Transparency in Teaching (Stuff) Podcast

Show Notes

In this episode we start with a little about the history, the how and the why, of grading. (Did you know that grades were originally A, B, C, D and E?? Where did F come in?).  Then we talk about grading practices used today and how they affect our students. We debate methods like percentage based, standards based, and narrative grading and how they might be implemented in real classrooms (How logical is narrative grading when many of us have 150+ students??). 

We talk about: 

  • the subjectivity of grading, 
  • implicit bias, 
  • the varied ways teachers choose to grade 
  • grading’s effect on student motivation
  • the lack of any training in how to grade
  • what we wish parents knew about grading. 

Ultimately, we come to the conclusion that there is no conclusion about grading. 

What’s your take on this topic? Leave us a comment and add to the discussion. 

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Grading earns an“F” : A Rant

First, this is just my opinion. The opinion of someone who’s been in the classroom for 33 years, for what that’s worth. I don’t know how students view grades in elementary school, but I get the feeling that the parents are more focused on grades than their children are. This is based on my own experience raising my two boys.  

If my boys ever told me they got an A or a B on something, I don’t remember. I found out how my kids were doing at parent conferences. My sons sat next to me while the teacher explained their strengths and weakness, and my boys never seemed very concerned. Perhaps that’s because they were both “good” students who did their homework and didn’t misbehave in class. But in junior high, my sons definitely had a sudden awareness of grades. This is when the grading went from “outstanding” “satisfactory” and “needs improvement” to the alphabetical representation of ability. 

What A, B, C should really mean

So let’s talk for a minute about the A,B, C stuff. The alphabetical grading system is something that we’ve had ingrained in our heads since what seems like the beginning of time. But what do those letters really represent? Somewhere we’ve come to believe that an A means you’re passing and earning a C, is not acceptable..

In reality, if you do exactly as you are asked to do, and you met all the requirements, that should be a C.  A grade of B means you did more than expected, and an A really should mean an exceptional quality of work was done that went above and beyond what was required. Somewhere, over all the years of student evaluation, an A has really lost that meaning. 

Getting an A?

Many students think that just turning in an assignment means they will get an A. “But I turned that in!” is what I get when students wonder why their grade is lower than they think they deserve. They seem to have forgotten that quality counts for something.  I have students constantly asking me what they need to do to get an A. I never tell them because then that’s ALL they will do. They won’t strive to go beyond whatever requirements that an A entails. The learning stops there. 

Most of the students I see today have little or no drive to go beyond in their learning. They are solely focused on what it takes to get an A, well at least those that strive to complete work and actually care about their grades.  I have a slew who couldn’t give a shit about them. They’ve given up on grades from years of failure. (That’s a whole other rant!!) 

Our “A” students are “A” students because they do their homework, meet the requirements, and read at grade level, which in actuality should really be a C.  As teachers, many of us are so stunned when we have students who care and actually complete the work, that we’ve come to see their minimal effort as an “A”, when probably they are really C or B students.  

These kids, who are considered our “good” students, can’t really be blamed. They have had it drilled into their heads that you need A’s to get into a good college, so challenging themselves might mean failing and failing is bad. They have had their curiosity and willingness to try new things educated right out of them. 

It’s all subjective

But what does this lie of upgrading students really do for them? Students come to believe that they are better at a subject than they really are, and then once in high school, where grades actually matter because they are markers for college acceptance, they may begin to fail or not receive those coveted A’s they were so used to getting. We are making them believe they are more competent than they really are.  Is that fair? So that brings me back to the question, “What do grades really mean?”

The answer is nothing much. So much of grading is subjective. A teacher decides what constitutes an A. What is that teacher basing that on? Retrieving memorized material on a multiple choice test? Writing a decent paragraph, Turning in all the homework on time? There is no consistency between teachers, schools, or grade levels. The grade earned is based on one person’s opinion.  

You can set qualifiers or even use what’s become so buzzy, Standards Based Grading, but the decision of whether or not a student met that standard is still subjective. Teacher preparation programs do not do any training on how to grade (at least not that I know of). One teacher’s A is another’s C. So what’s a student or parent to do? 

The trick is to figure out how each individual teacher grades, and that might mean a few low grades on the first few assignments until the detective work is done. I remember doing this for my college courses. Then there’s learning which teachers grade easy and which don’t. Then students try to sign up for those educators who will require the least effort for a good grade. You see, it’s not really about learning anymore. 

We need to grade the process not the product.

What I think we really need to focus on is teaching kids how to learn, not what to learn. We need to grade the process, not the product. We should be rewarding those that try and fail and try again. Grades earned should be based on growth, not whether or not they meet some sort of arbitrary goal. (You can argue the “goals” are not arbitrary, but somewhere, someone decided on what is important and what is not.)  

Still, it is a seemingly impossible task to try to differentiate your curriculum to meet the needs of 34 students in 6 different classes, especially when teachers are expected to cover a certain amount of material each year. What do you do when you have some students that are still struggling with a concept and still provide for those who have already surpassed the goal?

For example, math classes have the most obvious issue here, as skill builds upon skill. Kids are expected to go on to the next unit and do well even though they have not mastered the concept. And, what do we do with kids who are still reading at the third grade level in seventh grade? At what point did our schools fail? Whose fault is it when a kid gets promoted to the next grade without having mastered the skills of the current one? It’s like building a house on a poorly constructed foundation. Eventually the house will fail, just like our students.

No good solution

I don’t have a good answer on how to solve this grading problem. It is complex. Different populations of students have unique and changing needs.   

I concede we do need some way to measure what kids know. More importantly, we need a way to evaluate a student’s ability to use knowledge in innovative ways to solve problems. Whatever the answer is, it is NOT what we are doing now. 

What worked years ago, doesn’t fly with today’s students. If the goal is to produce capable, productive, and knowledgeable people who can contribute to the advancement of humanity in positive ways, we’ll need to find a more effective way to develop a student’s desire to learn, than earning some educator’s subjective letter grade.

And well, that’s just my opinion….


Your turn

What’s your opinion? How do we solve this issue? What do you do to encourage your students to succeed? Does your district have a policy on how to handle students who remain below grade level?

Leave us your comments. We might use yours in an upcoming episode.

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