Loud Updates
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Loud Updates

Dear Teacher, Please Rethink Your Grading Policy This Year

I’ve always had a problem with the concept of grading. As a teacher, I learned from my colleagues that your grading policy is valid if your mathematics is accurate while calculating average. Slowly, I learned what validity was and that my grading policies had been anything but valid. I changed the way I graded students. When I became a school leader I was surprised to see what some people did with grading policies. As students return to school after the most unusual and traumatic year they’ve experienced, please make this the year you re-examine yours.

My problems with grading policies come down to three major issues. The first involves averaging issues, the second involves accuracy issues, and the third has to do with the psychological response from students to grades.

Any grading formula that averages formative assessments with summative assessment is problematic. The grade is intended to represent the degree to which the student has mastered the intended content, not how well they mastered the content when they were first introduced to it. Imagine assessing runners that same way — runners train in various modes leading up to a race day. Averaging formative and summative data is like averaging their race time with their practice times (some of which were slow runs, some were sprints, etc…). You get a very different time that is measuring something else entirely.

Second, I have seen far too many people allow zeros to be averaged in with other grades. A zero has a disproportionately large statistical effect on an average compared to other grades. It is inappropriate to use them in an average situation. Especially since they are not valid. That’s right, I said it. Zeros are not valid grades. In every instance where I have seen a student given a zero the zero does not represent what the child knows or is able to do. Zeros represent a compliance issue — the child did not do the assignment, or is being punished for a violation. In these instances, the grade is no longer measuring what it purports to measure. Therefore it is invalid. Please swear of the use of zeros.

The issue of accuracy comes from the notion of teachers overestimating their ability as assessment designers. I have only met a handful of psychometricians in my life and they seem to have a fully deep knowledge of the complexity that goes into making a test item valid, reliable, and bias-free. On the other hand, most of us educators design assessments that are rife with problematic issues in these veins. This is not to say we shouldn’t assess. We should just recognize that every assessment we design is problematic and we should design some leeway and forgiveness for ourselves and our students into it.

Last, we need to be aware of what happens when students receive a grade. Regardless if students receive a good grade or a bad grade, teh grade represents a transition point for them — the stopping of learning on one topic and the moving on to another. Typically, we desire students to continue learning and growing in these topics, or work is not so sequential and stage dependent that they can afford to stop learning in an area.

Instead, I suggest the heavy use of feedback and the less frequent use of grades. And, when it is time to assign grades, make it less formula based and more criterion-based, while giving students some agency to determine their grade. Again, it is unlikely that your determination is infallible. I feel I can pretty accurately determine the difference between work that is in the 80’s and work that is in the 90’s, but I would be kidding myself if I thought I could determine the difference between an 87 and an 88. If students determine they should get a grade you don’t agree with, you can always tell them what revisions to their work you would need to see for them to deserve the grade they are asking for.

One of the most common objections to this kind of grading practice that I have heard is that we, as educators, need to prepare students for the real world. This phrase has always baffled me a little bit. My typical response is to ask those folks what kind of work they did yesterday — what did they write… and then ask them what grade they got on it. As adults we are not really graded, and when we are, it is highly contentious and negotiated. Let’s be more thoughtful and caring with our students around grading. Just like we want for ourselves.

Let’s make this the year of more humane, valid, and reliable grading practices.

In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.

-Robert T. Kiyosaki



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16th Street Consulting

16th Street Consulting

ceo@16thstreetconsulting.com is dedicated to improving organizational effectiveness through equity, focusing on education, health care, and government.