During my first eight years of teaching, we have discussed what a grade means at least one time during an inservice. We have discussed what a grade is, what it represents, how homework should affect a grade, what a grade predicts, and on and on. During each of those inservices, my feelings about grades has changed each time. Now with the use of formative assessment and reteaching until students learn material, I’m thinking more and more that grades are a meaningless representation of performance.
Two weeks ago, after my daughter’s volleyball game, we had to rush home and get to her open house. She is in eighth grade in a small junior high, so we already know her teachers. We already know where her locker is and where her classes are. In fact, she didn’t care if we even stopped in to all of her classes. The reason we had to get to open house was that two of her teachers were giving ten points extra credit for the students whose parents showed up. So, my daughter’s grade improved not because of anything she did or learned, but because I put off eating for another half hour to go in and sign a paper that says I was there. What about the students who’s parents work second shift? They now have ten fewer points. Does that mean they know less than my daughter? What about extra credit for bringing in Kleenexes or going to the play? There are many more ways students have earned extra credit over time. Often the tasks performed in order to receive it in no way affected their learning or performance.
Another problem I have seen with grades this year in my class is through assessments and some formative assessments. I have given a short quiz every 3-4 lessons in my class to determine if I can move on to the next 3-4 lessons. Some students don’t do well the first time, so I have them retake the quiz. In fact, I allow all students to retake the quiz. Some students improve from a 75% to a 90%. But some students get a 90% the first time and then an 80% the second time. I still give them the 90% they got the first time, but are they at the same level as the student who improved from 75% to 90%? I have no idea. I’m also assuming that a 90% in my class could mean something completely different than a 90% in another math class.The only way I know students have increased their learning is when we MAP test during the year and MAP testing isn’t even for a grade. I’m sure some would ask, “Why does it have to be for a grade?” I would answer that by having you imagine what parents and administration would say this week when I post midterm grades and there isn’t anything there.
There are also times during my retakes where students will ask, “Do I really have to do the retake? I got a 78%, I’m ok with that.” Students, and sometimes parents are ok with a 78%, but often a 78% is the result of not understanding a day or two of objectives, which could equate to not understanding one of our standards. If I am assessing understanding, and they don’t understand, of course they should retake it. But, if a student is ok with a 78% and plenty of research shows that students aren’t motivated by grades, then why would I assume that students would perform better on a retake, showing me their mastery of a standard?
So now what? Do I think we need to go to standards-based grading? I’m not sure. I would have to read a lot more about the practice before I could say that it was better than what we have now. However, I don’t think it would take much to outperform the current system. From what I have read, it would be more consistent from class to class. I think it would drive much more differentiation in the classroom, allowing proficient students to move along while non-proficient could receive the help that they need. However, if this were ever to happen, it would take an entire change of school culture from students, teachers, leadership, parents, and legislators. If there were ever a time to make the change, it may be right now, while every school is already making the transition to Common Core. In the mean time, I’ll try my best to make my grading meaningful, leaving students useful feedback on every question.