What Should Grades Look Like?

A 4:06 this morning, I received a great comment on my syllabus from Alfonso Gonzelez (@educatoral) that I felt merited a longer response than would fit as a comment. The comment was in reference to what my grades will actually look like since I will be using standards-based grading next year. Here is his comment:

Thanks for posting your syllabus. It sounds great and sounds like a class I would be happy to have both my kids in! You’ve also given me some ideas as I’ve been putting off writing my course syllabi for the Fall. Going grade-less has made that syllabi really important as it will set the tone for the whole year!

One question I have for you is what will your “grades” or feedback look like? Do they have to be letters or numbers or do you have some leeway? I try not to give any marks until midterm or final reporting as per our school policy and then I’ve started just giving P’s for pass to everyone who participates in my course knowing that there is no such think as failure. Now I need to express that in such a way that will not send the message that my class is not important or something that they can “blow off.”

An important question is how much leeway I actually have. This does not seem to be the most radical of districts, and while they did bring me on to shake things up a bit (They had no idea when they hired me. :)), there needs to be a balance with accountability to the parents. While I would love to go without grades completely, that does not seem to be an avenue that my administration would likely let me pursue. My last district let parents see grades in real-time and required two grades to be posted every Monday. The problem with this is that it prompted many teachers to just put in filler grades to appease administrators and parents. I do feel that I can effectively communicate with parents without grades, but many administrators and teachers feel that they need grades as proof.

I feel passionately that formative assessment should not be given a numerical grade. It all comes back to why we are grading. I am grading only as a means to understand what students really know and to help them grow. So, I cannot “invent” grades, which should never be done, and I cannot add filler grades that do not provide insight into a student’s knowledge at this moment.

It all comes down to relationships and trust. We need to stress from the first day why and how we are going to grade, and we need to really work on building positive relationships with students AND parents. They have both been trained to be dependent on grades and some may very well get confused or push back at first. This is why we really need to be build relationships. If students trust that we only give them assignments that are in their best interests and that will help them to learn, they will do them even without grades. If parents really believe that we consistently are striving for the best for their child in all situations, they will support us. Will there be the occasional student who does not participate or parent who gets angry his/her precious child didn’t get the best grade? Of course. They are still people and will still make mistakes and have shortcomings. So will we, but positive relationships will help them to give us the benefit of the doubt in helping their children.

As for more concretely answering Alfonso’s question, I imagine that I will likely use percentiles. I don’t do this because it is traditional (I actually have never used percents before; I used total points a few years ago before I became a librarian and did not have to grade for a while.), but it seems to make sense with my objective. If I am grading mastery of a standard or objective (i.e. Student can multiply numbers by 10 without a calculator.), I want to know how well the student grasps that particular concept. Percentiles give me nuance than, say a 4.0 scale or letter grades.

Furthermore, I do not believe that I will be assessing every student on all the same standards. While the students will all have to master the same foundational concepts in each area, I have built in choice so that they can study their interests and passions. I am limited in that my only online gradebook option is Moodle’s gradebook, which is unfortunately less than stellar. I may keep each student’s grades in a separate Google Spreadsheet which I share with the student, the student’s parents/guardians, and possibly the student’s administrator and guidance counselor. MY other option is to program an online gradebook in PHP and MySQL and I do not really want to do that at the moment.

All in all though, I think what system we use matters less than the trust between us and the students, and the philosophical foundation of how we choose to grade (or not grade). What do you think? How are you planning to approach grading next year?

  • http://classroots.org Chad Sansing

    Jason, I, too, love the syllabus.

    In this post, you do a great job explaining the importance of relationships and trust. You also do well to emphasize the role of formative assessment as a measure of growth, inappropriate for traditional grading.

    Here are my questions:

    Are you grading because your division tells you you have to grade or because you believe in summative grading?

    In your mind, is this a debate about whether or not to grade, or is it about what kind of feedback most helps kids?

    Are percentiles really more nuanced than a 4-point scale or letter grade or, for that matter, narrative feedback? Isn’t it all in the information and how it’s conveyed? Will you create a 100-point rubric to achieve nuance or will your comments and formative assessment deliver nuance? I think we all risk undercutting trust, relationships, intrinsic motivation for high-end tasks, and the impact of formative assessment when we argue that percentile grades are okay because they’re nuanced. Will an 83% on two vastly different Scratch projects really mean the same thing (the number) or will they mean different things (your feedback)? How useful and nuanced are percentile grade in situations like that?

    Then again, that’s the bind most of us are in. How hard can we push? #nonrehtorical

    Could we stop justifying alpha-numeric grading and just say, “This sucks, but I’ve been told to use it in order to work here?” Do you think we should?

    I really look forward to following your work.

    All the best,
    Chad
    Chad Sansing´s last blog post ..SPACE PANDA 2010

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Chad,

    Thanks for the questions. You bring up some really good points. I’m grading (in the sense of report cards) because it is a requirement of the school. I think when utilized well, grades can be useful to show what students know. Whereas I would rather just show a finished Scratch project, for example, than symbolic representation of the skill gained through the completion of the project.
    Students need feedback and it should be substantive and constructive. Instead of “Good job,” maybe something more along the lines of, “I really like how you did X. It showed how you understand Y. I do think you should try to do Z, because it would really add…” It’s not a great example out of context, but the feedback should be such that it helps the students.
    With any grade I give (which will be accessible to students and parents at any time), I plan on including the same feedback that I would discuss with the student in class.
    I do think that for my own purposes, a 100-point scale does offer some more nuance, since I will be grading understanding of concepts, not completion of projects (So, it doesn’t matter in the end if the Scratch projects are completely different if they can show mastery of how to make a sprite, for example.). I think that is the least important aspect though. My brain may just like the math better. What is important is that we have to give helpful feedback and have developed a trusting enough relationship that the student is open to hearing the feedback.

    I do agree that grading sucks and high-stakes testing even more so. If I have to grade, though, I want to do my best to try to make it useful.

  • http://classroots.org Chad Sansing

    Thanks for taking the time to respond, Jason – I appreciate your honesty about grading in such a forward-looking course!

    Given grades, perhaps our shared challenge as teachers is to make sure that the nuance we see/invest in them is preserved for students otherwise trained to view them as rewards, judgments, and punishments. I’m sure your work on trust and relationships will pay off in this regard.

    Best,
    Chad
    Chad Sansing´s last blog post ..SPACE PANDA 2010

  • http://ilearntechnology.com ktenkely

    Grades seem to be the bane of our existence as teachers. I’m with you, I would love to see grades go by the way side and offer a more authentic way of viewing what it is a student actually knows. Unfortunately school systems and parents are hard to convince. It is easier to just slap a grade on something and pretend that it gives us the information we need about a student. I think your solution is a good one under the current system. Good work!
    ktenkely´s last blog post ..iPads in Education

  • http://educatoral.com/wordpress/ Alfonso Gonzalez

    Great conversation Jason, Chad and Kelly! You all hit the nails right on their little, traditional vs reform heads! (And for the record it was 1:06am for me when I wrote the comment, there’s no way I’m ever up at 4am even when I stay up late. :))

    So I’ve thinking about what you all wrote and something dawned on me. Using letters, checks, numbers, percentages and even rubrics are ways we try to increase the nuancing. Right? The nuancing is where it’s at and it’s what we’re trying to do. Give our students feedback they can use. So if we’re differentiating the way our students learn then none of those methods work. The best and only way to nuance feedback for individual students is for the teacher to give individual feedback to each student. I’ve learned that after 19 years of trying to make those canned comments work for students that are so different and couldn’t do it. The letters, checks, numbers and percentages, maybe even rubrics, take the focus away from what matters – the individual feedback. It drives me crazy when I work with a group helping them get to the next step in a project only to have them wonder how they’re doing because there’s no grade attached to the feedback I gave. I remind them that my working with them was the feedback and it was much more informative than a letter or percentage.

    Trust and relationship is the key, Chad. Thanks again, Jason, Chad, and Kelly, for this conversation as it is so important that we keep questioning and pushing the envelope of what we can do to help our students. If we get enough teachers to join us then whole schools can change the way teachers are “required” to grade their students.

  • http://educatoral.com/wordpress/ Alfonso Gonzalez

    I found a couple more sympathizers. Check this post out by Jerrid W. Kruse:
    http://educatech.wordpress.com/2010/07/19/compliance-vs-learning/

    Jerrid points the way toward a Standards Based Grading (SBG) blog, Think Thank Thunk:
    http://101studiostreet.com/wordpress/?p=947

    And I thought I’d share some comments I got when I first shared the idea with my students’ parents. Two parents shared their concerns with my gradeless system:
    http://www.educatoral.com/wordpress/2010/03/20/change-in-grading-policy-for-mr-gs-science/#comments

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason T Bedell

    Kelly,
    You’re right. We’re always pulled between what we know is best for our students and what we contractually have to do (grades, standardized tests, etc).
    Alfonso,
    I really do agree with you. I just wish I was in a situation where I could just give individual feedback to each student/group. If we differentiate assignments, then yes assessment must also be differentiated. The clearest way to differentiate is to tailor the feedback to the specific student. Thanks for the resources. The parent concerns are unfortunate, but not unexpected. I thought you handled it well.
    Jason T Bedell´s last blog post ..What Should Grades Look Like

  • http://ilearntechnology.com ktenkely

    In the mean time, we will all go along doing what we have to do and involving kids in the learning process the best way that we know how. But, I don’t plan on letting issues like this fade into the background. It is time for “us” to start a school where we can implement learning and the tracking of learning the way that we know it should look. Working to make this a reality from my end. Who wants to move to Colorado? :)
    ktenkely´s last blog post ..Branches of Power

  • http://jasontbedell.com Jason Bedell

    Kelly,
    If you can start a school anywhere near NJ, I’ll be the first one applying.

  • http://twitter.com/rushtheiceberg Steve Davis

    “All in all though, I think what system we use matters less than the trust between us and the students”

    This line brought a focus into my thoughts on grading! Upon further thought, this line represents the constant of my classroom grading practices throughout the constant flux.

    Great line and thoughts Jason! :-)
    Steve Davis´s last blog post ..rushtheiceberg- @JennyTech Thanks for the RT! -