Saturday, January 5, 2013

Some Thoughts on Grading

I'd say I hate letter grades, but that might be a little too strong. Maybe.

Photo courtesy ragesoss
CC BY-SA 2.0
For now I'll say I strongly dislike them, because it seems like no one really understands what grades mean.

I have a lot of thoughts about grading and assessment, actually. This might be the first post in a series because I have so many thoughts that I'm afraid it'll turn out to be something so long that no one will want to read it! Here are some of the questions I have been playing with for the past couple years, and continue to think about:
  • What are grades for?
  • How are grades generated?
  • What are the shortcomings of commonly used assessment practices?
  • What alternatives can we consider?
  • How then shall we assess our students?
This past semester in my Science Methods class, I went completely off the rails and ranted about my strong dislike of letter grades. It was in the context of a discussion of assessment in science, and how we might use standards-based assessment to enhance learning in science. (This is a topic I love, and my Master's thesis was on standards-based assessment in science.) I apologized to my students for speaking so forcefully on the topic--most weren't offended anyway, and a few even told me later that they loved seeing my passion coming out. While I appreciate their good-natured response, it did get me thinking about why I reacted so strongly. And I know what it is--when I was experimenting with standards-based grading in my science-teacher days, I got a lot of push back from a few colleagues who couldn't understand what I was doing. Because standards-based assessment is almost exactly but not entirely unlike more conventional assessment practices.

Not familiar with standards-based assessment? Here it is, in a nutshell: (copied and pasted from my old class policies website--this is how I explained it to the middle schoolers... "Big Ideas" = standards)

Everyone always wants to know how they'll be graded. Okay, hold on--this is going to get a little bumpy...

Your grade for each quarter in science class will be determined by how well you've mastered the concepts we're studying during that quarter. I've broken down the material we will learn about into 5 to 8 "Big Ideas" for each quarter. Your quarter grade will be determined by how well you can show me that you understand those "Big Ideas."

Whenever you have an assignment, I'll use it to check your understanding of one or more Big Ideas. I don't put letter grades (ex.--"C+" or "A-") or even scores (ex.--"18/20" or "90%") on any assignments: not on essays, lab sheets, quizzes, ...well, basically you won't see letter grades on anything other than report cards. will you know how you're doing? Here's what I do instead: you'll get a number score written on your assignment, and written comments from me about what you did well and what you can improve. The number shows what I'd rank your current level of understanding of that Big Idea based on that assignment. Here's the numbers and what they mean:

     1 = Beginning"Beginning" means...
     You're just beginning to understand this Big Idea. Time to get to work, learn more about it, and show me you're getting it!
     2 = Developing "Developing" means...
     You've got the basics, but you still have more to learn about this Big Idea. Keep working--you'll learn more about it!
     3 = Proficient "Proficient" means...
     All right! You've got it! You really understand this Big Idea the way a student at your grade level should.
     4 = Advanced "Advanced" means...
     Wow! You really understand this Big Idea--at a level beyond what I'd expect someone at your grade level to be able to explain.

As you learn more and more about the Big Ideas for a quarter, you'll have many opportunities to show me what you've learned. At the beginning of the quarter, you might not know anything about one or more of the Big Ideas--but that's okay, remember that you come to school to "get smart," right? The key is that you continue to show me that you understand more and more about the Big Ideas as you learn more and more about them. The goal is that everyone will have a "proficient" understanding of all the Big Ideas by the end of the quarter.

You may be asking, "Why in the world do you do this, Mr. Mulder??" That's a fair question. There are five main reasons:
  1. We don't all learn at the same pace. Some kids learn things really quickly, while others sometimes need a little more time to really understand it. Having multiple times to show me what you know, understand, and are able to do helps me see how you are growing in your understanding. Even if you understand the basics right away, you can continue to add depth to your understanding as you learn more. In this grading system, I'm keeping track of your growth, not just whether or not you've handed in all your assignments or passed a test.
  2. I like to give my students choices in class. Sometimes we won't all be doing the same assignment--but the assignment you choose will still help show me how youare understanding one or more Big Ideas. For example, you might choose to write an essay to explain how you understand something, while one of your classmates would rather make a poster to explain, and another student might prefer to make a presentation to the class. This grading system allows everyone to show what they know and how they are understanding things without my trying to make all the assignments worth the same number of "points."
  3. I've found in my years of teaching that many (not all, but many) students care more about their grade than about whether they are learning anything. I know this firsthand: as a student, I'm the type who tries to figure out how little I can do and still get an "A"--and then that's all I do. (Yeah, I have a bit of a lazy streak in me that way.) This grading system is intended to take some of the focus off of the grade in and of itself, and put more emphasis on whether or not you are learning.
  4. I care more that you understand things than that you can simply memorize things. I have had many classes in my own school career that emphasized knowing all the stuff for a test. Once the test was over, however, it didn't really matter whether or not we really understood the material. We only had to remember the facts as long as it took us to take the test. With this grading system, you really do have to understand things! I will still ask you to memorize things in science class, but the memorizing you'll do is pointed at helping you really understand the Big Ideas.
  5. Feedback helps you grow. In my opinion, getting a paper back with a "C+" (or an "A", or a "D-") doesn't really help you. I think this just puts you in a box--it doesn't help you know how to improve your work, and it doesn't encourage you to improve your work. But, if you get a paper back with a "2" at the top--you know you're on the right track to "get" this Big Idea, and if a comment on your paper says, "Let's practice those graphing skills," you know what you need to do to make it better next time. 
It might take you a little while to get used to this, but students often come to like it, because it gives them the time they need to learn a concept, and takes off some of the pressure. To me, this seems like a very fair way for all of my students to show me what they know, understand, and are able to do. If you have questions, please ask, and I'd be happy to talk more about this with you.

In my way of thinking, grades should only report students' academic achievement. Including things like effort, attendance, or behavior muddle the meaning. So, I would rather have students turn it in late if it's actually going to be an accurate reflection of their work. I also gave students the chance to act on feedback and redo the work as many times as they needed, up to the end of the marking period.

You might now see why some of my colleagues were put out with me, especially if they were wedded to a more conventional view of grading!

I have lots more I could say about this, but I think we'll see what the feedback I get looks like before I go on. Maybe I need a "redo" to better explain my current thinking!


  1. I remember I liked this idea a lot when you talked about it in class and reading it again after doing a little teaching I really see the need for this kind of assessment. I think the biggest problem that many teachers have with it (at least from the little experience I have had thus far) is that the curriculum that they are given to cover has so many "big ideas" for them to cover that this kind of teaching-assessment style could hinder them in their quest to expose students to all the "big ideas" and hope some get it.
    I think a fundamental flaw in many school's curriculum, being so extensive and cumbersome, traps most teachers in the letter grading system, even the ones who are interested in moving away from it.
    My experience is limited so maybe I just have a very narrow perception of American curriculum.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Matthew! I agree with your assessment about the breadth of the curriculum. There are just too many small points that have to be "covered." The big ideas I used were really big, and would encompass many of the smaller points. But that makes some people nervous, because then how would they know for sure that they covered every little detail? (Sorry, that sounds a little nasty, doesn't it?)

      In the end, I'd prefer a narrower, but deeper curriculum to a broad and shallow one. But I'm just one voice...

    2. Maybe a little bit but it is true! And now you have a second voice, for what it's worth. lol