Last week, the parent of one of my sixth graders called me to share her son’s feelings on a grade he had received recently. Of course, as teachers, we all know that phone calls like this are about far more than what they appear. She didn’t want to tell me how her son was feeling, she wanted to argue with me about his grade. His free verse poem had met the two graded objectives and thus he had received a 3/4 on each of them. I said, “This is great. He is doing what we expect. Sure, I do wish he had better incorporated the feedback his writing group and I provided, but he is clearly working at grade level and meeting our expectations.” Her response, “What do you mean he didn’t utilize the feedback? Did you look at the bottom of his poem? He had listed the feedback provided and explained how he had incorporated it. I don’t understand why he wasn’t able to exceed the objectives.” At this point in the conversation, I reminded her that I am not about to debate her son’s grades. This caused her to change her tune a bit, but then of course allowed her the opportunity to bring up more grades and assignments. “My son spends every weekend doing work and he doesn’t understand why he’s not earning As,” she said. I reminded her that we focus on the learning process and the graded objectives and not the letter grade. Still confused despite the numerous conversations I’ve had with her throughout the year on our grading philosophy in the sixth grade, she continued, “My son said that many other students didn’t have their work done on time and needed to finish it during their free time. How is that fair?”
I’m sure we’ve all had conversations with parents like the one I had recently. They don’t want to understand why we are trying to change the grading system to help support the learning process. They wonder why their child’s grades are lower than they had been in the past. They want to blame everything or everyone else but their child. While families like these tend to be a rarity, we will still encounter them in the classroom, on the playing fields, on the phone, in the grocery store, etc. So, why does this mindset of letter grades and timeliness still exist in our country? Why are some families and students stuck in thinking that if they turn in a beautiful poster with a plagiarized map, they should still earn an A because it is pretty?
It’s all about the grading systems used in schools around the country, and in many cases around the world. Schools and teachers are still arbitrarily giving students As and Cs at the top of their paper or on the side of a project with no conversation or explanation. How do we expect students to be able to reflect on their learning process and understand what they need to do to grow and improve as a student if they have no idea where a grade came from? We need to change from what was acceptable 100 years ago and realize that we are preparing very different students for life in a vastly different world. Students need to be equipped with different skills now than they did even 20 years ago. To help students learn and grow, we need to be clear and specific in our grading. Students need to understand what skills or objectives an assignment or task is being graded on. For example, the free verse poem that the parent referenced in the phone call I mentioned at the start of today’s entry was graded on two objectives: Students will be able to craft a unique free verse poem and Students will be able to craft a poem that accurately utilizes flow, rhythm, at least two examples of figurative language, and stanzas. We didn’t grade their poem on spelling or topic. We focused solely on those two objectives that we had spent our entire poetry unit focusing on. We then had conversations with the students on their poem and the two graded objectives. Almost every student understood where they grades came from. They got it. Sure, it took the whole year for them to understand why we grade them on the learning process, but they finally got there. Many of our students, at the close of the academic year, understood that learning is a journey and not a game with a set time limit.
My first summer reading professional development text Grading Smarter Not Harder by Myron Dueck totally aligns with our sixth grade grading philosophy. He explains the whys and hows at the start and then digs into the big ideas chapter by chapter. I’ve been grading and assessing my students in this manner for four years now and I’ve noticed a huge difference in their growth over the course of the year as well as their long term progress. The students own their learning and realize that it is a process that must be continually refined. No student is born being able to exceed every objective just like no person is born being able to run a marathon in record time. Everything he’s preaching about, I can support and advocate for because I’ve seen it work first hand. However, for someone who has been using an objectives-based grading system for a few years, this book is repetitive and hyperbolic. He spends the first chapter or 35 pages explaining why teachers should not award students zeros or take off points for late work. I’ve thought this for years. This book, while completely necessary for schools and teachers around the world who do still use the broken and innaccurate grading system of letters and random numbers, is not for me. I want to learn about how to take my objectives-based grading to the next level. How can I improve upon what I already have? This book would be great for the teachers at my school who still insist on docking students for turning in an assignment late. What does that prove? I think it’s all about power. Some teachers want to control everything in the name of teaching ownership and responsibility. Those teachers need to step back and really assess their grading system and how it affects students. Students with whom I’ve spoken to who have teachers who use defunct grading systems are unhappy, unmotivated, or scared. They don’t want to do the work or feel as though they have to so that they don’t fail. How is fear or apathy going to help inspire students to change the world?
So, in conclusion, academic grading systems around the world are broken and in need of repair. The objectives-based or standards-based assessment method is one that works well. Dueck’s book details this grading system very well for new or inexperienced teachers unfamiliar with this grading format. While I will finish this book, it’s a bit basic for me. But, like I try to encourage my students to do, I will go into the rest of the book with a growth mindset because who knows, I might learn something new or change my perspective.