Grades: The Impossible Mission

    It is that time of the year when students are nicer, teachers are cranky and parents (who have never called) are now questioning the grades.  No, it’s not holiday cheer, it is the end of the semester.

    Are grades important?  I am not sure anymore.  I know that much of a teachers’ time is spent preparing grades, communicating about grades, posting grades and defending grades.  And the difficulty is that there are no correct answers—for anyone, especially the students. In recent years, a lot of focus has been placed on grading practices–and no one can agree on fair grading practices that address every situation.


    When I first started teaching 15 years ago, I was a very rigid person.  Things were either right or wrong, there were no grey areas in my world.  A student with 59.9% did not pass (60% is passing in my district). Now, 15 years later, I reflect on that idea and where I am now.  No grey areas before, now ALL grey (and I’m not just talking about my hair). I am sometimes haunted by the memories of students who did not pass.  Did I do them a disservice?

    Standards-Based Grading?

    I have researched the idea of standards-based grading which requires that all the assessments focus on specific standards. And not 10 standards at the same time. Our assessments are not created that way.   Instead, the entire unit is tested which may include at least 10 different standards and of course, teachers in the department want to assess those standards in different ways, using a variety of questions. Some are multiple choice, some are short answer, others are multi-part problems. With ten multi-part questions on the test with overlapping standards, it is difficult to separate which standard is being addressed.

    Not only is the process of grading confusing but the grading scale differs across the country. While 60% may be passing in my district, in another district 50 miles south on the freeway 70% is passing.  In other districts a 75% is a B+, in my district, it is a C.

    Controversial Grading Practices

    Not that I fault anyone. This is an emotional dialogue with other teachers and not a dialogue which people are comfortable discussing. Some teachers would suggest that students should never receive a zero. Why? Because it distorts the entire grade, better to give 50% to those missing assignments. I understand the concept, I just do not agree.  What are we teaching our students when we give them partial pay for doing nothing? Can they get a job, not show up and still get half their pay? No.

    Other teachers insist that they allow extra credit and that will offset those missing assignments. But for students that have done all their work, all semester, can they still get extra credit? It would be unfair if they could not.  And that would distort the grades. The grade would not reflect their proficiency in the subject.  It would be arbitrary.

    Impacts on Grading

    What do we do with students who speak no English in the classroom, and while materials are provided in alternate languages, these assessments are not currently available in any language but English? What happens with students who move and may enter the class for the last four weeks of the semester and have not been to school anywhere this year yet? Some educators would say those situations should not impact a grade.  Those educators are not in the classroom. A student who is absent 50% of the time is not available to learn the content.

    What is the purpose of grades anyway?  How do we quantify learning by assigning a random number? Even using a rubric is filled with questions. Who is to say that a student should get a 20 out of 25 or a 15/25? As human beings are, we so exact that we can determine exact point values for each piece of work a student completes?  Recently I assigned 20 problems.  I gave students choice, they could do the 10 graphing problems or 10 algebraic problems or 5 of each. Some students did only 8 but appeared to be working hard and had correct answers.  Others did all 10 but the answers were wrong. Should I nit-pick a point here and there to provide precise grades?  Or is my time better spent giving feedback, at the moment students are working, to show them where they could improve?

    Some educators would argue that homework or classwork is just practice and should never be graded. If it is not graded, how do students know the worth of their work? Does practice have a value and does that value deserve a grade?

    New Teacher Concerns on Grading

    When I am mentoring new teachers, it is a difficult discussion when we talk about grading. I do not have any answers.  If they had talked to me 15 years ago, I would have had them all. Not now. I also know that I have several students in my class who have not been designated with a learning disability, but definitely have one. This is one reason I give all students some type of accommodation. For some students is to give them more time to complete assignments or tests. For others, it may be the option to retake tests.

    When I talk to teachers (especially new teachers), they are afraid to have students fail their classes.  They want to have jobs the next year, and with F’s on the grade book, they fear they will not have their contract renewed. This has happened to teachers I know.   I was told as a new teacher the same thing. It was a worry but I gave the grades the students had earned according to the grade book.

    Beavis and Barbie

    Years ago I hear Chris Shore talk about Beavis and Barbie (you can read the article here). You probably have these students in your class. Barbie is the nice girl, who is always well-behaved, turns in all her work, never causes a problem. Beavis is the behavior problem, he never does his work and disrupts the class often.  If their grades are both the same (in Shore’s scenario they both have 68% and need 70% to pass) who is more likely to pass? According to the research, Barbie will be passed by the teacher because she is docile and eager to please.

    We can cite that she actually did more work, was more attentive in class and tried harder.  But if they both have the same grade, then Beavis evidently out-scored Barbie on the tests and knows more math. But Beavis is a thorn in the side, so he fails. This is a sad commentary on the educational system.  Some states do a better job of actually assessing who will pass by giving an exit exam to students.  If you want out of Algebra 1, you need to pass the test.

    District Grading Scales

    In my district grades are distributed as 20% Classwork/Homework, 20% Quizzes, 40% Tests and 20% Final Exam.  At this point, students are expecting and praying that they will ace that final exam.  It never happens.  The average on the final for all students in the school and district is roughly 50%. If this were an exit exam, that would mean that no one would pass, but for us, it is just another assessment.

    There is a lot of anxiety about grades. I don’t know if the students have anxiety, I know that teachers all do. My grades are posted early and considered carefully over for several days before I actually turn them in. I need to think about the individual students, review how they have performed all semester and see if their grade represents what they know. I also need time to distance myself from the behaviors of the semester and only reflect on the learning that may or may not have taken place.  What is my responsibility for lack of learning?  What part is student responsibility?

    I would like to believe that Barbie and Beavis have an equal chance in my class to pass.  15 years ago, I would have failed them both.  10 years ago, I definitely would have passed Barbie.  It is only in the last 5 years that I have begun to appreciate Beavis. Perhaps it is because that is what I have in my class now; those are the only students I have. Because I am older, maybe I am more compassionate.  But then again, do we grade with compassion or with numerical precision?

    I don’t have the answers. Do you?

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