Step One: What’s in a Grade? #StopGrading

step one

For the purposes of keeping this post laser focused, I’m going to briefly describe a few things about how I’ve been going about grading for the last five semesters. I’m planning later posts on these things, but for now here’s what you need to know:

  • I no longer put any kind of point-based evaluation on anything, not any single minor assignment, not any single major assignment, not the semester final grade.
  • Because I teach in a school that uses numerical gradebook data for a variety of purposes beyond my own (like weekly athletic eligibility reports and counselors checking in on students and admin pulling reports on students who are earning low grades to get a sense of where to target some extra supports), I must keep some numbers-based data in my gradebook at all times. I use this to reflect the only thing that makes sense to me to quantify: completion. I have to constantly remind students and their parents and everyone else, “that is not the grade. It’s a number that reflects how much of the work you’ve completed that the class has asked of you.”
  • Other than completion data, I record short, narrative notes on students in the gradebook so I can build a detailed description of each student’s work, struggles, and successes.
  • At the end of the semester, I negotiate with each student for the semester grade, based on a grade agreement that the class and I write together that defines clearly for everyone what makes an A, B, C, etc. in the course.
    • A key component of this grade negotiation is students demonstrating what they’ve learned toward a few, self-chosen learning objectives/standards for the course.
  • That negotiated semester grade becomes the only thing that calculates into a student’s official grade for the course–I remove the completion data from calculating into that overall grade in the end. It was just progress data.

So what’s in a grade?

In a points-based classroom, the grade represents how many points a student has earned out of the points possible. A semester grade is the result of many individual assignments of various point values and how many points a student earned on them. Hence, a points-based grade shows (most simply, and I know I’m simplifying here) how many points a student has collected.

Of course there are sophisticated ways to set up one’s gradebook so those points reflect something more than mere point collection. I’ve spent much of my career trying to figure out how to do this best. I’ve used weighted categories so the most important assignments carry the most weight in the grade. I’ve used rubrics that spell out in detail what the points mean for each different aspect of a task.

But in the end, my students’ points-based grades reflected points collected more than anything else, and that’s how my students saw them too. “How many points is this worth?” heard again and again in my classroom suggested that the relative point value of a task correlated with how much a student would care about it.

In the world beyond my classroom, grades mean something too. They show up on transcripts that students use for college applications, scholarship applications, even job applications. A principal actually did ask me in an interview once about the C I had earned in an upper-division English class during college. He was joking with me. I still got the job. But the fact that he even pointed it out says something about how audiences beyond our immediate classroom read the grades we broadcast.

For those audiences, the grades reflect more than mere points collected. They aren’t aware of all of the tiny calculations or extra credit or assignments redone or percentages rounded up that may have gone into the grade. They just see “A” or “B” or “C” or “D” or “F” and come to their own conclusions. “A” students are smart, right? They do their work. They meet deadlines (late work penalties would surely bring the grade down). They persist. They are responsible.

If it’s an “A” next to a math class, it means something different than an “A” next to an English class. It says something about the student’s strengths. And if a student’s transcript shows “A”s across all subjects, that student is well rounded (and really good at playing school). Just the kind of person you want to admit to your college or hire for a job. And don’t forget that straight-A students receive discounts on car insurance too.

The point of all of this is to say that the grade says lots of things to lots of stakeholders. I’ve always struggled with what some argue about the grade, that it should reflect achievement toward learning objectives and nothing else. That we should make our grades as pure as possible–no extra credit, no completion, no late work penalties, no points for bringing in a box of tissues for the class stash. I’m not sure I would want a student who showed up at the end of the semester–without attending a single class–and rocked my final assessment showing mastery of all of the learning objectives to walk away with an A, but in a pure standards-based classroom, this might fly. The future employer who looked at that grade on the student’s transcript would not have the complete story.

The quest for purity–grades that reflect students’ achievement toward learning objectives and nothing more–seems to underpin the standards-based grading movement. I am not writing that off whole-hog. I don’t know enough about it to do so. But I’m certainly not presented with adequate resources–time, student load, and the right gradebook tool–to be an evaluator of 155 students toward a set of multiple standards for each of them. If I had 10 students or 20 or maybe 30 total, maybe I could manage this. But with 155, it’s impossible.

At Penny Kittle’s and Kelly Gallagher’s workshop at the UNH Literacy institute this summer, Penny said how much she worries that students who are not readers are walking away from an ELA class with “A”s. I worry about this too. An “A” in a 12th grade language arts class should mean something about a student’s abilities as a reader and a writer, not just as a point collector. It was possible for me as a 12th grade student to collect enough points for the grade I wanted without reading the books my teacher assigned. It was possible for me to do this as a college student too.

Ultimately, what should an “A” reflect in my class?

  • The student is a reader with a vibrant, self-directed reading practice that will continue beyond my classroom.
  • The student writes to think through life, to pull ideas together, to say something important to a targeted audience and for a specific purpose. The student is intentional about form in order to meet the needs of the audience and purpose.
  • The student revises extensively to improve a piece of writing.
  • The student asks complex questions and persists to research answers to them.
  • The student seeks out mentor texts–for writing, for text form, for thinking, for reading–and uses those mentor texts to grow.
  • The student maintains a writer’s notebook as an important thinking/reflecting space.
  • The student manages digital tools and digital spaces effectively to keep track of work.
  • The student is a positive community member: provides high-quality feedback to peers on their writing, participates earnestly in small group and whole-group conversations, moves through our classroom spaces (physical and digital) with kindness.
  • The student demonstrates successful student habits: meeting deadlines, reading and following instructions, asking questions, seeking help and support.
  • The student takes risks in order to learn.
  • The student practices effective self-reflection, self-evaluation, and metacognition. Students know what they already know, what they want/need to know, what they’ve learned, and how well they’ve learned it.

I know that these objectives are not exactly with you might see in the standards or the curriculum guides for the classes I teach. But these objectives capture the work of my classroom. The standards are inextricably there–they are the basis of students’ self-reflection and self-evaluation of their own learning. And the standards are the foundation for the curriculum I teach so I plan with them to be sure my students are doing the kind of work they outline.

But let’s be honest–our grades represent more than students’ achievement toward the learning objectives we see in our standards documents and curriculum guides. I agree with Penny Kittle–it’s not okay for a student to leave high school with an A in language arts without actually being a reader. But “being a reader” is not an expressed curriculum objective or standard. Success on all standards is improved if students are readers. Hence, I want to make this an specific goal of my classroom.

I invite you to make a list on your own of what you want an “A” to represent with your students. What’s the work of your classroom? What qualities should “A” students embody? What would you hope they will continue to take on in their lives beyond your classroom?

Let’s make our grades actually mean something beyond being just a collection of points. And once you know what you want the grade to reflect, now you can figure out how to get your students there. That’s the next step–planning a classroom experience for your students that will enable them to do the meaningful work you’ve outlined in your list of what you want an “A” to represent with your students.

This is the second post in a series about not grading in the high school language arts classroom.

You can read other posts in the series here.  Start with the first post, “The English Teacher’s Holy Grail: #StopGrading” to read about how this series came to be.

This blog series will chronicle my journey through the 2016 fall semester using non-traditional approaches to grading, the thinking process I go through with my students, the steps we take along the way. I’m doing this for entirely selfish reasons–I want to capture it as clearly as I can, which will make it all work better for my students and me. I hope that being along for the journey will help you think about your classroom too.

Please check out this folder –it already contains some of the key documents about non traditional grading out of my classroom, and this is where I will store any documents I create or revise during this semester’s journey.

And I’d love to hear from you to help me craft this series. Either leave me a comment below or fill out this quick form.


This entry was posted in #StopGrading, assessment, blog series, fall 2016 blog series, grading, making change, not grading, planning. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Step One: What’s in a Grade? #StopGrading

  1. Heather says:

    I love the way you explain this. I am required to show three grades a week in my online grade book. I am trying to figure out how to accomplish the mindset you describe and do this too. The grades are also immediately uploaded to the app.

  2. Pingback: Adventures in Assessment, Part Deux | Teach to learn. Learn to teach.

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