De-Grading, part 5: Gordian Knot

I have had a lot of “A-ha” moments in my teaching career, when I suddenly realized what was wrong and how it could be fixed:

I remember my son’s sixth grade science teacher telling me that he had a D in her class, even though he was getting A’s and B’s on the tests, because he hadn’t handed in some homework.

I recall a teacher who took off points for every spelling, punctuation or grammar error, with the result that some students got negative points for papers they handed in.

I once had a conversation with a math teacher who graded student homework for correctness, even though homework is practice, not assessment. He didn’t understand why his students stopped trying.

    All of these things have shaped me into the teacher I am now.

    • Grading should be about learning, not effort.
    • Grades should not be a punishment or a reward.

    In an ideal classroom with ideal students, these principles work.

    In my room, tomorrow morning, the one hundred and twenty sleep-deprived, text-addicted students who sit before me already have many ideas about school, learning, and grades.

    If I make an assignment, the first person to raise a hand asks, “How much is it worth?”

    If I give them time to work on an assignment in class, a third of the class will socialize instead, telling me that they plan to do it at home. (And the principal will no doubt choose that day to observe my class!)

    If I do not penalize late work, almost all assignments will be handed in the last week of the grading period. I will have to do eight weeks of grading in one week.

    If I let them re-take tests, they won’t study more. To them, it’s like buying another lottery ticket.

    They will do what they are held accountable for. If spelling doesn’t count, or neatness, their papers will be messy and they will not proof-read their writing.

    If homework is ten percent of their grade, they will not do it. If it is over half of their grade, they will copy someone else’s paper or just write anything. They won’t understand why they fail quizzes. On test day, they will cut class. They will wait a few weeks and ask if they can make it up.

    When a big assignment is due, students will offer various excuses: I left it at home, I lost my book bag, someone stole it, our printer wouldn’t work. “I put it in your mailbox. Didn’t you get it?” “I handed it in last week. Don’t you remember? You must have lost it.”

    This is the reality: grades are all about points, and learning is all about negotiation. Even parents believe that. I have had parents ask me, “Could he do a project or something to bring his grade up?” My reply baffles them: “He is failing because he hasn’t learned what he needs to know. How is a project going to change that?”

    No one wants to cut through this knot. We just keep adding more rope.

    To me, it’s a balancing act. If I do not reward effort, some students will put forth none — students who might otherwise do the work and get better test grades. If I reward effort, some students will go through the motions of learning, but their tests may reflect little understanding.

    While I don’t believe that students should be paid for learning, the wider world outside of school is far too mercenary for the idea “Learning is its own reward” to sound realistic. Curiosity has already been stomped out of students; it wasn’t in the curriculum guide, and it’s not on the state proficiency exam.

    And what employer would keep workers around if they weren’t doing any work? What kind of job can you slack at for nine months before getting fired? That is what school does.

    I do reward effort; I hope that I’m training students not to give up, and to show a connection between effort and result. I let students re-take tests if they come in for extra help. I take points off of their grade for being tardy, for sleeping, for not working in class, but not so many that anyone would fail for those reasons.

    I have even promised that a student who hands in every assignment on time will not fail the course. It’s a promise I’ve never had to keep; students who hand in all the work generally learn something.

    Teachers have lost a lot in recent years. We can no longer make choices about what we teach; I can’t teach a Midsummer’s Night Dream because Romeo and Juliet is in the state-proficiency-aligned curriculum guide. Many days are used up by testing — practice proficiency tests, writing assessments, aptitude assessments. My classes are large, my room crowded, technology and air-conditioning non-existant.

    My district continues to allow us to grade as we see fit, as long as we use the district grading scale — ABCDF. A grade might be challenged by a student or a parent, and can be changed without a teacher’s consent, but no one mandates how grades must be weighted, what tests and assignments should be worth, or whether late assignments ought to be accepted.

    I think it likely, though, that the day is coming when teachers will be told how to grade. And like so many other educational decisions, the method will be mandated by people who spend little time in real classrooms.

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    3 Comments (+add yours?)

    1. Trackback: De-Grading, part 4: Curving Grades « edaxicon
    2. rmadi1
      Aug 15, 2011 @ 08:08:33

      I am an English teacher. I really enjoy reading your blogs. I can relate to everything that is being said and it scares me. Teaching has become somewhat of a business where test grades are what seem to matter most. As a student, I was thirsty for learning. The change isn’t just the kids. It is also the schools and they way they choose to function.

      Reply

    3. escher dax
      Aug 15, 2011 @ 22:04:58

      You are right about that – and it is likely to get much worse before it starts getting better. I hope I’ll be around to see improvements. Until then – I just do what I can.
      Hang in there!

      Reply

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