Professional Development Summer Reading Part I

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.


6 thoughts on “Professional Development Summer Reading Part I

  1. Melissa says:

    Hi Fellow Summer Readers, Thanks Mark for initiating the discussion! Eric and I finally got around to reading Dueck’s book and have had some very stimulating discussions (note, we’ve had plenty of time since we had a 50 hour drive across the country :-/ ). Nevertheless, I believe we fit into the category of “inexperienced teachers” and have found the book very helpful in it’s use of examples and inclusion of templates. Eric has been dabbling in not grading homework but instead using it to reinforce learning targets for the assessment. It’s nice to see how Dueck meets some the challenges surrounding this decision. We too, have found the book repetitive but worthy of our time. The overarching theme of grading authentic learning and not behavior is a challenge we both are interested in taking on!

    • I’m so glad you both are liking the book. I agree with you on the grading of behavior vs. learning. It can be hard to differentiate, and as much as we want grading and assessment to be objective, it is bound to be subjective at points. I wrestled with that for years. If you grade work on objectives alone, it keeps the behavior out of the equation. That’s what the effort grades are for.

      What are your thoughts on taking off points for lateness? Dueck covers that in the book, but I’m curious to know what you both think about that. For me, it goes back to the objectives. If I’m not assessing students on the objective of timeliness, it doesn’t matter when the work is completed. If the student shows mastery of the skills or objectives, that’s what he or she is graded on. I get so frustrated when I hear that students lose 10 or more points when they turn in an assignment late. Even if it is done well. Why? Because that’s what it’s like in the real world? That argument is ridiculous because many teachers at Cardigan show up to class late or turn in their comments late and they are not penalized. So, why should we penalize our students? Yes, there is value in grading students on timeliness. We do it a few times throughout the year to help prepare the boys for the rigors of seventh grade and beyond. It’s one of a few objectives for the assignment though.

  2. Kyla Joslin says:

    Hello Summer Readers!

    I am getting through the book and am inspired! It has motivated me to think about my grading and take it to the next level. I would like to know how to make this work while still using standards based grading and our traditional grading system. I agree that an “A” tells you nothing about what a student can do. I will mull that over throughout the rest of the summer to see if I can make it work for what we have set in place.

    In the first chapter, Grading, I like the “Late or Incomplete Assignment Form”. It allows the student to reflect on why an assignment is missing and requires them to look at what interventions they need. It teaches self-awareness and advocacy.

    I also noted the use of an Incomplete as a grade. I have never given an incomplete, but for someone who is missing key assignments an Incomplete is necessary.

    One question I had was about the Example 2 on page 34. The alternative response is for the student to attend a make-up homework time to complete the missing assignment. What happens when they have too many assignments?

    That’s all I have for Chapter 1. As soon as I am finished with Chapter 2, I will share my thoughts because I would love some feedback!

    • I agree with Kyla on the difficulty of utilizing standards-based grading under the umbrella of our letter grade system. Translating a 3/4 to a letter grade doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Sure, there are other schools and teacher doing the same thing that we are trying, but the scale is still just a scale. It’s like making a model of something. It may look like what you you copying, but it is still just a model and not the real thing. I’m hopeful that we will be moving to a standards-based grading model as a school in the near future. Until then though, we know that using standards-based grading is what we need to be doing, and so we do it. We talk to our students about it and explain how the system works. We tell the boys why we are doing what we are doing and help them understand along the way. By the end of the year, they will be speaking the language of standards and objectives and not As and Bs. We’ve got to fight the good fight.

      To address Kyla’s question about the making up of homework situation; as teachers, as soon as a student misses one assignment, we work the system to provide him time to do it. Perhaps that means pulling him from sports to work in PEAKS, having him come to afternoon study hall, or providing him a PEAKS appointment at some point. We can’t let a student miss more than one assignment and not do anything about it. We need to hold the students accountable. Even though homework is just practice and not graded, if he misses crucial practice, he is missing opportunities to hone his craft. It’s like in sports, if a student misses a practice before a game, the athlete can’t play in the game or misses a large portion of the game. Same thing goes in the classroom. If a student isn’t doing the practice work, he can’t take the assessment until he has done so. Since we can’t let him fall behind, we make use of the protocols we have in place as a school.

      This is exciting. I’m so glad that people are using this and contributing to the discussion. Let’s keep it going.

  3. Melissa says:

    Yes! One of the great things about this book is that it has really made me think about the quality of homework I am assigning. There is the occasional (rare) assignment that could be optional (for deeper understanding when students are struggling) but for the most part, I want to try to make my assignments important enough that all of the students should participate. Eric and I have spoken about the test re-take system and feel that one of the qualifiers for a re-take should be that the student complete all of that unit’s homework prior to a re-take.

    In answer to your thought-provoking questions above, Mark . . . I agree that grading for lateness is senseless. We do need to be vigilant about the boys’ accountability. One of my juvenile fears with this whole system is the dreaded “grade inflation”. This goes back to what Kyla was saying, how do we pin a letter grade on standards-based learning? If we are giving the students a chance at mastery, aren’t we striving for grade inflation?

  4. Missy, I agree with the stipulation you and Eric discussed regarding test retakes. There needs to be some sort of buy-in from the students. What we don’t want is students to blow off the test because they know they can retake it. When I’ve done redoes, the requirements are laborious and demand much of the students to show their mastery of the concepts and skills. It’s not a fun process for the boys. After the first time of doing it, I’ve found that the students better prepare for future assessments.

    While you do make a great point about accountability when it comes to homework and due dates, grading should be looked at as something Cardigan makes us do. Great teachers are always trying to help their students master the content, concepts, and skills covered. In theory, all of our students should have As according to our grading system if we are helping them. Of course, we all know that students face roadblocks and so that will rarely happen. So, we help support and challenge our students so that they can master the curriculum on their level and to the best of their ability. We have to give grades because our grading system is broken. In an ideal school, we would provide the students and families with comments and a list of their standards-based grades according to the system suggested in the book as well as one like Kyla uses already. No letter grades should be used. They mean nothing.

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