my colleagues, “Why do we have to learn this?” and the guy actually responded, “Because I said so.” I cringed. But that the same time, I used to think certain content was dreadfully important to learn. I used to give regular tests. I can’t remember the last time I gave a test (aside from a final, which I was required to give or which I agreed to give because the department wanted to). What I want students to learn has changed completely compared to my early years as a teacher.

  • I want students to learn to work together collaboratively.
  • I want them to learn that writing takes work, and you need to revise. The writing process helps.
  • I want them to learn to communicate their ideas to others with clarity and thoughtfulness.
  • I want them to learn to think critically: to analyze, synthesize, evaluate. I want them to learn to ask questions.
  • I want them to learn to create. All kinds of things: videos, podcasts, poems, essays, stories.
  • I want them to learn metaphors. We think in metaphors. When we learn new information, we compare it to what we know and classify it through metaphor.
  • I want them to learn to comprehend, use, and enjoy what they read.
  • I want them to learn the value of critique: how to do it helpfully and how to use it to improve their own work.

These are all important skills and habits of mind that can be taught in a variety of ways. None of it really requires certain content, which is what the article I linked is getting at. Working with content is a means toward teaching these more important skills, but the content is not the end itself. When I began teaching and relied on lecture, content was all I taught. I don’t think students learned a lot of the more important skills in my bullet list. And the truth is, they didn’t really learn the content either.

One of the messy aspects of having a blog is that some of that evolution of thought has taken place in public. As a result, I have had to field emails or comments from people who quibble with some stance or other that I took seven years ago because my thinking on the issue is still published here. I actually had to close comments on older posts because 1) after a year, everyone else has moved on, and the only person who will see the comment is me, so it’s not really a conversation anymore, and 2) most of the time, if it’s a comment on a post that old, the commenter really isn’t invested in a conversation anyway, and they can be downright trolls on occasion. The occasional negative or even rude comment is part of blogging, I suppose, but we all want folks to judge us on what we’ve learned and the progress we’ve made. We don’t want to be held to ideas and opinions we no longer think are important. Maybe we have learned some things that have changed our minds about something we used to believe. We grow, we change, we evolve. Maybe we should let the learning be a little messy and give students that same time to evolve.

Real World Problems, Real World Learning

One of my favorite aspects of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s book Understanding by Design is the real-life unit plan model they describe for a health class. In order to help students learn more about healthy foods and healthy eating, the performance task asks them to design a balanced meal plan that allows for dietary restrictions (such as diabetes) for campers. This problem is a real world problem that students might encounter in that each camp employs a real person who plans menus in the same way. It requires students not only to think about healthy food, but also variety and appeal as well as certain health issues that may (or perhaps already do) affect them. It’s a great assessment. I think it’s in the same book that students are asked to design the best form of packaging for candy so that the most amount of candy can be transported while maximizing space in the truck transporting it while still ensuring the packaging is convenient. I have left my copy of the book at school, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t remember this exactly right, but I seem to remember that spherical packages would maximize the space in the truck and enable the most amount of candy to be transported, but for obvious reasons, spherical packages are inconvenient.

It reminded me of a real world problem I heard about when I visited Carolina Day School in Asheville, NC not too long ago. The middle school was considering replacing the long tables in the cafeteria with round tables, but the administration was concerned that they would not be able to fit enough round tables to seat all the students in the cafeteria. The assistant principal knew the seventh graders had been learning about area in math, so he gave the problem to them to solve. I don’t know what they decided, but I think it’s a great way for students to learn about real world applications for math. I always hear students complain, often about math, that they can’t see how they will use the skills in “the real world.” Of course, I know they will use the skills in all kinds of ways they may not be able to imagine, but I think sometimes teachers don’t always give students enough real world problems so that students understand the relevance of what they’re learning. In his last blog for The Huffington Post entitled “Best Ideas for Our Schools,” Eric Sheninger argues for authentic learning: “In my opinion there is no other powerful learning strategy than to have students exposed to and tackle problems that have meaning and relevancy.”

The Weber School’s students recently won first place in the Moot Beit Din competition. Moot Beit Din asks students to apply Jewish texts to current problems. The competition offers students an opportunity to determine in what ways Jewish texts are still relevant as a guideline for modern life and also how they can use these texts to grapple with issues in our society today. In terms of Jewish studies, it’s about as authentic as it gets: not unlike Model U.N. or Mock Trial. Once students participate in these types of activities and describe their experiences, they make connections between what they’re learning and the “real world,” and their excitement is palpable. Just take a look at this video (which features some of Weber’s students):

In many ways, just approaching an assignment differently can turn an activity that may not ask students solve a real world problem into one that does. The other day, I was in our school’s Learning Center, and I found an assignment left behind by one of our tenth graders. It was based on the chapter of The Great Gatsby in which Nick attends Gatsby’s party for the first time. Students were asked to write an article as the gossip columnist for the local New York newspaper in which they describe the party, including some of the rumors about Gatsby and speculations of their own. It’s a great approach to a traditional summary. Students are asked to recall and predict, which are not necessarily the highest order critical thinking skills, but are good skills for reading comprehension. If they had been asked to write a summary of the chapter, they wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much, nor would they have produced work that was half as fun to read or that approached a real world situation they might encounter—how to write for the kind of authentic audience that reads a newspaper and is relying on the writer for information. Students see the relevance of this kind of assignment much more readily than the see the relevance of writing a summary, yet both assignments essentially ask students to use the same summary writing skills. The main difference is in their approach.

The headmaster of Carolina Day School told me that he felt students should be blogging because there was a ready-made authentic audience in a blog that gave a writer a reason to write beyond earning a grade for a class. They are no longer writing just for their teacher, but also for a larger audience, and more importantly, for themselves. Assessments that ask students to grapple with real world problems don’t necessarily require a huge shift in the kinds of skills and learning that are assessed so much as they require a shift in thinking about how we approach teaching and assessing skills and learning.

Feel free to share some of your ideas for authentic assessments in the comments.

Crowdsourcing Grades

5 November 2007Karen LaBonte tweeted a link to Cathy Davidson’s post How to Crowdsource Grading. It’s an interesting approach, and something I think could work well in college setting. My grad school program allows students to resubmit work based on feedback, and I have definitely taken advantage of this perk several times.

The trouble I have with it in high school or even younger is the idea of peers being responsible for evaluation. I do peer editing in my classes all the time, but students are not graded on it (aside from simply a check for doing it). I think students should have some choices and some say about their work, but I’m not sure they’re always the best judges (at least high school and younger) of what to assess and how to assess it, so I wouldn’t put the grades in the hands of my own students.

I hate grades. I would do away with them if I could, but my school has them, so the fairest thing I can do is give students various types of assessments that measure what they have learned against my goals for their learning. My feelings about grades are complicated because as a student, I stress out about them. I actually get nervous when I check my grades online. I would do all the work my instructors asked me to do even without grades, and I think I’d be happier just learning rather than stressing about my grades (which I do even though they are good). On the other hand, I know that I am definitely not normal. Would the students do the work if they weren’t graded on it? Depends. I think you can structure an learning experience for students that isn’t graded and still get most students to buy in. The ones that don’t are usually the ones that don’t even with grades.

We recently had a lot of discussions about summer reading with other members of our department and our media specialist. Students must read three (four for AP) books over the summer. One (two for AP) is required. One is chosen from a list. The last is selected from among books the faculty members have chosen to sponsor. Book sponsors lead a discussion about their choices with the students who signed up for their book. Essentially, a fear was expressed that should we not quiz or otherwise formally assess students’ faculty selections aside from the discussion, the students would not read the book. I liked my department chair’s unorthodox response: so they miss a great learning experience. Too bad for them. The person who expressed the fear about students not reading wasn’t satisfied with this response. I added in, “Can’t they just read a book for fun?” It was very clear that this person was worried students would not do anything if a grade was not tied to it.

With college students, you’re working with adults, and while I’m not sure I’d want my grades in the hands of my peers, I could see some type of agreement about what constitutes “A” work being made among students. In my Multimedia Authoring course, one of my peers gave me really poor marks on my project (a difference of at least 9 points out of 50 when compared to the other two evaluators). I think she did it out of spite because when I evaluated her project, I pointed out that nothing in her PowerPoint worked. Wouldn’t you want to know that before it was graded? Or would you be petty because it was pointed out? I digress, but the point is that my instructor evaluated us on our evaluations of others. He docked me a percentage of a point because I gave a criticism in my comments in one area of the rubric, but still gave full points. His reasoning—if there was a problem, it shouldn’t have received full points. Probably true, but he was also a tough (some would say nit-picky) grader. I wouldn’t say nit-picky because I learned a lot from his class, his feedback, and his tough grading. And yes, I have wondered what kind of feedback my peer received for her evaluation of me.

A side note: I am receiving no grades for the major project I’m creating this semester. I’ve worked harder on it than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it won’t be graded hasn’t lessened my motivation. It has freed it. I don’t have to fret about what I might earn on it, so I can just do my best and create a project that I’m proud of.

Creative Commons License photo credit: ccarlstead