De-Grading, part I

There is a saying in education, “Grading is degrading,” meaning that grades shouldn’t be used as an punishment or a reward. Obviously the people who came up with this notion didn’t realize that teachers have to give grades, and no matter what grading scale or method you use, they become incentives. Students care about points, not learning.

There isn’t one best way to grade; all methods are subjective, based on a teacher’s own philosophy and habits. But unless a student understands how a teacher grades, any number or letter on the paper means nothing.

The most common methods of grading are neither rational nor objective. This bothers me; numerical scores imply some precision or at least consistency. The problem is that most teachers were not trained to grade. We know all about assessment – formative and summative, norm-based and criterion-based, formal and informal – but when it’s time to put numbers on paper, we sometimes end up with unintended results or unrecognized errors.

What follows are a few observations about the way grading is practiced in many American Schools.

57 Currencies

You go to CVS and see a bottle of shampoo for $2.79. At Target you see the same bottle marked 229. When you go to pay for it, the cashier says, “That will be two hundred and twenty-nine yen.” How much is that in dollars? She doesn’t know. Is 229 yen a better deal than 279 cents? To find out, you need to convert yen into dollars.

What if every store used a different currency – Euros at the grocery store, pesos at the gas station, rubles at McDonalds? Confusing, to say the least.

There are 57 teachers at my school. All of us use points, but ‘points’ means something different in each classroom.

For example: all English teachers assign essays. Mine are worth 200 points. The teacher across the hall makes hers worth 500 points. The teacher next door to me makes his worth 200 points as well, but gives students 50 points just for handing it in on time. He grades by using a rubric, I use a checklist, and my colleague across the hall takes off a point for every spelling or grammar error. Clearly a “B” doesn’t mean much under such different conditions. Am I an easier teacher because mine are worth 200? Is he a more objective grader because he uses a rubric? How do kids know? There are no conversion charts; they just have to figure it out.

Even when the district mandates that we all give the same test, we each grade it differently.

For example: 20 multiple choice questions, 3 short answers and a short essay were on a recent district test. I don’t like multiple choice; there’s no way to tell whether a kid got it wrong for a trivial reason or because he really didn’t know; another kid guesses and gets it right. I make the multiple choice questions worth one point each, the short answers 10 each, and the essay 100. Maximum score: 150 points.

A colleague makes each multiple choice question worth 5 points (100 total), the short answers also 5 each (15 points) and the essay 35 points. Maximum score: 150 points.

Result: The same kid could get a D from me and a B from her. If he didn’t do the essay at all, he might fail my test, while on her test he could still get 115 points out of 150, a C. This makes about as much sense as paying yen at Target.

Tomorrow: Rubrics

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