Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What's in a Grade?

"How many pages does it have to be?"

"Is this going to count?"

"How many points is it worth?"

"What can I do to bring my grade up?"

"Can I do extra credit?"

You've all heard these before, right?  I have said for a long time that the worst part of teaching is grading.  It's a tough situation because somehow we have to put a number on it.  If we don't grade, then "kids won't do it."  But because of grades, we often get students who are looking for the least amount of work for the maximum grade. I hate that about this job.  I want to ask questions that lead them to ask questions and have class end up with a giant group hug where we all walk away realizing that we may not know the answers, but man, we sure questioned the heck out of it. 

We have done a lot of work on our campus to try to get kids to go beyond the curriculum.  We just became the first middle school in our county to reach 800 in API.  Yeah, hold the applause.  It's based on a standardized test which we all know don't mean nuthin' when it comes to having kids actually think.  But truth be known, this means that principals from our area will come calling asking, "what are you guys doing?"  They may be disappointed when they come to see the dog and pony show but end up seeing a staff that is doing their darndest to get kids to question and speak/write complete thoughts.  You see, these principals are asking the wrong question.  It isn't about what we are doing.  It's about what the kids are doing. 

Apparently our students are doing something right, though.  They are developing a reputation in high school for being "Sequoia kids" who sit in the front row, ask questions and, at times, challenge an occasional teacher to step up their game.  Fantastic!  But how do you grade that?  How do you grade a kid who has learned how to learn?  Last I checked, that isn't in my state framework.  There's no standard for that.  Which brings me back to grades.

How do you quantify learning? Why is 90% average the accepted norm for a kid who really gets it?  90% of what? Is this student truly advanced, or did she take a bunch of tests full of a bunch of basic questions and get 90% of them correct? 

So tell me, what does a kid have to do to earn an A in your class? What are you doing to ensure that the grade actually means something and isn't just verification that a student jumped through all the right hoops?


Megan said...

I couldn't agree more! I am not a classroom teacher (but I work in education) and spend a fair amount of time observing teaching and learning in action, and the same issue comes up at every level. How do to motivate students to learn without using a grade or numeric measurement? When you find the answer...please let me know!

Lauren Rosen said...

Megan, how about giving them something to work on that relates back to themselves and their experiences? People by nature love to talk about themselves and their own lives. We often learn through the experiences of others when we apply those experiences to what we know about ourselves and our own world. If we apply the concepts they are to be learning in the classroom to their own lives and where they fit in the world, students will be intrinsically motivated. What we "grade" is the ability to take those concepts into real life experiences that are meaningful. I think well designed rubrics help us measure how well students do that across a series of categories.

Kate Nowak said...

Dave, Since it seems like your school is on the right track, I'd be interested to hear what you all are doing, more specifically.

Do you know the origin of grades? It was so some British dude could make more money by teaching more students. Before that, teachers had to have few enough students that they could have a close enough relationship to monitor their learning. I wish I had a reference, but I'm coming up empty.

Maybe we should do something like
A = class ended with spontaneous group hug
B = 80% of class participated in group hug
C = sporadic high fives

David Cox said...

I was hoping you had the answer. :)

Do you have any examples of those well designed rubrics that you might be willing to share? How about exemplars of how students have taken these skills and turned them into real world applications? I agree that should be the goal, I'm just having a difficult time nailing down what it truly looks like. So far, it is a bunch of theory.

Post forthcoming on what it is we are actually doing at our site. I don't doubt the origin of grades. I also have a tough time seeing Socrates carrying around a gradebook and making marks every time someone asked a good question. Love the rubric, though. I think I'm gonna present that at Back to School Night. :)

MsAxthelm said...

Hi there -

I am currently student teaching and am finding I have a crisis in grading systems I see. In my education program, we read Marzano's "Classroom Assessment that Works" that outlines an idea for grading that tracks learning, not simply scoring. I would be interested to hear what you think of it, since I have as yet not had the opportunity to try it out.

Basically, assessments are created with a specific rubric in mind. The rubric assigns scores in four points that correlate with Bloom's taxonomy in levels of thinking. Levels I and II are about the ability to have basic recall with and without teacher assistance. The third level is proving application of an idea/skill, and the fourth level is being able to use that idea/skill in a way not demonstrated in class (purposefully not demonstrated).

The idea is to use assessments to give teachers an idea of the learning - and the level of learning - going on in each student's head. I have seen that teachers do this, but don't often quantify it.

Is this something like the group hug you hoped for? Do you think this might work?

Thanks for the conversation,

David Cox said...

Hi Joan
Yeah, that could be a way of assessing the group hug, I suppose. I have actually started using a very similar rubric when I grade my geometry tests. I have 2 or 3 problems that are basic, 1 or 2 that a proficient student should be able to do and 1 or 2 advanced problems. The question that interests me is what do you do with a student who nails both of the advanced problems but, for some reason, doesn't do the basic questions correctly? I am thinking that if the test is written well the skills necessary for the basic should be embedded in the advanced.

Quantification is the sticking point. Parents don't want to see a bunch of 1's, 2's, 3's and 4's because they don't know what it means. They want a letter. How do you take the rubric score (or series of rubric scores) and convert it to a letter grade?

David Cox said...

My class is kind of a hybrid. It has a grade level component and an enrichment component. On one hand, I assess them on the skills that make up our California State Standards. There is a given context and the skills are very specific. There aren't any "levels" of questions. For the enrichment, I definitely do levels. I am kicking around the idea of using median to determine an overall grade when it comes to the series of 1's, 2's, 3's, 4's and 5's that make up a student's proficiency levels on given concepts.

If a student can't do the advanced problem but can do the others, then yeah, they get a 4 which is a B.