More thoughts on grading

What are grades supposed to represent? What is the appropriate connection between assessments (whether formative or summative) and grades?

I’ve recently been reading some interesting discussions about these questions in several math teachers’ blogs (including those of Matt Townsley, Karl Fisch, David Cox, and Dan Meyer), all sparked by Shawn Cornally’s fascinating blog, Think Thank Thunk. Cornally poses the problem like this:

The Message Grades Send:

Problem: Kids want to play games to get points in order to get an ‘A’. This is a problem because it puts emphasis on accumulat ing points and not on what the points are supposed to represent: learning. You must migrate your system of grading away from grading every single assignment summatively (that is assigning a static grade for everything a kid does), and towards grades that are indexed by content.

Students could not care less about their score on “Quiz 5″ from last month; they don’t even know what was on that quiz. Don’t put that in your grade book. Put the individual ideas that that quiz assessed in your grade book, so that the students know what it is you care about. I do this, and my grade book has ballooned to about three times its previous size. Oh well.

Reporting Should Be Dynamic:

Let’s say you really care about a certain bit of knowledge, so much so that you’re going to put in on a test. In other words, you want students to know it really badly. Like, say, the Pythagorean Theorem, and you consider your class worthless if the student hasn’t learned that piece of knowledge, then your grading system should be set up to help students remediate their misunderstandings, not screw them over for not getting it the first time.

It’s hard to disagree with that, and I’m not going to try; I merely want to consider three of the reasons why it won’t work, according to us skeptics (but of course we could be wrong). Do read the entire article in order to get the full context, since I’m focusing only on a few specific issues. If you have time, also read the many articles on the subject in Cornally’s blog.

Here are my objections:

  1. The first reason why it won’t work is that kids and their parents won’t buy into it. Cornally does address this point: “I’ve had kids cry over this, but I have to hold my ground. Parent emails be damned; Johnny didn’t improve from a 8/10 to a 9/10. He just didn’t, sorry.” It’s hard for me to see this point-of-view succeeding in Weston, but of course I could be wrong.
  2. The second reason is that it’s too time-consuming. We’re already too busy with all the demands on our time, so how can we keep track of all these finely itemized skills and concepts? But of course I could be wrong.
  3. The third reason is that I fear that it would inevitably lead to a de-emphasis on concepts and big ideas, because atomized skills are so much easier to measure. But of course I could be wrong.

I would like to be proved wrong. I would like to see if this concept of standards-based grading could fly in a place like Weston. Maybe it can.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston