Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Grading Philosophy

Hi Danielle!

I know you've heard me brag about how much I love my team of teachers that I collaborate with. Working with them challenges me in the best possible ways. We may not always agree on everything, but we're always willing to talk, read, write, and research to try to find the best outcomes for kids. Today we had a pretty intense debate over grading philosophies, in an attempt to standardize our practice across curriculum areas. You know that developing a grading philosophy that matches my teaching philosophy has been a priority of mine for the past year, so I wanted to share some of what we were debating.

This whole discussion started as a result of one speaker at our school district's summer institute who presented an argument for grading based on achievement only. He had some convincing graphs and charts, and many of us bought his argument wholeheartedly. We came back to the school year ready to completely upend our grading system, though some levelheaded colleagues urged us to take a step back and really examine what that would mean. Through some discussion, my team came to an agreement that we wanted to try to start with smaller changes, and look at the way we report grades. What we decided was that at the end of each marking period we will report a traditional percentage grade, just as we always have, but then break down that grade into three areas in the comments section of the report card. We all agreed to try a system that codes all graded assignments under one of the following three reporting categories:

  • Achievement- tests, quizzes, writing assignments, projects
  • Effort- homework, notebook and material organization
  • Participation- contributions to class and working on behaviors of successful students
I know that many might question the validity of having things like organization and participation contribute to a grade, especially with a national push towards measuring only achievement, but I have a few reasons why I strongly support developing a grade this way.

I teach a wide variety of students. Many are competently skilled and right on grade level. An achievement only grade would be fine for these students. But what about my other students, the smaller but extremely significant population of students who simply do not yet have the skills to succeed at grade level in my class? These students range from the newly immigrated ESOL student with enough skills to pass an entrance exam, but who does not actually speak, let alone read or write, in English to the classified inclusion student with a heavily modified curriculum, to the student who has difficult stuff going on outside of school that is a bigger priority in their life than studying for a test. An "achievement only" grade would hurt these students, and it would undermine the message that hard work is a major indicator of success.  

By explicitly including effort and participation in my grading plan, I am already starting to see a significant impact in my classroom. Students are motivated and making strides towards participation. Student distractions are minimal, and the reminder of weekly participation grades is enough to straighten out any stray distractions. More students are doing their nightly reading homework than ever before. The effect is simple to explain. Now that they are being held accountable for their effort and participation, they are working harder and participating more.

For me, one of the keys to successfully switching to a more holistic system of grading is having extremely clear expectations. My students were introduced to a weekly participation rubric in the first week of school. They complete weekly grading reports, where they log all of their assignments for the week on Friday and they receive their current average and a breakdown of all of their grades on Monday. They reflect on their learning at the end of every week, and set a new goal at the start of every new week. Does this take time? Yes. Does this create more work for me? Yes. It is worth it? Absolutely!

I want to communicate that student success is part of a whole package. It's not just about being smart and able to rock a test or write an amazing essay. Those things help, but for those students who struggle in those areas I want them to see that hard work and sustained effort to improve are also important. I want them to understand that when you take an active role in your own learning you learn more, and by default achieve more. I wish that kids could do that without the carrot of a grade, but the reality is that I work with middle schoolers who need carrots. In my opinion, a more well rounded grade earned through hard work, participation, and achievement is a better carrot than a jolly rancher, a shiny sticker, or a threat of lunch detention could ever be.