De-Grading, part 4: Curving Grades

“Curving” grades is supposed to be a no-no, but many of us have ways to adjust grades, particularly on tests. Because teachers have many things to do, we often choose the simplest method of adjusting grades, even though (if we had time to think about it) it isn’t the fairest or most logical method.

Here are some examples:

Watch for Hidden Curves

Scenario: I give a test to my class. When I start grading, I realize that the test was much harder than I intended. The class average works out to 48%, the high score 88%.

I don’t want this one test to skew their grades for the quarter. Some teachers would call the high score an A and raise the rest by the same number of points. Not exactly a curve, but it’s a common way to adjust scores. To make a true curve, I’d have to make 48 a C and spread the rest of the scores above and below with most of the scores in the middle range.

But I’m opposed to curving grades, so I decide that instead I’ll make the next test much easier, and the scores will all even out. That way, nobody’s grade will be hurt by the one ‘bad’ test. The next test is much easier; the average is 88%, the low score 74.

But my decision has the opposite effect from my intention. The ‘bad’ test ends up being the determining factor for every student’s grade. Using a curve would have been fairer.

Ninety percent of what?

Why is 90% an A, anyway? Where does the idea that a certain percentage is ‘passing’ come from, while one percentage point lower is ‘failing’? Does this reflect some innate organization in the human mind? Obviously not.

Grading practices in other countries vary, but few use a rigid percentage scale. American teachers are obsessed with percentages, though. More

De-Grading, Part 3: Zero

Less than Zero

I weigh myself every day so I can catch myself if I gain a pound or two. Here are my numbers for the week: 120, 121, 120, 0, 119, 0, 120. My average weight over seven days is 85.71 pounds.

Zero? How did I manage to weigh in at zero pounds on Wednesday and Friday? Well, I forgot to weigh myself on those days. No number = Zero. Right?

Giving kids a zero for missing assignments makes about as much sense. Teachers argue that if kids don’t do the work, they should get no points, which makes sense if you’re talking about money. Assuming I have no sick days left, if I don’t go to work for 2 days, I get zero dollars for those days. That’s fair.

But grades are supposed to represent skills and knowledge, not work. A student who averages 45% because he didn’t hand in a couple assignments and forgot to make up the quiz might actually know a lot. He might have A’s on all the quizzes he took, and handed in all but those two assignments. His grade doesn’t reflect what he knows. It reflects his poor organizational skills or forgetfulness.

Say I’m giving a quiz. Ralph hasn’t been keeping up with the class; he’s missed a lot of days and hasn’t mastered the material, but he’s filling in an answer for each question as well as he can. Renee is a B student, but is having a bad day. Her best friend has revealed her innermost secrets on Facebook and everybody at lunch made fun of her. She puts her head down and refuses to do the quiz. If I tell her to get her head off the desk, she will get up and walk out. Both students get an F: Ralph gets 59%, Renee gets 0%. If I average them as letter grades, both have a zero. If I average them as percentages, there is a 59% difference in their scores. What is fair? More

De-Grading, part 2: Rubrics

Points and “Points”

Rubrics are used for many kinds of assignments. Instead of using letter grades, a rubric uses numbers, each representing a different level of skill or knowledge. It’s a more holistic way to grade, valuing the student’s performance as a whole, rather than examining the nickels and dimes of each assignment.

Rubric scores are not ‘points’ in the sense that most teachers use the term. They don’t correspond to a percentage scale unless you make some way to convert them, which you will have to do in order to assign a letter grade on the report card.

A popular rubric scale has 4 as the high score (excellent, beyond proficient) and 1 as the low score (not proficient). In between are 2 and 3, which cover the ground between ‘barely proficient’ and ‘proficient.’ Because there are four levels in this scale, most teachers and students simply regard 4 as an A, 3 as a B, and so on — which defeats the purpose of using a rubric.

Doing the Math

There are teachers who do not like math, aren’t very good at math, and would rather think about it as little as possible. This leads to another set of problems.

On that 4-point rubric, there are usually several columns representing such areas as Content, Organization, Support, Style. Are all columns weighed equally? Is Style as important a part of the grade as Organization or Content? How much should Mechanics be worth? All of this is up to the teacher, who might make each column a quarter of the total grade just because it’s easier to figure out.

Next, each level 1-4 must be assigned a percentage or points value. 4 represents the highest possible score, 20 points. What about 1, 2, and 3? Because it’s easier, a teacher might make 4 = 20, 3 = 15, 2 = 10 and 1 = 5. But what if a 2 is supposed to represent the minimum passing grade? A student who gets a ‘2’ in each column will have a score of 50%, not passing. If 4 = 20, 3 should probably = 17, 2 = 14, and 1 = 11; then the student with all 2’s would have 70%.

I tried to explain this to a colleague once, but she liked her way better.

Tomorrow: Zero

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. More

Grading a Short Story

Round three has just ended. On Monday my Creative Writing students turned in their third short story. You would think that by this time I would not be daunted by a pile of student writing.

Wrong. I approach that pile with great reluctance.

Writing critiques is not hard for me. If I have any gift as a literary critic, it is to see the potential in any story. I’m not a negative person; I see a glass half empty and order another pitcher. Drinks all around.

Critiquing a story is not the same as grading a story. The comments I write on students’ papers are kind. I point out problems, but I am always encouraging. I see what the story could be, and offer some guidance.

But comments are not what students look at; they scan the paper for the only thing that really matters: the grade.  The story that earns an A will not be revised in any way — what would be the point? There is no higher grade than an A. Even a B will satisfy most students.

The story that earns a D will be crumbled up and tossed in the trash. The idea may be good, but unrealized, mainly summary without a resolution. It may even be a more interesting idea than the story that got a B. It doesn’t matter. A D is a D. That’s all they see.

The only story that might get revised is the one that gets a C. I give a lot of those.

Even the neediest story on Scribophile is in a different universe from most of the stories in my grading folder. More

Algebra, Pigs and Freedom

Accountability sounds like a good idea. If it’s my job to teach children, and I fail to do that, I am responsible.

But teaching and learning are not the same thing.

I am more than willing to be held accountable for whether I prepare lessons, show up for class, and work with students to help them understand and use the information and skills I am teaching them.

But am I responsible for what students learn?

Are parents responsible for their children’s success in life? If my sixteen-year-old son hangs out with the wrong crowd and gets in trouble, or my fifteen-year-old daughter gets pregnant, what is my job as a parent? What should I have done differently? Am I a bad parent?

Because I talk with parents of children like this a lot, I would say that parents have a lot of responsibility, but at some point their control over their child ends. I have seen good, concerned, caring parents despair over their son’s or daughter’s refusal to do homework, their truancy, their inability to resist peer-pressure. I don’t know how to assign blame for a child’s failure, but I’m sure it’s not just one person’s fault. It’s not as simple as taking away the cell phone or banning rap music.

And teachers – are they responsible for their students’ success? If a student will not do any work, sleeps during class, cuts class, disrupts class, responds to no motivational strategies, what is my job as a teacher? What should I do differently?

I am a parent of a hundred kids – for fifty minutes a day. More

Stickers and Grades

I’ve had a few garage sales in my time. When I move from one place to another, I’m always surprised by how much junk I’ve accumulated. Selling my junk to people who consider it treasure is a good solution for everyone.

It is harder to sell things I no longer need, but am still sentimentally attached to. I can’t keep everything; there isn’t room. Even in the house where I now live, which is huge, space is running out. I’ve lived here over ten years, longer than any other house, and the extra space has somehow become packed with both junk and treasure.

It’s not hard to put stickers on things I have no attachment to – books I didn’t care for, old VHS tapes I can’t play anymore, kitchen gadgets I can’t remember why I bought, clothes that I don’t like wearing.

But putting a value on the guitar I’ve had since seventh grade, or my son’s saxophone (no longer played), or anything I spent a lot of money on is more difficult. When a man picked up my guitar and offered me 50 cents for it, I knew I could never recover what it was worth to me. I kept it.

If I held garage sales more often, I might be able to figure out what I really value.

This is what I hate about grading papers, too, except I’m not trying to sell. I’m the picky buyer looking at a beat-up guitar that someone has loved, trying to decide what I ought to pay for it. More

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