Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Why do we grade?

For the last few weeks I have had conversations with my colleagues about Standards Based Grading and how it is currently operating in our building.  I have heard colleagues talk about their frustrations with students and their response to this grading system.  All of this reflection has brought me to ponder the question, What is the purpose of grades?

For years we have given and received grades without much thought as to how a student uses these letter grades to makes changes in their learning.  Are grades nothing more than a subset of feedback?  Are grades given to communicate where a student is in the learning progression?  Are grades needed to teach students responsibility or perseverance?  No matter what system a teacher uses, the grades that students earn reflect the grading practices of that teacher and what they believe a grade represents.  As a building, can we clarify our definition of the purpose of grades?
Dr. Douglas Reeves shared at a conference the "Gold Standards of Grading Practices" and these standards really resonated with me.  The first standard is that grading is part of feedback used by students and teachers to improve teaching and learning.  The number one reason I provide feedback to students is to improve learning.  If my feedback is clear then adjustments can be made and students will improve at a rapid rate.  If feedback is unclear, students will continue to struggle in their learning.  What does getting a C in your classroom tell a student about what they know and can do?  Do our grades provide the feedback needed for students to improve?

The second gold standard of grading practices is that the grading system is so clear students and other teachers could accurately predict a grade on an assessment.  To help with this standard it is imperative that teachers provide students with a progression of the learning process.  The breakdown of the skill into manageable pieces is what makes learning easier for students. Think about teaching kids how to ride a bicycle.  As many parents know, this is a difficult and sometimes daunting task.  Where do you begin?  Do you talk about balance, peddling, or eye placement?  When your child masters step one, where do you go next?  Each parent might have a different way to teach the skill of riding a bike, but I bet we all have the same vision of what a proficient bike rider looks like at the end.  Having a clear vision of what success looks like and through modeling, feedback, and supported practice, students have a higher success rate.  If you assign something in your classroom, would all teachers in your department assess it in the same way?  Could one teacher give the assignment an A while another teacher give it a C?  When the progression of learning is so clear students and other teachers can assess the skills in a very consistent way, grading is more effective.  How clear are the letter grades we give students?

The final gold standard of grading practices is that grades are consistent with external assessments.  As a school system, we are often defined by the results of our students on external assessments.  As teachers, we work to prepare students for the expectations of these assessments.  If a student receives and A in my course, but is deemed not proficient on a standardized test; have I provided the feedback needed for this student?  Does the grade in my classroom represent the knowledge of the student in this content or does it represent the behaviors needed to learn?  Each teacher knows that responsibility, work ethic, and meeting deadlines are all important skills that students learn and be assessed on in school.  How do we give feedback to our students on behaviors and content in a way that is clear?

Grading is an area of education that is very personal to many teachers.  Because of this personal touch, a grade can mean many things to many different people.  What do we want a grade to mean in our school system?  What is the purpose of grades?