A typical Easter conversation about grading

25 Apr

Over the Easter break I ended up in an interesting conversation with some family members. My brother-in-law (Bil) is a recent college graduate currently looking for a social studies teaching position, his girlfriend (Gal) is a college student majoring in business, and my father-in-law (Fil) is a school board member. Quite the variety of opinions!

The connection here is education, and the topic of grading and late work came up. These conversations can be a lot of fun because it is important to see different perspectives and philosophies.

I am a firm believer that the most important thing is that the student does the work and learns what is necessary. I do not knock off points for late work, and if a student wants to redo something and improve their grade, more power to them! I do give due dates for assignments, but if a student needs more time to finish there is no penalty.

Bil’s questions were along the lines of responsibility and expectations for students. He had experience teaching in a high school where students could wait to turn their assignments in at the end of a quarter, and some took advantage of that. That left the teacher in the position of grading a whole bunch of work to meet his own deadline. The argument was that if we do not have firm deadlines with penalties, we are not preparing our students for their future.

Gal’s point of view was different. She was thinking of this discussion from the student’s perspective, and a good student at that. She is upset when a fellow student, or competitor as she sees them, turns in an assignment late and still receives full credit. It isn’t fair that she has to work as hard as she does while other students have a free pass to slack off and get it done later.

We didn’t hear a whole lot from Fil besides encouraging this friendly debate.

To be honest, I hadn’t thought deeply about the point of view of a student as a competitor for college scholarships, awards, and all of the things that go along with grades. But that is where the whole conversation led me in my thinking: grades. What are they used for? Why do we have them? And what is the most important thing about them?

In the simplest sense, grades should be a report of what a student has learned and can do. Unfortunately we turn them into so much more. They have become all-encompassing measures of a student from their behavior, responsibility, and intelligence.

If we deduct points for each late day, or knock off a certain random percentage, what are we saying about the value of that assignment? Even worse, if we do not allow the student to receive credit for that assignment, are we saying that that learning was only valuable if it was done on this certain specific day? A student who proves he has learned something should get credit for that accomplishment. Just like when you pass your driver’s test, you can drive, whether it took you one try or ten.

But how do we account for the responsibility, especially in our competitive society that demands we have valedictorians and scholarship winners? Should this be left for our SAT or ACT tests to determine?

If we continue to grade the same way that we always have, it is safe to say that we will continue to have these discussions. When we start to assess student learning as an accurate measure against the standards, we are less likely to have to worry about everything that goes into a number or letter assigned by the teacher. Standards-based grading allows teachers to avoid all of the extra stuff that gets factored into a grade and focus only on whether or not a student has mastered a given standard. And if mastery of the standards becomes the focus, the assessments will change as well.

Will this help students learn responsibility? If we show the students the goal and allow them to prove that they have mastered it, they will be more likely to want to display that mastery and accomplish the goal. My hope is that they do learn persistence when facing a challenging task and a value of the work that we do in class.

Bil is going to ask me if I think this will work for every student. Probably not, but that is the case with most things. The next step is student engagement and authenticity, but that is a whole new blog post!

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