Let’s not mince words here. Grading on a letter scale, the way we’ve always done it, has become a farce. The pressure to earn good grades often supersedes students’ intrinsic motivation to actually learn. For students an A is another box ticked and another hoop jumped and not a cause for reflection on ability or progress. It isn’t the students’ fault. What does an A mean anyways except a gateway to a high school of choice. Teachers share this pressure. Because of this, grades have become heavily based on effort rather than merit, causing grade inflation. So, in all of this pressure, the original intention of the grade, to assess and communicate students’ abilities and progress, is lost.
This is not unique to our school; grade inflation exists throughout educational institutions all the way up to the Ivy Leagues. And, here’s the thing, grading on a letter scale isn’t going anywhere. Students will continue to tick the box of completion after each report card. But,what if we could adapt our grading system within our own individual classrooms so that students could actually see their areas of strengths and vulnerabilities?
Changing my categories for grades is one way I have answered this question. Homework, classwork, tests, and participation are the most common categories and the ones I used for many years. But, what information do these categories really tell a parent or student about progress and ability? It certainly does send the message that some students are ‘good at school’ and others are not.
Here’s what I mean by being ‘good at school’: A+ students do their homework, raise their hands to speak, and are good at taking tests. With this view, students can quick identify themselves as ‘bad at science’ or ‘good at history.’ We have all said and heard comments like this. And, really, this is the precursor to that fixed mindset we have heard so much about.
Now, here are my new categories this year and the skills I assessed for from semester 1.
Most homework assignments fall into the research skill category, as homework in a history class tends to require students to do research either in the textbook or online to gather relevant information. Tests and writing can get tricky because I usually assess for more than one category. However, I find that I am now making tests that actually assess different skills because I have to categorize my questions. I also have found that the amount of extra work is minimal and I can assess my students areas of growth easily so that I can reteach when necessary.
It is important to note that I use total points and not percentages. I find that grades often become inflated or deflated when there are not enough grades in a particular category. It will still tally a percentage for each category so students can quickly determine strengths and weaknesses. I also can make certain assignments a greater factor if I want it to have a greater impact on the grade.
Below is a sample student. From this, the student is easily able to see the areas of growth and strength.
There are obviously some draw backs. Some assignments may be difficult to fit into the defined categories. Some categories do not have that many assignments. And, of course, there is still measurable amounts of subjective and effort-based grading. The grade doesn’t change, but how I explain the grade does. Comments come with ease when using this system.
I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas on this. Are there other strategies you use to make grades more meaningful? Please respond on Schoology! I would also love to chat with anybody one-on-one to restructure your categories.
Stay tuned for the next half of this blog post: “Using Rubrics for Everything!”