Without Systemic Change, we Grade

Okay, Mister S. Finally I am responding to your response to my response to your post in response to my initial post about grading. Yep it appears we have started a blog war here.

My apologies first and foremost for taking so long to get to this. As you know, we have been embroiled in our annual mandated state testing for the last two weeks. As I packed up my box of testing materials today and looked at the sunshine out the window of the classroom where I had spent 12 hours with a group of 27 sophomores over the last two weeks leading them through the state test, I felt a huge weight lift off of me.

For another year, I’m free of test proctoring. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh…

Did you know that the reading/writing test book had over 100 pages in it? ONE HUNDRED PAGES of state-mandated reading/writing testing? (Don’t forget there was also a math test book and a science test book too). Is this necessary?

I can see a trip to Tangentville forming and I don’t want to go there now–so I’ll get back to my original focus here. This is just to say that my mind has been distracted by the fog of state testing and I’ve been unable to write this response until today when the testing is over.

You took great pains in defining some terms for this conversation:

“Assesement” is any process whereby we are trying to figure out how adept students are either with a body of information or with a certain skill set. There are many forms of assessment, of which grading may be one. Grading can be a highly efficient means of assessment, but it is the least rich in terms of what it tells you about a particular student.

“Responding to student work,” or “feedback” is information returned to the student, usually based on a piece or body of work, which is designed (or at least intended) to assist them in improving.

So we’ve got “assessment,” “grading,” and “feedback.” You make the point that each of these do very different things and have very different purposes and you explain that when we conflate them, learning decreases:

When we give ‘grades’ in lieu of ‘feedback’ we pull students away from learning. When we make assessment into anything other than a tool for informing instruction, we pull students away from learning. Even when we give a grade and feedback at the same time, research shows that the impact of the feedback is severely lessened because of the presence of the grade.

I don’t disagree with you. Yes, assessment, grading, and feedback are all different parts of instruction. But here’s the problem–I don’t have the time built into my job to do anything but do these three things at the same time.

When I “grade,” yes, I am affixing a symbol on a student’s paper to put in the grade book. I am leaving marks on the paper to justify that grade so the student understands how his/her work achieved that grade. At the same time, I am also leaving comments to guide a student toward revisions if s/he chooses to do so (feedback). And as for assessment–I’m gathering that very important information I need to tweak my instruction in response to what my students seem to know and are able to do and where they are struggling.

And why must I grade, give feedback, and assess all in one pass? I have too many students and not enough time to manage them effectively. In an ideal world, I would dive deep into the writing process with every single student–conferencing at length over rough drafts, giving nothing but feedback on multiple drafts, never affixing any sort of symbol on a paper until I absolutely had to and then not without a substantial conversation with the student over the final product where the student and I decided on the “grade” together. I dream of this ideal world. It’s a place where I have dreamy-small classes of maybe 15 students in each. It’s a place where I teach maybe three classes tops. It’s a place where I have ample time built into my work day to respond to student work and meet with students and plan my instruction based on the systematic assessment I do of my students’ work.

We do not live in that dreamy place. We teach in a large, comprehensive public American high school where we regularly carry a load of 150 students (or more) in five classes, where we spend the majority of our day “teaching” leaving us scrambling in our prep periods to plan our curriculum, respond to student work, return parent phone calls and emails, meet with colleagues, argue with each other about poetry and the like–you know what it’s like because you work there. When the heck to either of us have time to do anything but work as efficiently as possible? For me, unfortunately, that means grading, assessing, and giving my students feedback on their work all at the same time.

You pushed back at my argument about needing an “objective” metric for helping to establish whether my students have the option or not to attend on the two days a week in my class that are attendance optional:

There are two things going on there. One is the system’s love of ‘data’ or things that look like data, and the other is the very practical problem that, on the whole, the public isn’t really a fan of trusting our professional judgement in any meaningful way. I bet you have no trouble whatsoever making a call about who needs to be in class or not on your system without anything that looks like a number or a letter. However, knowing that neither the system, parents nor students will trust your judgement alone, even if you articulate it effectively (which you absolutely could if necessary- you are the most articulate person I know in describing student learning), you come up with a number (or letter) to support your decision. Your own distrust of the metric as any meaningful indicator is embedded in the phrase “might suggest.” You know it can’t tell you anything you don’t already know in a non-numerical way.

I think you’re missing something here. Yes, our society is in love with “data” right now that seems “objective.” Numbers and statistics are king. But that’s not why I need the “objective” metric actually. You claim that you think I could make a call about who needs to be in class on my system without any trouble at all. If there weren’t 88 students–perhaps I could in a way that was fair and accurate. There are just too many of them for me to remember every little contingency about each student. I can’t remember who has missed an assignment, who was absent on a given day, who needs a bit more support toward the class’s learning objectives. I can remember a lot of it on my own, but I don’t trust myself. Every week when I go through the “data” in my grade book to set each student’s status for the week, I’m surprised in several cases and think thoughts like, “oh! I thought that student was doing okay but that’s not the case” or “look at that–this student has really pulled things together in the last two weeks.” I don’t trust myself to make these judgements without the evidence before me. Remember, I’m a trained qualitative researcher–I believe in data, especially the kind you can’t quantify clearly. And one thing I learned about qualitative research is that researchers can be biased and fallible. We need actual evidence to help come to conclusions and we need to be able to make sure other people likewise understand how we’ve achieved those conclusions else we’re bad researchers. Though my grade book is full of numbers, it does actually provide for me (in a short hand kind of way) meaningful qualitative data. As I look over the numbers there–my record of each assignment I’ve given my students and my sporadic notes about individual assignments for individual students–I don’t see statistics but rather more of a portrait of how my students are doing individually and as a group (assessment!). It just so happens that the grade book our district has provided for our use does work on quantifying things. So we must as well, no matter how much our society’s obsession with quantifying everything irks me.

Another issue as well, with 88 seniors and their parents to communicate optional attendance status to each week, the grade book (that students and parents have access to) is the most efficient communication tool, a tool that they are all already using, a tool that is private and confidential, which is important because how a student is doing in my class is business between me and the student and the student’s parents. I certainly can’t broadcast weekly student progress publicly in any form. So I use the tool I have already.

I think that in the end we both pretty much agree here actually. For example,

And grades are efficient, and when you have 30-35 students per section in a writing intensive course that meets four to five times per week, and five sections per semester, efficiency becomes essential to survival. It runs counter to actual education, of course, but we are just human after all. We have to survive to teach another day.


So once again, what we should be doing, developmentally, pedagogically, morally, is pitted against a system that is simply not built to do what we say we want it to do.


So you are grading Z, and I am trying desperately not to. And either way we get hosed by the system. And in the midst of all that we still do meaningful assessment, ask them to engage in some pretty cool work, which they often do willingly, and some pretty great learning does occur. But wouldn’t it be great if we had a system that really served these kids. Really, wouldn’t that be great? Then we could all hold hands and sing kumbaya right?! No?

Yep (except please no kumbaya on tuba–I could only make it through about 30 seconds of that!). It would be SO great if we had a system that served our students’ learning first and foremost. But we don’t. We have a system that serves political agendas and financial considerations and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with what’s best for our students. But even so, I do everything I can to operate on what is best for my students’ learning–differentiating my instruction, working to know my students as individual learners and thinkers, providing as much meaningful feedback as I can on their work. But I cannot let this work take over my life.

Because I want to minimize those moments where I must decide to give up time with my family, exercise, or sleep in order to get my teaching work done, I attempt to work as efficiently as possible. Much of this is exactly why you have elected to teach part time this year. You maybe have a bit more space to do less “grading” and more assessment and feedback that better harnesses learning. I’m still dealing with a full teaching load (that means two more classes on top of the three classes of 88 seniors I write about often here).

So there. Mission impossible to achieve that kumbaya moment you imagine? I don’t know. I get so frustrated when I look at how big the system is and how little I am within it. I can see so clearly what the problems are but aside from striking the whole system down and rebuilding it (impossible), I have no idea how to fix it.

And besides, I have 88 short stories to “grade” before spring break so I can take a very needed week off to rest and recuperate before the last crazy push until graduation.

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One Response to Without Systemic Change, we Grade

  1. Pingback: Trust your students, trust yourself, and #StopGrading. | The Paper Graders

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