Grading for Growth
Ideas for changing some of our most confounding grading practices
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about why we give students grades and how some of our priorities and practices have been scrambled by the pandemic. I strongly believe that understanding why we grade is the starting point for a productive conversation about grading. It's certain that these motivations will differ across teachers and schools, but I suspect they often go unexamined. If grading were a less significant aspect of our educational system, that might be acceptable. However, grades are central to how students, parents, and teachers understand education. It's essential that our practices follow logically from our grading goals.
When I consider my goals for grading, they all tie back to my goal as an educator: to guide and empower young people as they gain the knowledge and skills they'll need to thrive as independent adults. What it means to "thrive" depends on the society students will be living in as well as their moment in history. High school graduates today will likely be required to re-invent themselves throughout their lifetimes. Adaptability, creativity, and self-awareness seem especially important as the concepts of "work" and "career" are undergoing a transformation. Students must also be able to communicate and collaborate with others in order to participate in the modern workforce.
Thriving as an individual is a great starting place (what could be more American than individual success?). However, I also believe that our schools have an even broader responsibility. A healthy democracy requires critical thinkers who can think beyond their immediate community.
A role for grades
Adaptable and self-aware people need feedback in order to choose where to focus their efforts. As teachers, we can provide some of that feedback through grades. We can also use the grading process to model self-monitoring, goal-setting, and persistence. Schools and teachers need feedback about student learning and grades can play a role here too. As a teacher, I need feedback about my instruction so I can focus my attention on students who are struggling. I should also use feedback from students to help me improve my teaching over time. Larger groups of educators, such as grade level teams and content departments, need information for other decisions like course planning and scheduling.
Grades currently play an undeniable role in unlocking future opportunities. High schools rely on grades when deciding if a student has earned a diploma. Colleges and universities study student achievement (measured with grades) when making admissions decisions. In that context, grades are often viewed as proxy for a student's ability to succeed at the institution in question, meaning they are understood to represent some combination of a student's mastery of necessary skills and their industriousness. Grades are also used to award scholarships. In this last case, grades are used as pure measures of merit. These examples reveal how frequently grades are used as sorting tools.
Emotions can run hot around grades and anyone advocating change can draw fire from teachers, parents, and even students. But I believe there are some adjustments we could make fairly easily that would better align our use of grades with the values I stated above. Below are a few problems with the way we grade and some possible fixes.
Problem: Complexity and inconsistency
I've spent many hours studying grade reports with students in my resource room. Some teachers grade everything, using our grading software to create numerous categories, each with their own weight. Others grade almost nothing or wait until the end of the quarter to update the grading software. Participation and effort are assigned a grade in some classes but not in others. Zeros and missed assignments can drop a quarter grade appallingly quickly. From a student's perspective, it can be hard to keep all of this straight. Those students who can "play the game" figure out which assignments are more important from a grading perspective. Students who don't play the game as well might spend significant time on a less grade-impactful assignment and then become discouraged when their grade barely changes.
Grades are not the only way to give feedback. Often, they're actually a fairly flawed vehicle for encouraging future learning. We should consider the number of assignments that contribute to a student's quarter grade remembering we can still give feedback without assigning a grade. This can be an adjustment for students who are used to getting a grade for everything they do in a class. The upside is that less teacher resources spent on giving grades can mean better and more frequent feedback for students. I have found that, after an initial adjustment period, most students still want to do their best on tasks even if they know they won't be graded. In fact, I've had better conversations about learning with kids when the pressure of grades is relieved. I believe that student engagement during remote learning this past spring would have been better if students had developed a less rigid association between grading and learning.
In addition to being more thoughtful about what we choose to grade, teachers should rethink the use of category weighting. Today's grading software makes it easy for us to apply weights to grades and it seems reasonable to us to emphasize the importance of certain assignments by boosting their effect on the overall grade. I have done this myself in the past. But this practice also has the effect of "gamifying" grading and makes it hard for students to understand where their quarter grades come from. Students should be able to roughly estimate their quarter grade without the use of software.
Finally, I've mentioned how inconsistent grading can be across a school building. I do believe that teachers should have some freedom to determine how they assign grades. But we would should work harder to coordinate grading so that the same types of assignments are graded the same way within a content area. Simply discontinuing the use of category weighting across a school building would go a long way towards eliminating the most glaring inconsistencies that students might notice.
Problem: Conflating academic mastery with soft skills such as effort and behavior
This problem requires revisiting our values and our reasons for grading. If your reasons are similar to mine, you might agree that grades are most useful for students and teachers when they reflect a student's current ability to complete academic tasks or demonstrate academic skills/habits of mind (they might also reflect a student's progress towards these benchmarks- more on that later). Effort, behavior, organization, and responsibility are a few "soft" skills that we may decide are worthy of including in our grading systems. Teachers, parents, employers, and college admissions officers all know how valuable these skills are but they are often incorporated into our grading systems inconsistently. Teachers have been told in the past to avoid grading based on these skills. Some still choose to incorporate them into their grading systems, sometimes as a category alongside assessments like projects and tests. This inconsistency results in confusion. If a grade is understood to represent a pure representation of a student's academic skill or mastery, grading for things like behavior and effort muddies the waters. If we value these skills, why should they be part of one teacher's grading scheme and not another's?
We can keep grades as a reliable measure of student learning without discarding other important "soft" skills. The solution is to separate the two categories. Most schools now employ technology to aid in the calculation and reporting of grades. This same technology could be leveraged to build a "soft" skill grade (or grades) to pair with each quarter grade a student receives. An important step would be deciding as a staff how this would be reported and what skills would be assessed. The school would then need to communicate to students and parents the meaning and import of these grades. Although grades like this might not be currently collected by colleges, scholarship organizations, etc., they could certainly prove useful as a communication tool for parents and students, as a point of reflection and conversation, and even as a reference for letters of recommendation.
Problem: Measuring growth
We should want to measure, report, and celebrate student growth over time. Grades are an obvious way to do this. But this can conflict with some of our oldest grading conventions and even our understanding of fairness. For example, if a teacher uses 4 assessments over a 10 week quarter to generate a student's grade, should all 4 be weighted equally? If a student completes all 4 assignments, fails the first two but exceeds mastery on the last two, should they earn a "C" as an averaging method might generate? Or should they earn a grade that reflects their mastery of the content, perhaps a "B" or an "A"?
Many teachers I work with try to resolve this conflict by allowing students almost endless opportunities to complete corrections, re-writes, etc. In theory, student growth is reflected in the improved product produced by these "redos" and the resulting grades. As a bonus, teachers feel benevolent and are able to tell themselves that they gave students every chance to boost their grades. This can also be a useful talking point in conversations with parents. There is a good argument to be made that engaging students in a process of revision reinforces a growth mindset. I recognize that in some subject areas, this process is actually the skill that is being taught (e.g., the writing process in English class). I've also used corrections and retesting in math class myself. But my work with students who are struggling the most academically is leading me to reconsider aspects of this practice. I've had students in my resource room who are failing multiple subjects. Retakes, revisions, and corrections are almost always available but there is not enough time to do these on top of completing new work. Constantly dwelling on past flaws and mistakes, sometimes at the risk of falling behind on current material, exacts an emotional toll. In some cases, redos constitute a "hidden" effort grade, since the conventional thinking is that any student should be able to achieve an "A" if they pour in enough effort. There are equity concerns here too; those students who will need to muster the most effort to complete a never-ending stream of redos are often those with the fewest resources (models for structure and organization at home, access to adults who have themselves "won" the grading game, etc.).
I hope that no one reading this will assume that I don't value effort. Success in school and life takes work and that should be reflected in grades on some level. But I think we can do better than our current system.
If grades are to measure a student's academic knowledge and skills, then assessments that are recent and cumulative form the best basis for grades. As a math teacher, I'm well-acquainted with unit assessments that focus only on skills learned recently. The students are assessed and then we move on to a new topic. Often the only cumulative assessments occur during midterms or finals. I believe we need to rethink this approach. We could design most assessments (whether they be tests, projects, or presentations) to be as representative as possible of all the skills learned up until that point. The most recent assessment could then form the cornerstone of a quarter grade. Instead of averaging scores on assignments, the most weight would be given to the most recent assignment. This could change our approach to corrections and rewrites. Yes, it is important to help students understand their mistakes and a traditional approach might be called for sometimes. However, the knowledge that an assessment given early in the quarter wouldn't necessarily impact a final grade would allow more flexibility. A class discussion of common errors or a focused session with a student to review part of a test could meet student's pedagogical needs. I believe this approach could also shift student's perception of the learning process. They aren't reworking incorrect problems to check a box and boost a grade by a few points. Instead, they're doing the work so that they master the content, enabling them to use it in the future.
This adjustment would require a conversation about grade calculations and careful communication to all stakeholders. It could be frustrating for a student who is accustomed to a high early-quarter score "padding" their overall grade when they find that a less-stellar recent, cumulative assessment factors more heavily into their quarter grade. Some students might try to game this system by only putting effort into the last assessments within a quarter. In a subject area such as math, this would likely backfire as later cumulative assessments would require proficiency with earlier material. When it comes to essays and projects, a minimum bar of effort or completion could be established for early assessments to dissuade students from withholding effort on these.
Finally, this shift would force some hard questions for teachers about the purpose of their grades. If a student excels on a cumulative exam at the end of a quarter, don't they deserve a top grade even if they failed all the earlier exams? This transition would be easier if teachers could register student progress on "soft skills" in a separate grade. For example, a student could earn an "A" for their quarter mastery grade but a "C" (or it's equivalent) for academic habits or effort.
Some final thoughts
Grading is a complicated topic. Some problems with our system are so entrenched that they could be harder to address. Using averages and percentages to generate grades is at the top of my list of problematic practices that will be hardest to change. But I believe that considering some of fixes above could help us realign grading with our educational goals and values. As a bonus, several of these fixes would lend themselves to an increased focus on self-reflection and goal-setting on the part of students. For example, I've found it is much easier for a student to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses indicated by a scored assessment (or even better, a self-scored assessment) when that score doesn't come with the baggage of a grade. Self-reflection is integral to goal-setting, another crucial skill we should want to nurture in our students. Crucially, these self-generated goals are the key to an educational program that students consider to be relevant and worthy of their attention.
In putting these ideas into writing, it is my hope that I will be a more cogent advocate for change when I discuss this topic with colleagues and stakeholders. I believe that thoughtful conversations about grading are key to advancing the goal of public education as a generator of opportunity for all students.