When I feel my ideas growing and changing, it almost always hurts, like someone turning a great big crank in my head that doesn’t get used often enough. I’ve been thinking about grades and grading lately, and I’m not sure which way is up anymore.
As a student, I enjoyed a positive relationship with grades. I honestly believed that grades measured my mastery of content, my learning. If I earned a 93% on a test, I believed that I had demonstrated comprehension and retention of 93% of the expected material. If I earned a 93% on an essay, I believed that I successfully expressed my points in written form. It felt clean and straight-forward to me, and I enjoyed the extrinsic measure of my intrinsically motivated hard work and intelligence. It seemed to me that American society rewards extrinsic measures, and I didn’t do well in most of them. We didn’t have a lot of money, I wasn’t the prettiest girl, and I didn’t possess athletic ability. I was smart, and my grades proved it. Like the season records of sporting teams I didn’t make, my grades showed that I did something well.
When I first started teaching, I used a grade formula that gave almost all the weight to tests and essays. When report card time came around, it distressed me to see that students who took two tests and wrote one essay could score a B in my class despite missing lots and lots of homework and class assignments while kids who really worked hard but had trouble testing nearly failed. I restructured my grade formula to give more weight to homework and class assignments. I didn’t teach honors kids like I had been; I taught students who sometimes struggled to learn or struggled to prioritize learning, and I felt that I needed to let all the practice and effort count.
Currently, I teach in an English department that requires a certain number of essays to pass the course. If students skip or fail even one of the essays, they do not pass the course. We call them Core Assignments. In a composition class, my assignments tend to build in difficulty: the first essay can be first person with no quotations; the second essay requires quotations and third person voice, and the third essay is a big research project. If students skip the research essay, for example, they wouldn’t have demonstrated the mastery of writing that students who struggle through it will demonstrate.
Recently, I’ve started reading Bill Ferriter over at The Tempered Radical. He’s a middle school teacher who doesn’t give zeros anymore. Now, he’s in a school system that supports his efforts with scheduling and duty assignments. I’m not teaching twelve year olds; in high school and beyond, the GPA becomes a nationwide phenomena that’s difficult to duck. However, the concept that I’m using grades to reflect punishment and reward rather than to measure learning took my breath. I’ve spent some time asking my colleagues: Does a student’s grade measure what he or she has learned or reflect how much he or she has turned in?
What should a grade measure? One colleague said that bosses don’t want employees who do one or two jobs brilliantly but skip everything else assigned to them. Grades, she reasoned, reflect a mixture of content and skill mastery along with work behaviors. If parents or students want to break out learning mastery from work behavior issues, that can be done by looking at the exact numbers contributing to the student’s grade. Ferriter argues that grades should measure purely learning, and he assesses work behaviors separately on a rubric that is not numerically represented in the grade. Should single assessments like tests and essays measure learning as opposed to quarter grades? Are grades really a measure of cooperation as much as learning? Is that okay?
Years ago, a close teaching friend and I argued over the concept of a school without grades. At that time, I wanted to know if all the sports teams at such a school would also forgo scoring, based upon my own relationship with grades as a student. Yet whenever I’ve defended grades, I’ve done so because I believed they measured something more worthwhile than obedience. I’ve always taken late work because I agree that work worth doing is worth doing late, but I’ve always taken some points off. I don’t think I’ve asked myself if the grades I give as a teacher measure what I believed the grades I received as a student did. Sigh. I’ve got more thinking to do on this one…