Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Problem with Grade Books

Grade books are a real problem, and I don't think enough teachers are actually thinking about how they use their grade books.

A grade book is intended to help keep track of student learning. But I wonder sometimes about this. The very design of a grade book is--whether digital or analog--to record symbols intended to represent a certain quantity of learning. Every piece of evidence a particular assessment vehicle provides has to be evaluated--measured, quantified, and scored--in order to be recorded in a grade book. Grade books are generally not designed to capture rich, holistic information. They are designed to capture tiny bits of information distilled and consolidated into symbols--points, scores, percentages, letters--that are easy to record in the tiny boxes that make up the grade book.

This is a photo of one of my first grade books. Look at all those "10's!"

And...there's the problem, I think. The technology of a grade book dictates how we use it. (And make no mistake, it's a technology, whether it's in digital or analog format. Curious about that idea? Here's another post that might help you understand my thinking on this concept of non-digital tools being technologies.) As the quote attributed to Marshal McLuhan puts it: "We shape our tools and afterwards our tools shape us."

In other words...because we have little boxes to fill in...we look for things to fill in those boxes. Things like points, scores, percentages, and letters, usually. Symbols that will fit into those little boxes.

Another of my grade books. This must have been in my "red pen" phase...

My ongoing wondering and concern: how sure are we that those points, scores, percentages, or letters really reflect what a student knows, understands, or is able to do?

I mean, really?

When you put a "B-" or "8/10" or "82%" in a little box in the grade book, what does that symbol mean to you? Does it mean the same thing to your students? To your colleagues? To parents?

What does "82%" really mean? That the student mastered 82% of the material? That the student correctly answered 82% of the questions you asked? That the student was able to guess correctly 82% of the time? That the assignment came in late and partially incomplete, so you only assigned 82% of the possible points for credit? That you only taught 82% of the material well enough for this student to understand? That you wrote questions that only covered 82% of the material you actually taught?

And how about that common practice of "averaging" these symbols? What are we really averaging? Are we averaging learning? Because...let's think about that for a minute. So a student got 8 out of 10 on a particular assignment, say a science lab activity. And she got 4 out of 10 on the next assignment, a written response to a reading on the same topic as the lab activity, but using a completely different set of skills. And perhaps she gets 10 out of 10 on the third assignment, which is written response to a reading on a completely different topic, but using the same set of skills (reading closely, analyzing the text, and writing a coherent response) as the second assignment. So, taking an average, we could add up 8 + 4 + 10, giving us 22 points, and then divide by the 30 points possible, yielding 73.3333333...% But what does this 73% mean? Does she really understand 73% of the material from this science unit? Does she really have capability of using the appropriate skills 73% of the time? What is this mark really assessing anyway? Is this 73% an assessment of learning?

Still another of my grade books. I think this was the last year before I began
using standards-based assessment in my science classes. Notice the shift to
purples and blues instead of red...

Perhaps this level of thinking about learning is beyond the pale for the teacher intent on filling in the boxes of the grade book. What is the purpose of assessment anyway? Is it intended to collect information about what students have learned? Or is it simply about justifying whatever mark you decide to give the student at the end of the term?


  1. Just like I feel... more questions than answers. Let's get rid of these marks, Dave. Let's start having conversations about what students know and do not know...yet. Let's start asking students to reflect on what they know and do not know...yet. Then let's set goals for learning. Keep the conversation going!

    1. I'm with you, Joy! Questions are good; questions are okay--we SHOULD be asking questions! (I don't have all the answers anyway...)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  2. I would be interested in reading about your use of standards-based assessment. Also, I just read this article for my assessments class, which also raises more questions than answers (i think we are still figuring out what those answers look like), but offers another interesting look at what exactly are teachers assessing: https://weaeducation.typepad.co.uk/files/blackbox-1.pdf

    1. Hi Chris! Thanks for taking the time to comment. That piece you shared from Black & Wiliam is a classic of sorts--really, really good stuff to think on, and I'm glad you have the chance to wrestle with these kinds of ideas.

      As for my journey with standards-based assessment: my M.Ed. thesis was an action research project in which I implemented a standards-based assessment system in my middle school science class. You can read it here, if you like: http://digitalcollections.dordt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=med_theses (Though I'm always leery of pushing my thesis on other people...) :-)

      I also wrote an article that tells the story of my shift from the "bucket-o-points" method of assessment to standards-based grading, which I believe is more in line with my actual philosophy of education (my view of the students, my role as an instructor, my beliefs about the process of learning, etc.) You can read it here, if interested: http://digitalcollections.dordt.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1009&context=faculty_work

      I'd love to hear your feedback on this!

  3. Dave, let's determine with our Learners how to best assess and record what they currently have learned and can apply in order to know our next steps as to how we might take it to the next proficiency level. Deal?

    1. I'm with you, my friend! I have been thinking and thinking about making my Intro to Ed course fully standards-based. Our program is based on the InTASC standards already...so we have clear standards in place...why am I not doing this? Honestly...probably it comes down to fear. Fear of being the "lone ranger" SBG guy, and having to justify my assessment practices to my colleagues and students.

      As my students put it, "The struggle is real."

      I always value your input, my friend. Thanks for taking the time to comment, and encourage me!

  4. Really tough to properly assess when we start wondering what are students will fo when they are faced with a new situation and must adapt to it. If we believe in teaching proper skills, like critical thinking or understanding different perspectives, these traita can really only be assessed by the student getting into the world and operating in it.

    Often our classrooms do not replecate real life experiences becauae they can not. I think we do very well in the system considering the restrictions of having standardized school day experiences, but what you see in the grade book is the physocal manifestation of this conflict. These nunbers are good for our environment of the classroom, but life aint a classroom.

    I dont know where to go either. I think if we can get the kids to start meta thinking about this too, we are doing okay.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Corey. I really agree with your comment about the grade book being the physical manifestation of the conflict. That was a helpful way of framing this for me! I know I raise more questions than I offer answers in this post, but it's helpful for me to get the ideas out of my head and in print (well...pixels, I guess) so others can give me some feedback and/or pushback. Grateful for your thoughts!

  5. Great stuff! Grading is generally a very personal aspect of teaching. Teachers all have reasons why they grade how they do. The first big step is a change of mindset of what and why we are grading. If we are truly communicating learning instead of teaching and doing then everything in the boxes of gradebooks, are steps on the journey towards effective and open communication on grading.

    1. Thanks for the feedback, Nathan! I agree--if we were more willing to have those challenging conversations with colleagues about our assessment practices, we might see things begin to change overall.

      This video is a clip from a Canadian sitcom about a bad teacher that Rick Wormeli shared with me once: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0fn_vAhu_Lw I love it (even though it makes me cringe) because it's such an honest depiction of the crazy self-justification teachers do regarding their grading practices. I'd love to hear your thoughts in response to this!

    2. I've really been thinking on how to phrase this. Let's start here: This was funny. I'm going old school and spelling it out, Laugh Out Loud funny.
      Now down to business... Although funny, it was very cringe-worthy at the same time.
      I think its because I thin I know of colleagues who may grade this way or in a similar manner; I'm pretty sure at some point, we all have known colleagues who have done this. This moved me onto my next couple thoughts:
      1) If we all know that we have teachers who probably do this in our buildings how does building administration allow a culture where this exists? I recently had a conversation with a Superintendent who acknowledged that the librarians in his/her district were probably not pulling their educational weight. "Now that you know, what's the next step to change that?" Same with grading, if we know there are existing bad practices, lets address that issue and focus on creating a culture in the building, district, where these practices aren't occurring.
      2) If teaching is to be a respected profession we must have a zero-tolerance for non-professional practices, and establish a general guideline for grading and for feedback (they are separate). I've had the Standards Based Grading discussion with many colleagues who agree with the ideas but still deem it a "fad." Those same teachers agree with every individual concept of SBL, and in their own way implement those strategies while grading themselves, but it needs to be a bigger push across the board so teachers are actively thinking about SBL during the grading process, then modern grading practices keep up with modern learning strategies and the profession benefits.
      3) We all need to do a better job of focusing what we present for learning so what we grade is truly important towards the overall learning. Just because a textbook has a worksheet doesn't mean you need to assign it, and if you do, it does't mean a grade needs to go with it. All of what we do to aide learning is part of the journey. Teachers put up signs and along the road of learning every day, but that doesn't mean that a grade needs to happen at mile marker 13, but the feedback of whether you are going the right direction or path or speed is important. Assign what is important to the learning.
      4) Feedback. As I watch the video, the most important aspect for further learning from the paper the students wrote is feedback to they can go edit, revise, rewrite, all the goodness that comes out of learning was lost with trite, ambiguous, and meaningless feedback. Learning doesn't stop at the end of an assignment or with a grade. We shouldn't teach that learning stops at the end of an arbitrary term or because the teacher said a unit is over, the learning never stops and the feedback drives that learning more than a grade ever will.
      So, as I read through this, my response, as Dr. Who said, "...may have gotten away from me a bit." Truly, if we are going to move the profession of teaching forward, and focus on student learning then the long held ideas of grading and feedback need to be rethought. There are so many good minds in education that are stating that point we just need to bring leadership fully on board use our undergraduate programs and continue to harness the power of the connected educator to get the mind shift on grading out to all who need it. Just because you have a column doesn't mean you need to fill it with a grade.
      Should a good teacher be upset about this portrayal of educators, probably as upset as mailmen were with Newman from Seinfeld. Maybe this is a great piece for self reflection to give yourself a booster shot on grading and feedback, I know I've been thinking a lot more about student feedback since I watched this.
      Thanks for the great share on the video. As always, it was great to connect with you.

    3. We are thinking very much alike, my friend! Thanks for taking the time to get your thoughts written down, and for sharing them here too. I hope we all are this reflective, this thoughtful about the current norm for school culture, and how our practices may need to (continue to) evolve.

      Peace to you,