Monday, July 13, 2009

Grading and Assessment Practices

A grade is only a single number, but it carries many responsibilities. It is a teacher’s assessment of what a student has learned, but most teachers use homework, participation, attitude, and attendance to calculate a final grade. This creates tremendous inconsistency within teachers and schools about what a grade really means. As we strive to increase rigor within schools while building strong character traits, many teachers struggle with their grading practices. Should grades reflect homework, participation, attitude, attendance, and effort? Is there a way to assess character and hold students accountable for their behavior through grades? According to Marcia M. Seeley (1994), ‘teachers are being urged to try different ways of grading, scoring, and reporting to best describe what students know and can do.” This becomes even more high stakes as “districts use this same information to make decisions on retention, promotion, and placement in special programs; participation in extracurricular activities; and admission to schools of higher education” (pgs 4-6).

Two profiles of students are presented below to illustrate major concerns with grading and assessment: Dequane is an ambitious tenth grader who desperately wants to go to Yale University and become a medical doctor. During class, he pays close attention to the teacher, takes ample notes, and always asks clarifying questions. Dequane is polite, compassionate, and helpful to other students. He should be a star student. However, Dequane’s industriousness is not reflected in his grades. He makes mistakes on homework and in-class assignments. He performs poorly on exams and quizzes. In fact, his scores are so low that according to the grading scheme in the course syllabus, he should fail.

In contrast, Michael is another tenth grader at the same school. He rarely comes to class and when he does, he is late or asleep. Towards teachers, Michael is non-cooperative at best, aggressive at worst, refusing to complete assignments and participate in class discussions. On the exterior, Michael seems as if he is going down the path towards become a high school dropout. However, during tests and exams, he passes with flying colors. In fact, his test and exam grades are so high that they are able to pull his suffering participation and homework grades to a passing score.

For the vast majority of our students, their level of diligence, their habits of work, and their participation in class correlate very closely with their mastery of the core foundation of skills and content covered in each class: students that pay attention tend to understand the material and thus perform well on assessments, whereas students that are off-task, disruptive, inattentive, or excessively absent are not able to grasp the material (and their grades reflect this fact). However, Dequane and Michael share an incompatibility between their behavior and their academic ability. What should teachers do then, with the outliers that do not follow this pattern? Should we reward the industriousness of the Dequanes across the nation, even though they may not be able to solve a critical math problem? Should we punish Michael’s disrespect for school, even if he is clearly able to demonstrate mastery of content? Presenting these two profiles to different educators would most likely produce countless results, revealing our inconsistencies in grading and assessment across the education system. According to Douglas Reeves (2008), “the difference between failure and the honor roll often depends on the grading policies of the teacher. To reduce the failure rate, schools don't need a new curriculum, a new principal, new teachers, or new technology. They just need a better grading system” (pg 85). This paper explores current concerns surrounding assessment, grading, and reporting. It begins with a discussion on problems of a traditional model of grading and reporting, followed by suggestions and rationales for best teaching practices in this area.

Assessment and grading is an integral component of a child’s education. Grades hold students accountable to what they learn and can be used to further student’s learning. However, grades can also alienate students, especially if students perceive a low grade as punishment. As James Downing (1997) states, “the problem for the teacher is to develop an assessment system that provides feedback and indicates the level of achievement without de-motivating students” (pg 191). An example of the ‘de-motivating’ effect of grades manifests when students receive a zero grade for missing a class, or for not turning in an assignment. The zero grade is not a reflection of the student’s academic ability, but punishment for their poor habits of work. According to Reeves (2004), “to insist on the use of a zero on a 100-point scale is to assert that work that is not turned in deserves a penalty that is man times more severe than that assessed for work that is done wretchedly and is worth a D” (pg 324). In addition, the final course grade a student receives should not reflect mistakes students make along the way towards achievement. Instead, these mistakes made in the course of the semester should be seen “not as failures, but lessons learned on the way towards success” (pg 85). Using grades as punishment discourages learning and reinforces any students’ underlying belief that they cannot achieve—it is regressive towards our goals for student learning.

Ken O’Connor has written extensively on strategies that teachers can use to fix the ‘broken’ system of grading that many schools across the country employ. Currently, due to “excessive entanglement between achievement and behaviour, achievement grades are often misinterpreted.” He suggests that grades must reflect students’ academic achievement, while a student’s behavior should be assessed and reported separately. In addition, teachers should be transparent about their grading practices and the purpose of grading, and that they should use grades to communicate and further student’s achievement of learning goals. Grades should be used to help students understand learning goals, to track their proficiency, and to provide feedback on their progress towards that goal (2009).

Determining the best system for assessment requires a deeper look into one’s philosophy about grades. We must consider, what are grades for? Do we use grades for motivation and/or punishment? What should a grade reflect? We must also examine what foundation of skills, knowledge, and character students should leave the education system with. Perhaps there is a ‘core content’ of knowledge and skills within each discipline that students need for success after graduation. Alternatively, perhaps schools are also meant to equip students with the habits of work, character, and discipline that they will need to be successful outside of school. Considering these questions greatly informs the grading and assessment practices that will best serve a teacher’s purpose.

Some schools are considering non-traditional practices of assessment, grading, and reporting. Based on Reeves philosophy, my own school uses a 1-4 grading system so as not to punish students for missing class work or an assignment. In this case, missing work is only three points less than a perfect score, rather than 99. A’s are worth only four points, not 100 points. Other schools are undergoing more radical changes in their assessment practices, insisting that grades only reflect academic achievement and not behavior. In this system, a student’s behavior is not the parameter by which academic success is judged, so it would not be included in grades. By disconnecting grades from behavior, schools increase academic rigor and consistency in grades between teachers. Of course schools using this model need strong accountability structures elsewhere to reinforce positive behavior and to discourage negative behavior. The key to their success is not eliminating consequences for negative behavior, “but rather finding the right consequences”. Student’s academic grades should not punish them for their actions. Instead, behavioral infractions should be responded to by a phone call home or after-school detention, but not a decrease in their academic grade (Reeves 2008).

While students will neither use nor remember every detail of a class, as educators we hope that students leave school with the content knowledge and professional skills they will need to be successful after graduation. Because of this, assessment and grading will always be a part of the education system. When administered poorly, they can alienate students, distract from learning, and unfairly punish students. However, when thoughtfully and carefully applied, assessment and grading can be used as an evaluation of students’ current progress as well as a tool towards furthering students’ learning. Thus teachers, administrators, and policy-makers must work together to develop assessment and grading practices that are consistent accurately assess student achievement, consistent within teachers and across schools, and transparent for students and their families.

Downing, J. (1997). Creative Teaching: Ideas to Boost Student Interest. Englewood, Co: Teacher Ideas Press. Pg 191.

O’Connor, K. (2009). Reforming Grading Practices in Secondary Schools. Principal's Research Review. Vol 4. Iss 1. NASSP, Reston, VA.

Reeves, D.B. (2004). The Case against the Zero. Phi Delta Kappan. Vol 86. Pgs 324-326.

Reeves, D.B. (2008). Teaching Students to Think: Effective Grading Practices. Educational Leadership. Vol 65, No 5. Pgs 85-87.

Seeley, M.M. (1994). Reporting What Students Are Learning: The Mismatch between Assessment and Grading. Educational Leadership. Vol 52, No 2. Pgs 4-6.

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