As humans, we tend to become comfortable doing something and like to do it the same way over and over again. It’s easy for our brain to become more “automatic” so we don’t have to think as much about each specific task. But for some things, as they have become more and more automatic, we may have forgotten about the original purpose for doing them in the first place.
I would contend that giving letter grades to students is one of these “things.” It has become automatic—so automatic that most educators don’t really stop to think much about the original purpose behind giving them.
Why Do We Grade?
I would guess that if we were to survey most teachers asking why we have grades, we would find a few different answers. Some teachers would report that grades provide feedback to the students on their learning. Others may state that grades allow us to know the concepts that students have mastered and those they have not. Some might say the grades are primarily for communicating progress both to students and parents. And finally, in the most basic sense, some may say that grades indicate proficiency, which then in turn allows us to know who has learned the skills to move to the next level.
All of these answers sound reasonable and logical, so which is the “right” answer? Is one of these answers better than the others, or do all apply in some manner?
I’m not sure I have the answer to those questions, but I do think that the way in which teachers answer this question reflects a philosophy. This philosophy leads them to grade a certain way. Believe it or not, across most schools of all levels, teachers’ philosophies and practice of grading varies to a wide degree. This variance comes from the belief of what a “grade” actually means.
Creating a Meaningful Grading System
How then do we go about settling on a “best” philosophy or methodology for documenting student grades? Again, I don’t know that I have the answers, but I think by reflecting on a few questions about our practices, we can make better decisions about grades for students:
Question #1: What requirements are there for grading?
These could come from the building, the district, or even from the state level, but this is really one of the first considerations that we need to make. If we have a high school grading scale that everyone adheres to, there probably isn’t an opportunity to make adjustments at the classroom level. The same is true of GPA scale, weightings, standards-based grading, and other variables. Teachers must work within the confines of these limitations. No matter how progressive the teacher may wish to be, these expectations come first in the grading process.
Question #2: What matters most?
After the teacher knows the requirements from the top, this is the most critical question. Teachers know what matters most and should realize that whatever this is needs to be assessed. Grades drive behavior for a number of our students—not all of them, but most of them. What we grade is what “matters” many to them, so we must make sure that the things we are grading matter. Some teachers get annoyed at the question, “Is this for a grade?” But this question really gets to the heart of this point. Kids ask us this because they believe that things that are graded matter more than things that aren’t. Essentially, they are asking us, “How hard do I really need to work on this?” The teacher should know the answer to that before creating the assignment—as a teacher, make sure that you do.
Question #3: What role does feedback, progress, or communication play in grading in your classroom?
Teachers may not have thought about this much (see paragraph one of this article). Each of these are different objectives to grading. They are not exclusive, in that there could be more than one reason for grading and reporting grades. Feedback with grading is critical. By giving percentages and letter grades, we often shoot ourselves in the foot. Students latch on to a 93% and move on knowing they got an A. This isn’t a good way to provide feedback in that the student probably didn’t think much about the 7% they missed on the assignment.
Documenting and communicating progress is another noble goal for grading. Do students see grades as progress? Do they feel like a grade documents their progress toward learning a goal, or is it a final verdict on how they performed? An interesting thing to think about from the student’s view point.
Finally, grades are a great communication tool, but we need to think deeply about what we are communicating through the grade. If a parent sees a student with four As and two Bs, what do they think the Bs communicate? What about the As? The message received by the parent could be very different than the message trying to be sent by the teacher (whatever that may be).
These three questions are an attempt for teachers to reflect on current thinking and practices. Think about why we grade and what it means, and make sure that the time we spend doing so actually achieves the goals that we are after.
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