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October 1, 2009


So… What is a grade?

by Chris Lindholm

For two years teachers at SJH have been wrestling with an honest question: what, afterall, is a grade?  I commend their courage and willingness to admit that such a simple question has become a scary, convoluted mess of an issue for those of us in public education.  Grades have evolved over time – a process that has been accelerated by online gradebooks that empower parents, counselors, and administrators with the ability to pick apart the details of assigning points to student work.  Questions and arguments ensued to where we are today… grades are a mathmatically calculated form of currency.  Students earn points for doing work much like we earn money for doing work at our jobs.  Indeed, most student grades hold little real correlation to a student's demonstrated mastery of concepts, content and skills – the heart of what we are supposed to be teaching and assessing. 

After a full year of research, dialogue, debate, and reflection, teachers at SJH have agreed that grades are to be a "communication regarding a student's demonstrated level of mastery of the concepts, content, and skills of a course (the objectives)."  We are currently working through the difficult process of aligning our practices to this definition – with varying degrees of success.  The tools we use don't line up with our definition, and few of us have experience with making this work.  There are bright spots however.  Teachers, for the first time, feel in their hearts that they are communicating about student achievement with transparent honesty.  Differentiation is actually easier when every student doesn't have to do the same thing to be considered "fair."  And students are learning that some have to work harder than others to accomplish the same goals – a real life lesson. 

I commend the teachers at SJH for their courage and support their efforts to do what is right instead of what is commonly practiced.  In the end, students will benefit – and that's what this passion is all about.

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8 Comments Post a comment
  1. Cheryl Stoos
    Oct 2 2009

    So…where does classroom participation and respect of rules or parameters fall in this grading definition?
    While I can understand the interest/need in attaching a grade to students’ demonstrated knowledge, I’m concerned about the other classroom expectations we have and how to hold students accountable.
    At work, if you don’t follow the rules, you can be fired. At school, while ISS is an option, by attaching behavior performance points to a student’s grade can we get better buy in/better behavior? At work, if you follow the rules and even go beyond by being a strong role model and contributor, you can get a bonus or pay increase. At school, what can we offer that connects to students grades (their source of pay)?
    Your post presents a conundrum to me.

  2. AJ Marek
    Oct 4 2009

    While I don’t have a definitive, fool-proof answer, I’m not sure attaching respect and rule points to a grade is truly effective. In order for it to be effective, students have to be motivated by grades. While many of them are, there are also many who are not. The kids who end up in ISS are the kids who have the most trouble following the rules. In my own experience, I’ve also noticed that these are the kids who care the least about their grades. Holding them accountable for their behavior in the grade is both double jeopardy and ineffective.
    If the accountability issue is homework, do we really need to check everything students are assigned to do, particularly at the high school level? If they don’t do their homework, it will be indirectly evident in their grade because they will perform poorly on assessments. Unless, of course, they already know the material. In that case, the homework may be irrelevant – it’s supposed to be practice, right?
    As for behavior, there’s always a reason kids behave the way they do. If we understand where they’re coming from, and they understand our expectations, and more importantly the reasoning behind our expectations, there can be the beginnings of mutual respect. This is at least a start to holding them accountable to classroom expectations.
    So I’ll pose another question, perhaps more of a challenge: How can we motivate students to be good citizens? Can we truly only ‘make’ them behave by holding the carrot of points in front of their noses? I would like to think it’s possible to have high expectations and hold students to these expectations without intertwining behavior consequences with the tool that communicates academic achievement to post-secondary institutions.

    Oct 5 2009

    I like the idea of students being motivated to do the right thing (follow the classroom rules and expectations) instrinsically. If we attack their classroom grade because they aren’t behaving the way we want them to behave, all of a sudden the grade doesn’t communicate their understanding of concepts in our classes…it communicates a weird mix of how well they follow directions, how willing they are to complete an assignment which may or may not be necessary for helping their understanding, and how well they have learned new material.

  4. Susan Marsh
    Oct 5 2009

    OK – 2nd try – first one vanished into cyber space.
    I think this is a fair question. As a rule bound monster from the boomer generation, I still wrestle with holding kids accountable for things that are tangentially related to behavior – like returning grade slips. I have never met a parent who could come up with another way to hold their child responsibile for returning their mid-quarters or covering their book unless there were points attached or detention to be served. And that’s a behavior. It has nothing to do with mastery of the subject. I don’t believe in extra credit for things of this nature either. So where does that leave us?
    I think we are still mucking around with how this will work. Even in my department, while we have come up with something that feels more like grading what a student knows, I think we’ll still assess and make changes. So, I think the discussion is FAR from over.
    But grading behavior per se – hate to be a stickler for details – not legally permissable. Does that mean we haven’t found ways in the past to do it? I’m not saying, and you can’t make me.

  5. Susan Marsh
    Oct 6 2009

    So then it hits me this a.m.- we don’t do grade slips by class anymore and I give treats to Saber Pause kids who get there reports back to me on time. Then we call. So – maybe the flu is still hanging on –
    So – can you erase most of my first response?

  6. Cheryl Stoos
    Oct 6 2009

    Interested perspectives considering that I have seen a variety of grading techniques applied to my own children including receiving half credit on any work due the day you walk into class tardy.
    I think what I find most confusing is the lack of consistency not only across buildings that I teach in but across districts. I like to be a rule follower, but to do so, I need clear cut rules. So, I agree with the earlier responses…we still have some need for discussion on this topic.

  7. Oct 6 2009

    First – I appreciate the dialogue. Greatness cannot be achieved without healthy, rigorous debate about what is right. Too much of what we do in education is driven by past practice rather than what is right based up on research and sound judgment. The purpose of this blog is to create a space for that debate – and to help all of us be better at what we do. Thank you to those jumping into the conversation.
    Regarding grading… Wormeli, Guskey, Marzano, Tomlinson and others have published an incredible amount of research on the topic of grading. The crazy trend in public education is a willingness to construct grading practices based upon what was done when we went to school – based upon past practice – instead of upon this research. We have committed to changing that practice at SJH. All BLT members have a membership to ASCD and are expected to use this to access the vast amount of research and published articles written on this and other topics. We will make decisions based upon this research and develop decisions based upon what is right… not what is consensus or what is past practice.
    A key core value of SJH is being transparent and clear about what we are communicating. Indeed, grades are a communication tool. The question is – what do they communicate? One needs to look no further than a high school transcript to answer that question. Course titles infer a communication about the mastery of those courses (the skills, content, and concepts of those courses). Some students can demonstrate mastery with very little work and some need to work their tails off to accomplish the same. That’s life. We understand this in the context of life and work – and our students understand this very clearly – yet we don’t recognize it in how we assign work or grade student work… The result is a student body that knows we are not being honest, straight up, and transparent. This results in school being perceived as a game – particularly by our struggling students. It is a game rigged against those who struggle with reading and auditory learning. The game, rigged against them, does not fairly represent what they can do – and what they cannot.
    Grades, above all, need to clearly communicate something. A percentage based system that averages or aggregates multiple categories communicates nothing specific in clear language. What concepts do your students understand? Do the grades reflect that clearly? If a student has nailed the concepts and skills in the course objectives, but has done little to no homework, what would he/she have earned? Where on the transcript does it say “hands in assignments on time” or “raises hand to ask questions.” The need here is for clarity in what we are communicating. The burden lies upon us to be clear, honest, and transparent.
    My call in this post is to stop “doing” just because it is easy, past practice, or “what we know.” We need to determine what is right, through research and rigorous debate, and make it happen. The debate at SJH is almost 2 full years old. At some point we need to change practice to line up with what we have learned. We have learned – and very clearly through a long dig into research – that grades need to communicate a student’s demonstrated level of mastery of course objectives. That’s what the research says…
    So… are we getting close?

  8. Dave Driver
    Oct 16 2009

    I have found one very simple rule works in my classes. “The students may do anything they want to as long as it’s respectful and it is productive with regard to content.” This presents them with the opportunity and challenge to be creative when completing an open project. We’ve had the safety shower pulled several times, students have stood on the tables, thrown snowballs, made snowmen, and written on the windows. Each of these activities satisfied both requirements and were approved ahead of time, either implicitly or explicitly. Some requests have been denied because they don’t fully fit the second requirement. Few have missed the mark on the first requirement. This rule also allows for healthy dialog and reflection when I believe the behavior misses one or both marks. I simply ask whether what they did was both respectful and productive. If they can explain how it was, we move on. If they can’t, I ask them how they could have changed their behavior to make it respectful and productive. After they answer, we move on. Grades are separate, but most successful people I know are both respectful and productive in their choices and actions.


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