Friday, March 28, 2008

What Do Grades Really Measure?

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…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher


Bill Ferriter said...

Hey Kate---I enjoyed your post.

Here's a few thoughts for the colleague that you write about:

She said:
One colleague said that bosses don’t want employees who do one or two jobs brilliantly but skip everything else assigned to them.

I couldn't agree more. I never argue that work behaviors aren't important. I actually argue that work behaviors are far more important than academic ability.

That's why I think it is imperative for teachers to be more systematic in giving feedback to both parents and students about which work behaviors students have mastered and which they haven't.

Your colleague also said:
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

Here's where I'd argue that your colleague is acting unprofessionally.

Why is it okay for teachers to leave parents to sort out what work behaviors their kids have and haven't mastered by looking at single numbers on a report card or interim report?

If I went into my doctor and he told me that my lung capacity was operating at 88 percent of normal, I'd expect him to give me a detailed list of factors that might be affecting my lung capacity based on what he knew about my health and anatomy.

"Is this a result of my weight?" I'd wonder. "Is it genetics? Related to smoking? Second hand smoke? Is there an asthma or allergy issue that I'm struggling with?

"Can I improve by working out? Taking a perscription medicine? Avoiding women with intolerable perfumes?"

If I left the doctor with nothing more than a number and he simply said, "You can figure out which behaviors are affecting your lung function yourself," I'd call him a quack and go find someone else!

Yet teachers do that every day. We assign numbers without explaining what those numbers mean---unless of course we're challenged by a parent.

What I'm arguing is that professionals (which is what we claim to be in every conversation) bear responsibility for being more specific in the feedback that we provide to parents about the factors that are helping or hindering students.

Does this make sense?

The Tablet PC In Education Blog said...

I appreciate your blog.

What do grades really mean?

Probably you know this formal response to your question and used it while taking a tests and measurement class: Unless grades are based on standardized test results, they mean whatever the grader wants them to mean, plus however an observer of these grades interprets them.

Teachers have used this as a reference for almost 100 years, since creation of standardized tests. Criterion referenced tests simply specify parts of standardized tests. We know how to explain these things to parents, et al.

I curious, what do you think has changed significantly that requires a different reference for teacher assigned grades?

And, does anyone care that much about grades that teachers cannot continue to formulate grades however we and our supervisors choose?

Kate Kellen said...

Bill and Tablet PC, thanks for posting your thoughts. Bill, I get what you are saying. Personally, I provide lots of narrative response to students' work on essays and make contact to parents when necessary, so when the grade/number arrives in the mail, it isn't outside of a narrative. I try to avoid surprises! I'd like to see high school class sizes cut down so that we provide narrative responses to accompany all report card grades, too. I agree with you that putting numbers in context is part of a teacher's responsibility.

Tablet PC, in my experience, classroom grades are far more subjective than your explanation suggests. While I have often worked in departments with a rubric that outlines an "A" essay from a "C" essay, I haven't always worked places where we've graded together as a department to "norm" our grading against those objectives to reach consensus. Bill's point about how much teachers count off for missed work is another huge variable from teacher to teacher. That's why I think this is a discussion worth having as teachers. Ironically, it is easier for me to have it here, on the Internet, with teachers I don't know personally, than it would be in my department!

As for who cares about grades, I guess my first answer is "I do." They mattered to me as a student, and I want the grades I issue as a teacher to reflect as honest and fair an assessment as I can. Since I create many of my own writing assignments and do not always have an objective to compare students to, I'm trying to give this real active thought.

Thanks to you both for helping me down this road!


Nanci in Cinci said...

Kate and all,

I am a mom to two high school and one middle school students. I homeschooled successfully for 12 years (my kids each made straight A's in competitive private schools on entry) By and large, they are having successful secondary school "careers". They have had some amazingly frustrating experiences this year with respect to newer teachers' grading policies. More correctly stated, it is a lack of school policy assisting newer teachers with grading.

To be clear, I hate grades. Necessary evil in our educational system, I believe. I home-educated three students who inhale books and magazines, take unprompted notes for personal learning goals...they LOVE learning. I credit most of that to the fact that they were not graded early on.

At the end, I did use an electronic grading program. I wrote my own tests. I understand the difficulties inherent in the process from the educator's perspective.

Now that my children are all in school, following several family medical crises, I must respect grading as our every day reality.

But high school courses that peg one or two tests as OVER 50% of a child's quarter grade? This happens to both of my HS children all the time. What do you think?

Should one or two bad efforts (bad days or bad judgement on the part of the student; poorly taught concepts or poorly worded questions on the part of the teacher) result in a child getting a "C" or a "D" when all other work was completed well?

Also, what do you think of an advanced language course in which NO student is getting an "A"?

Struggling parent. Comments and perspective welcome.

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