Monday, September 14, 2015

The Grading Grind: Will you be a Coach or an Umpire?

Those who have worked with me for any length of time will soon discover that I have a deep passion for fixing problems with grading.  You may think I have things backwards, surely learning is more important than grading, and that is most definitely true, but my focus on grading is intense because I believe that many of our most sacred grading cows are blocking the road to better instruction.

We have known for more than a century that classroom grades on a 100 point grading scale are statistically unreliable (Starch and Elliot, 1912 & 1913), but that scale and its accompanying A to F categories persist to this day due largely to cultural and institutional inertia.  We've also known for more than forty years that teacher expectations influence teacher actions in such a way that expected student behaviors are more likely to occur (Rosenthal and Jacobsen, 1968).  Essentially, expectations for groups of children are established in the first few weeks of school, and teachers will adjust the difficulty of graded assignments thereafter in conscious and unconscious ways to create the distribution of final marks that they expect.

Are there better options?  Good models based on standards-based approaches have arisen and endured real-life trials over the course of the past twenty years (Douglas Reeves, Ken O'Connor, Robert Marzanno, and Thomas Guskey).  The models that have endured typically retain the A-F final mark in deference to its historical persistence, but they replace the 100 point scale with discrete rubrics for the products, progress, and process of learning based on clearly identified standards.  The problem?  Standards-based grading doesn't make much sense until you have firmly established standards-based instruction as a professional norm in your school.  We are on the road there, but we aren't there yet.

So, with progress reports and the first nine-week report cards on the horizon, what should you do?  I offer three simple suggestions that should help you navigate around the sacred grading cows on the road to more effective learning in your classroom.

  1. Be a coach, not an umpire.  Knowing the importance and influence of our own expectations, teachers should adopt the perspective of a coach.  The goal of an umpire is to call balls and strikes, and sometimes teachers use math calculations to the fourth decimal place to assign final grades as if the exercise was purely objective, rational, and essentially beyond their control.  "I didn't give you that grade.  You earned it," is a common retort.  However, the selection of particular assignments that go into a grade and the difficulty of each assignment have a dramatic influence on the final outcome, and we can't pretend that isn't true.  The goal of a coach is to help the player improve, and great teachers see the grading process as a feedback loop that ends when the student has met the standard.  Messing up in practice is okay if the student gets it right on game day, but the coach has to watch the player in practice and give feedback, positive and negative, to help the student improve over time.  
  2. Consider the calculated number a minimum, not a mandate.  Knowing the reliability issues that are an inherent limitation of a 100 point grading scale, teachers should be careful about surrendering their own judgment to a calculated average.  While it would be considered indefensible to assign a final letter grade that is below the range prescribed for a calculated average, it is within a teacher's authority and discretion to award a higher final letter grade than the calculated average would merit on its own.  Do you have evidence that the student actually performed substantially better later in the grading term?  This is especially important when making a pass-fail decision.  If a student has met the standards at the end of the term, even if the performance is not captured in the same document or format that other students used, that student should not fail.  Remember that fair isn't always equal (thank you Rick Wormeli), and as long as you have evidence to support a positive bias, your judgment as a teacher trumps a flawed statistical calculation any day of the week.
  3. Don't award bonus points or extra credit for work that isn't related to learning standards.  Bonus points and extra credit are some of the strategies that teachers often employ when they feel that their grade distribution is not conforming to expectations.  There is nothing wrong with this in general except when the extra points are awarded for things that have nothing to do with the learning goals.  Attending after-school events, bringing a roll of paper towels to class, or wearing a costume on spirit day are all wonderful things, but giving students extra grade credit is fundamentally flawed.  If a student, a group of students, or all of your students need to improve their grade, look at the standards and try to think of alternative ways that they can demonstrate proficiency or the integration of multiple standards in novel ways.   

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