August 1, 2013

Grading Major Assignments (Part 2 of updating my practice this year)

I have been a proponent of going gradeless in the classroom. It makes sense to me to learn without the stigma of being judged for your successes and failures. However, I have also come to realize that it's not that simple.

I can write out as many evaluations of my students that I would like and have my students do the same, but the expectations of grades still looms.

I need a fast reference point to see how an individual is doing on an assignment, a project, a unit, or even a skill.
Students need the same thing.
Parents need the same thing.
School administration needs the same thing.
Their future teachers need the same thing.

What I would like to change is how assignments and what assignments are graded.

I believe that students should be graded on their individual merit and effort. They are not being judged head to head like horses about to race. They are learners who should be encouraged to accept mistakes as learning opportunities. As an English teacher I need them to see that they spelled a word wrong or misplaced a comma, not so they can be punished with a grade for it, but so they can correct that mistake and similar ones in the future.

What I want to grade are the major assignments. I have no interest in pouring my time into entering grades for piles of grammar sheets or having students take notes on a skill they are going to need for a project and then delving out points for turning in the notes. Whether or not they took notes well and paid attention will be determined by their project. Then, if they didn't do that, or they don't learn that way, it will give me opportunities to re-teach them.

I am not interested in cutting corners, though my time, like I'm sure most teachers', is precious to me. What I'm trying to do is to emphasize and focus on what really matters. My students will demonstrate their knowledge and skills through the completion of projects and units of study. Those need my time and attention. If their work is not what it needs to be, then their grade - yes grade - will be lowered while I give them feedback and guidance as to how they can improve their work. Once that happens, the grade goes up.

So, how do you feel about grading? My beliefs and practices in this area have pretty much been a rollercoaster ride. From grade every little thing to grade nothing. What do you believe are our responsibilities and how does our grading factor into learning?

Comments, as always, are appreciated.


John Spencer said...

I go as gradeless as I possibly can, but I'm stuck working in a system that says we have to use grades instead of just authentic feedback. I think it will take massive paradigm shifts before things really change.

Jeff Russell said...

I agree. Massive paradigm shifts are needed. I remember my first teacher course in 2003 and the professor talking to us about UC Berkeley going gradeless. However, they were forced to bring back their grades because of the graduate school admission process. The higher-higher ED forced them to revert. Other than that hitch it was apparently a very successful system.

Jill F. said...

I did my teaching certification in New Zealand. Some time before my arrival the government had initiated a 'pass/fail' system for secondary schools (I am not sure it was in place at elementary levels) that eliminated grades - at least final grades. Students either met the required standard or they didn't. This was to address the issue of students competing against one another in favour of focusing on individual abilities and progress, as well as focusing on building skills.
What they found was that students were uncomfortable with the notion that putting in massive amounts of work on a project netted them the same 'mark' as the student who threw something together at the last minute (assuming it was at least borderline acceptable quality). They both 'achieved the standard'. Parents wanted a more specific evaluation of their child's progress, and post secondary schools (as well as employers) did, too.
By the time I arrived on the scene the system had been modified to have multiple levels 'achieved with excellence' 'achieved with merit' 'achieved' 'did not achieve'
which to me seems pretty reminiscent of the same old letter grades.
I see the benefit of the teacher focusing on individual achievement and progress, but in order for students to see where they stand in terms of a skill, and for them to see how to get better, maybe they need a scale to compare against.