What’s in a grade?

In the subheading of this blog I refer to this school year as my “second year of teaching high school math” but that is not entirely true. I taught for three years at a private New Hampshire boarding school before going back for my teaching certification. This is really my fifth year of teaching, but only my second year as a certified public school teacher. I separate the experiences because of how much I changed as a result of my teacher training program. I was particularly influenced by two authors, Grant Wiggins and Rick Wormeli. My planning, practices, instruction and assessments will never be the same.

And my grading policy – my grading policy will never be the same. Having read, met and tweeted with these authors, I realize that grades are meant to represent the extent to which the student has mastered the material for the course. Grades are not meant to represent whether the student comes to class on time, stays in their seat, raises their hand, or organizes their notebook. Those are behavioral expectations which should be met with behavioral consequences. If I deduct points from their grade when they come to class late, then the grade begins to reflect something other than their mastery of the course material.

The purpose of a grade is to show how much of the course-material has been mastered. The purpose of homework/classwork is to practice new skills, skills which have not yet been mastered. Following this logic, it wouldn’t make sense to assign a grade to homework/classwork. In my classes, the grades are comprised of assignments completed after students have had instruction, practice, time to ask questions, more practice and feedback, lots of feedback. Last year, I didn’t say much about this until we had established a solid routine of doing homework, checking it, going over it, etc. This  year, on the second day of school, someone asked how I would factor classwork and homework into the grade.

“So we don’t have to do the practice?!!?!!”
“I will be assigning practice for every topic.”
“But you JUST said that you’re not going to check it.”
“I said that I’m not going to grade it; I’m still going to check to see if you did it. We’re going to go over it. Sometimes you will submit it and I’ll correct it and write notes on it. There just won’t be a grade on it.”
“You’re not grading it, so we don’t have to do it.”
“You are expected to do the practice.”
“But we don’t HAVE to do it.”

You get the idea. This went on for about 40 minutes… for two days in a row. Of course it included lots of conversation about the purpose of practice, the benefits (and drawbacks) of completing the practice, the idea of taking responsibility for your learning and everything in between. The conversation was valuable – worth taking the time for – but frustrating. In the end, most of my students are doing their practice. But still there are some who are not.

I would love for this post to turn into a discussion. Other teachers, parents, former students, current students… all input is valuable and welcome here. Does this policy/practice make sense? What can I do to help students begin to take more responsibility? I know that Wormeli would say “make sure the assignment is valuable – no busy work – only work that they need to do in order to master the material”. OK. Absolutely. That I can do. But what if I’m the only one who sees the value right now?

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4 Responses to What’s in a grade?

  1. Katie White says:

    I wonder if students would understand this better if you still spoke their language of the “grading game” a little? What I mean is that formative CAN “count” because it gives you part of the picture of whether or not students understand the course material. In other words, maybe explain to the students that when you do a summative learning/assessment experience, if you have information other than just the one event (formative practice results) then you can make a really informed decision about whether or not they have learned the course work. If they do poorly on a summative event but aced the formative, it makes you wonder what they really know and makes you want to assess them again (ie. give them another chance to show you what they truly understand.) If they don’t do the practice then you have no other information and so your decision will be simple (but maybe not to their liking). Just an idea. Does this make any sense? so, it counts, but it doesn’t “count.” This seems like a marks game and not a learning game.

  2. Kate Robbins says:

    Katie, Thanks for your comment. If I understand correctly you are not suggesting that practice be graded. You are actually not suggesting any change in my current policy – just a change in how I explain it to students. “Johnny, I see that you got a low score on your test but I remember that you did your homework even though it wasn’t graded and it seemed like you were getting it. Maybe you just had a bad test day. How about a redo?” “Mike, I see that you got a low score on your test. I remember that you didn’t do your homework. I guess you don’t understand the material.” Something like that? I like this…

  3. Scott Elliott says:

    It is such a cultural change for students to worry about learning and not worry about the points something is worth or the letter grade they are chasing. College applications and scholarships don’t do us any favors as so much is still tied to the GPA. My hope is that as kids are assessed and graded on mastery at younger ages, the culture will build eventually into the high school level. Of course brave souls like yourself are pushing the idea forward. Also, check out what Oregon is doing (www.oregonlive.com/education/index.ssf/2013/09/missing_homework_late_assignme.html). Good luck being an agent of change!

  4. Kate Robbins says:

    Thanks for your comment Scott and for sharing the link to the article about Oregon. I can’t believe I hadn’t heard about it before! This is exactly where I’m trying to go with my students. It’s hard to imagine a state-wide mandate for it but I think it will work for me. I’ll be interested in following the Oregon story. You’re spot on when you suggest that we’ve trained students to be concerned with grades; I can’t blame them, but I still want to help them change.

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