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Grading Ain’t Easy

Why must we grade student work?  I know this is a topic that has been written about ad nauseam; however, it is a most crucial topic that needs to be addressed and continually discussed until all schools and educational institutions come to an agreement about how to assess and “grade” students fairly.  

Because I have to grade my students according to the mandate from my school, I have found a way to make grading work for me and my beliefs as an educator.  It has been an evolving process and is still ongoing…

I used to give grades.  I sometimes felt like I was pulling letters or percentages out of a hat and assigning it to student work.  I used to include comments with the grade, but they were empty comments for the most part.  “Great work!”  “Lacked support.”  “Keep trying.” What do those types of comments really mean?  Better yet, what message do they send to the students?

After a few years, many discussions with my colleagues, and some learning on my own, I realized that giving grades was not what “grading” is all about.  So, I began using grading rubrics, which were aligned with my curriculum and objectives.  I used a four or five point system and assigned criteria for each requirement or objective.  That seemed to work much better.  I handed out the rubric at the start of the project or when I introduced the assignment so that the students understood on what were being graded and what the expectations were.  They were able to use the rubric as a checklist as they completed each assignment or project.  The students could then see from where the grade they earned came.  It seemed like I had found the cure for my grading itch.  Little did I know that although I was on the correct track, I had many miles to go before I finished, many miles to go before I finished.  

Now, bare in mind, during these last two iterations of a grading system, I was flying solo.  I graded my students’ work by myself without little guidance, feedback, or support from my peers.  Granted, I was one of the only sixth grade teachers for several years.  However, I could have easily sought help or feedback from others, but I didn’t.  I was happy on my tiny little island with bobble head dancing hula monkeys.  I didn’t know better.  I was still grading impaired.

Then, as the sixth grade class size grew, another teacher needed to be brought on board.  While I was hesitant and fearful of working with another, I threw myself into the collaborative abyss.  It was one of the greatest experiences of my educational life.  I had no idea what I had been missing because I had not experienced it yet.  Collaborative grading is the only real way to grade.  You discuss, argue, look at the objective under a microscope, compare, contrast, review, revisit, and then do it all over again.  Grading with a small group, one other individual, or your team is a phenomenal experience.  If you haven’t done it yet, do it.  Go find a peer willing to devote some time to experimental grading and do it together.  Once you start grading work as a team you will want to devise rubrics and assignments together.  Then you will realize things about teaching that you had never thought about before because now you are being challenged in such a remarkable way.  It is amazing.  Team Teaching and Co-Teaching changed me as an educator.  It made me so much better than I ever was.  

So, as I started collaboratively grading student work, I realized that the rubrics needed to be better aligned with the curriculum and stick to just the objectives or standards we needed the students to meet.  That helped focus my energy and allow transparency with the students.  They understood what they needed to be able to do by the end of the year in order to advance to the next grade. I was getting better at this grading thing, but I wasn’t done yet.

Then, I learned about objectives-based grading and my system of grading evolved even further.  I started directly connecting the individual rubrics with the grades the students earned.  Together with my co-teacher, we created a conversion chart that allowed the students to know how the 4-point grading system translated to the letter grade system our school uses.  We only use the letter grade system when documenting grades in the reports we need to file periodically.  The students know our system out of four points.  By the end of the year they don’t even need to reference the conversion chart posted on the wall.  

This is where I’m at now.  It seems to be working, for now anyway.  Is it fair?  Are the students able to genuinely demonstrate their ability to meet the objectives covered?

As I graded notes my students completed regarding a reading from the weather ebook we are using in science class, I started to question if I was giving them too much leeway.  At this point, I want all of my students to be and feel successful.  So, I did not allow the students to move onto the next phase of the weather unit until they had displayed their ability to at least meet the objectives covered.   Is this fair?  Am I scaffolding my students too much?  I know I need to prepare them for next year where they don’t have a lot of opportunities to redo work, and so, towards the end of the year I do stick with the grade they get when they first turn in the work.  However, am I getting an accurate picture of what my students are able to do by grading the way I am now?  My students know I hold the bar for their work high and hold them accountable when they don’t hold their own bar high for themselves.  For me, my system works.  Will I be using this same system in a few years?  Will I be teaching in the same manner I am now in five years?  All great questions to ponder in a future post.

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Author:

I teach sixth grade at Cardigan Mountain School in Canaan, NH. I'm currently ensconced in my fourteenth year at this small, independent boys' school. I love engaging students in relevant and hands-on learning. I was nominated for the NH Teacher of the Year Award in 2016 by a parent. While I love education and guiding students, my first passion is my family. I have a wonderful son, Jeffrey, and a beautiful and intelligent wife, Kim. I couldn't be happier. Every day is the best day of my life.

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