Monday, December 28, 2009


So, I've tried to stay away from toxic subjects, but grading is one that is a hotly contested topic currently in my district. it goes.

A few weeks ago, our district sent around a flyer about a grading study group that they were putting together to investigate new ways to grade. One of these new ways involves a no zero policy allowing for the lowest grade assignable to be a 50. In the words of Hamlet, "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"

I get perhaps shielding maybe some students occasionally from getting a zero, but to never assign them? I am supposed to give a student who turned in nothing for the quarter a 50? Something seems wrong here.

Now, I am aware of all the blah-blah arguments about grades, but here is a brief list of reasons why this policy is a bad idea:

1. Grades are a measure of student progress. A student who does not understand 50 percent of the material should not be misled into believing that he or she does.

2. NOT because it will inflate grades. There is a great article which I cannot find at the moment (of course) called "The Drama without a Villain." The whole article is dedicated to the myth of grade inflation. It begins with the Committee of Ten, those guys who created Carnegie Units, complaining about, you got it, too many "A"s being awarded. Not going to go deeply into it here, maybe in another post in February, but according to this fine article (which I swear I will find and then post the bibliographic information for at a later date) grade inflation is about as real as Nessie and the Creature from the Blue Lagoon.

3. I've seen too many students in AP English courses who can't write. I am not being over-the-top here. Let me give you an example: "incase" as a word throughout an entire essay. Once would have been a typo; twice, tragic. No less than twelve times did this student, who is actually on of the best I have, write this as one word.

4. I don't spend my precious time tackling mound after mound of papers so that I can give a student who completely ignored the assignment a 50. If I ask for a paper on Jude the Obscure and I get an essay on the merits of certain waterfowl, I should be able to give that student an appropriate grade.

5. Where is the justice in assigning a plagiarized paper a 50?

These reasons and many more have me stewing about this attempt to rewrite policy.

An aside on the policy piece. In Virginia, the COMMONWEALTH where I teach (all caps on purpose), there are only local Boards of Supervisors who control the purse strings. School boards are dependent upon these local boards for their budgets, etc. School boards are not allowed to generate a private revenue stream. Thus, much like the federal government, our Boards of Supervisors have a little bit of control over what is done in the schools. Just thought I would mention that for those from most of the other states who have independent school boards.

So, this attempt to rewrite policy is being driven by assistant superintendents of curriculum, etc. who wish to get a gold star on their resumes, School Board members who have children in the system, and Board of Supervisors members who have school children in the system. There is a trifecta if I ever saw one.

So, I began thinking about what the implication would be for students in the English classroom. Potentially, students could pass English classes while avoiding an entire section of the course. Don't like the essay writing? Skip it and do everything else. Don't like to read? Skip it and write the essays. With the lowest grade being a 50 and the highest F being a 59, there are only 10 percentage points that need to be attained before students get a passing 60.

What do you think?

Can this grading system be used for anything other than turning out a bunch of students who can't read, write, or think?

Has this system been implemented in your district? If so, how is it working out?

Is it a good idea to destroy our own competitiveness as the forces of globalization once again demand that we compete for ideas, resources, and power?

Is it destructive to students to lie to them about where they really fall?


Gigi said...

Amen Brother!
I believe in the zero when the student completely blows off the assignment or totally fails follow directions-see AP rubric.
I do not believe in the 100 for anything other than objective testing. No one is perfect, especially a sixteen year old writer.
BUT grade inflation is real when teachers allow test scores of 104, or simply follow a scoring rubric without digging in and finding out what is really wrong with the response.

Anonymous said...
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Kay Parks Haas said...

Our school district is also in the process of taking a new look at our grading policies, including the no-zero policy. I'm with you, it makes no sense to give students any points for work not turned in. On the other hand, I do think it's our responsibility to do everything possible to support and motivate students to do their work because only by doing the work will most students have an opportunity to learn.

The issue behind the no-zero policy is the weight one zero on a 100-point scale can skew a student's overall grade. Letter grade-wise, an F is an F, be it a zero or a 59%. As a result, the problem seems to be with leaving everything on a 100-point, or 100% scale, when figuring the final grade. If, instead, all points/percentages were converted to simple letter grades (similar to GPA points) before we average the overall grade, the weight of a zero would no longer be an issue. Consider the following scale: 0=0, 1-59 = 1, 60-69 = 2, 70-79 = 3, 80-89 = 4, 90-100 = 5. We would then average the overall grades with the 0's - 5's. I would not call this grade inflation.

Keith Schoch said...

I have a problem with some grading systems, such as one that counts homework as only 10% of the grade. So conceivably, even though homework is assigned every night, a student could choose to not do ANY of it and get a 90 in the course. Those are numbers I could live with if I were a student!

Kay Parks Haas said...

Some policies suggest not counting homework at all as a part of the final grade because homework is a time to practice. At the very least, those policies suggest that no points be deducted for incorrect answers on homework. Of course, some teachers would challenge such a policy questioning what, then, would motivate students to complete their homework.

What are your thoughts on that?

Dan Bruno said...
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Dan Bruno said...

I hear many of these arguments made during the discussions of grading systems, but here is what usually comes of them:

1. The easiest - Homework is only 10%: I thought this was true for a long time; however, students who don't do the homework generally don't do well in the class.

2. Supporting students as our primary goal: I just want to put a plug in there for the students we seem to always leave behind - those who do their work. If our job was to pander to, or otherwise patronize, our students, then I would be all for making grades on assignments encouraging. As it is, students who take the time and do the work to the best of their abilities tend to score well. Whether that is a function of us as graders and people or of the students' own native skills is irrelevant. When students who do their work see others getting chance after chance after chance to get some points, they get deflated. They don't think it is fair and I am inclined to agree. There are no extensions when it comes to turning things in as an adult. I can just see some of our studnets now..."No, Mr. or Mrs. Bank Person, I didn't realize I defaulted on my mortgage. Can I have an extension of two or three months without any penalties?"

3. Kay, I really like the Grade Points per assignment idea; however, since a marking period grade is an average, wouldn't it work out the same way as with a 0 percent?

B Ahrens said...

I have a few comments regarding grading:

1. I encountered the no-zero while in my credential program. The rationale was as follows (note- this is not MY rationale, it was the professor's):
-failing is failing. There is no F-, or G, so it doesn't really matter what the exact score is at the time the time of the failure.
-to give a student a zero makes the TOTAL graded score inaccurate when taking an average of scores.

My conclusion at the end of the class was to do the following:
1. Use weighted categories instead of total points. That way I could ensure that tests and projects did count more than homework assignments at the end of the grading period.

2. I used a character (Z) in our grading program to designate assignments that were not submitted. For assignments that were attempted but not up to par, I used 50% as the lowest mark. Why? Because I wanted student and parents to be able to see the difference between attempted and non-attempted assignments.

3. At the end of the grading period, I adjusted the weighted category total to 50% IF it fell below that point. Why? Because I had set my categories up in a such a way, that 50% gave a more representative view of the students TRUE grade.

HOWEVER- I was not teaching AP classes. I believe in those classes, it is important for students to understand how they would have scored on the actual AP exam. I am not convinced however, that those scores should translate directly to the grade for the class. Failing AP test preps may indicate they are not prepared to pass the exam, but does it indicate they are not learning the material?

Finally, I do believe that grading is an issue that does need to be discussed school (or perhaps district-wide). Many new (and veteran teachers) do not understand how to create grades that fairly and accurately set up their grade books. Being able to flunk every test, but pass a class because you completed homework or vice versa, is ridiculous.

David said...

There's a ton to say on this topic, and not much time (too many essays to grade). But in short:

1. A student who writes "incase" as a single word has demonstrated one misunderstanding, no matter how many times it was displayed. It would annoy me too - but try to keep perspective.

2. Too often when we talk about grades we're committed to the idea of 100% without knowing why. How did we get to this idea of "points" in learning (which are fictional and arbitrary), and how did we decide that we could measure with them so carefully as to distinguish between 88 and 92? We talk about a student knowing percentages of material, but the percentage they appear to know is largely dependent on how we choose to measure.

3. A four or five-point scale makes much more sense. Give a zero then, and you haven't created a mathematical black hole that will punish a student excessively.

Consider why you grade. Suppose you want to see if students did their reading homework and understood it (2 purposes). Give a student 15 assessments - perhaps reading quizzes - and put the grades on a 100 point scale. If the student scores an 85 fourteen times in a row, and then a zero, what is your assessment of the student's homework habits (first purpose of quiz? and reading competency (second purpose)? Well, a kid who can hit 85 fourteen times out of 15 looks like a B student to me in terms of reading, and a kid who is prepared for the quiz 14 times out of 15 looks pretty good too. But, if you're averaging the grades and using the traditional grading scale, you've given the kid a C+ even though C+ matches neither your assessment of reading skills or study skills.

I recommend Robert Marzano's book "Classroom Assessment and Grading That Work." Ever since reading that, I eliminated points in my grading. Every time a student gets a grade in my class, it is a description of the quality of their work, on a 4-point scale. When I write a quiz, the questions are divided by difficulty. This is an oversimplified description, but basically, if the student can barely answer easy questions, it's a 1. If they can answer easy ones but no hard ones, it's a 2. If they can answer hard ones but not "stretch" questions, it's a 3, and if they can handle everything, it's a 4. All of my assignments are graded in a category and the student's progress is consistently measured against standards, rather than calculated using fictional points representing supposed "units" of skill or knowledge.

Anonymous said...

Grading - one thing I will not miss when I retire.
Our schools function on a scale system: 1 = 35% and then it moves up to level 5 = close to 100%.
Level one grade for someone who is absent often and does not do the required assignments is difficult to understand and accept. However the idea is that the student has "heard" and taken in some information, hence he is not a zero. We often want to use grades as the proverbial stick to wield and keep all in tow:"You will receive a zero unless you do the work." For some students, grades no longer have power - times have changed!