B- with Recognition for Effort: Examining Grading and Reporting Practices

It’s taken me a while to admit that I’ll never be the perfect teacher. It’s a ridiculous idea, but deep down, a perfectionist personality type will ALWAYS try. Our internal scale goes from “lousy” to “perfect”. Except it isn’t a scale; life is Pass/Fail. We don’t settle for anything less than perfection and will put in countless hours in pursuit.

What you well know, however, is that this is a very unrealistic if not exhausting outlook. Teaching is so complex, involving so many variables, decisions, systems, policies, strategies and circumstances, that you can be “good” one moment and “awful” the next. You just hope that no matter what, you’re always getting better, that you don’t become complacent or unwilling to try new things.

I have a hard time telling myself that I’m a good teacher. Colleagues and supervisors say it, but I find it difficult. I’ll say, “Well, if they really knew what was going on….” But I think, ultimately, that mindset, despite being masochistic and mentally-unbalancing, is precisely what makes a teacher “good,” even “great” eventually. If you’re always questioning, then there’s a chance that you’re always improving.

In the face of a nagging feeling that something’s not quite right, I’ll listen and try something else. I have been slowly adding best practices for a few years now, but something has been missing. Teaching, learning and assessment have been fitting together like puzzle pieces, but report cards? Those are hard. A lot harder than they look. So I decided to attend a conference this summer to see if I could bring something back.

While on the plane flight home, I had time to reflect on things I learned and want to “fix” or at least do differently in 2014-15. I’m so happy that what I heard at this conference made so much sense, and that I have some clear changes to make.

The conference I attended was the Pearson Assessment Training Institute in Portland, OR. Keynote speakers included Rick Stiggins, Tom Guskey, Tom Schimmer and Jan Chappuis. It was about assessment, grading and reporting. The presenters made a joke several times about how it’s a special breed of teacher that chooses to attend an assessment conference in the summer. I tend to agree with them.

My personal motivation for attending came from a feeling that the assessment, grading and reporting systems I have had in place just didn’t always feel right. Sometimes I felt like school was a day at the dog track. I was holding out the rabbit, and some of the students were chasing it, but others were limping around waiting for recess.

Perhaps, I’m being melodramatic, but every teacher has the students who excel at being students. They produce good work; they respond to feedback, and they just want to do well. Holding out a promise of a good grades for achievement to these kids motivates good work habits, organization and personal responsibility. Namely, because these kids already have these life skills.

But every teacher also has the kids who want good grades, but don’t or can’t engage in the behaviors that get them there. Or the kids who are perfectly content with mediocre grades because other things are more important to them. You can teach and encourage positive life skills, still, grades, are not a good motivator for all students.

One presenter, a 7th grade science teacher, Ken Mattingly, said he tells his students at the beginning of the year and thereafter, “This is a great day to make mistakes!”

I loved this! If we truly want to nurture a growth mindset, we need feedback, assessment and grading systems that support learning. Students need to know that the classroom is THE place making mistakes will not result in loss of learning or success but used as information for positive growth in the future.

Assessment FOR learning is the buzz phrase. I felt like I was teaching well and assessing well, but I didn’t always feel it was transparent to students, and I didn’t have any other models for a different approach to grading and reporting that would better support learning. Grading sometimes felt punitive rather than supportive. Generally speaking, the “smart” kids get good grades, and the others don’t. How is that supposed to communicate that success comes from effort? or that learning, not grades, is what we care about?

Well, it turns out that my gut feeling was right. I got some reassurance that I was headed in the right direction, which is comforting, but this conference definitely sped up the process.

On the plane, I read A REPAIR KIT FOR GRADING: 15 FIXES FOR BROKEN GRADES by Ken O’Connor. This book summarized and extended the conference. Here are some fixes from O’Connor’s book and ideas gathered at the conference that have hit home for me:

Don’t use formative assessments in final course grades:

Again, I felt something was wrong in my practice, so I began using only SAs in Math, and in a few other subjects, but in other circumstances, I did use FAs to calculate a final grade. Or, at best, the lines between FAs and SAs were muddy. My reasoning was that it gave a more holistic picture of their performance. This doesn’t make any sense, of course, so I can follow my gut on this and make a change.

The principle idea is that everything doesn’t have to “count” to be motivating. Instead we practice, receive feedback and learn BEFORE it counts. The most important, transformative change I need to make is: reveal this way of thinking to students and involve them more. This necessitates planned assessments well in advance and the standards-based teaching to match.

Don’t average scores when achievement is developmental—use most recent scores, and don’t always use the mean average, but consider other ways to represent data:

Once again, I was on the way. I didn’t always use the mean, but relied on other criteria and professional judgment for final grades. My idea was that I wanted the final grade to reflect the child’s achievement as accurately as possible, and I used a variety of methods to calculate them.

This fix got me thinking about something else though. In the past, I have used an “end-of-year” target for my developmental standards. This means I told parents that their child needed a “3” to be meeting standards by June. This translated into a strange reporting situation, however. At the mid-year report card, I recorded a 2.5 as halfway to meeting, and therefore, on-target. “It’s hard to get a 3 at the mid-year marking period” was the explanation to parents. The philosophy behind this was we’d be able to show growth developing during the year, and this would be motivating to students.

Ok. I know. It was well-intentioned, just not well-thought out. First of all, one parent legitimately pointed out that this policy was not articulated on the report card. The scale still said a 3 was meeting. As her son was leaving mid-year, it then looked like he wasn’t reaching standards on first glance. The policy was stated in the narrative comments, but she was uncomfortable with it, and I didn’t blame her.

Secondly, what growth are we showing again? If they’re meeting mid-year and meeting at end-of-year, they’ve been meeting and following an expected trajectory throughout the year. Saying that there is “growth” between a 2.5 and a 3 seems kind of arbitrary now and a simple “play on numbers.” Besides, why 2.5? We could argue with equal authority that a 2 is halfway to meeting.

Another questions also crops up. Was I really differentiating between the remaining 15 levels of achievement between 2.6 and 4.0 to accurately show growth? I’d like to think so, but as it was pointed out in the conference, differentiating between more than 5-6 categories becomes unreliable. Using the decimals on this scale so precisely means I was trying to differentiate between 41 levels of achievement from 1.0 to 4.0. How accurately was I doing that? In all likelihood, not very.

I’m not saying that a child who maintains a 3 isn’t growing. Quite the opposite, I think originally, I felt it was important that parents understand that expectations change over the course of the year, and there is inevitable growth. However, I don’t think my reporting system adequately or accurately communicated that – it only worried and confused students and parents.

Perhaps, the changing expectations would be better articulated through the narratives, conferences and weekly newsletters, rather than a number that misrepresents achievement according to our own scale.

Don’t reduce marks on late work:

While I didn’t do this, I also wasn’t always clear with my students about consequences for late work until more recently. Again, I felt like something wasn’t right, so with one of my last SS units, I at least got closer. It was closer to a transparent timeline with real-world benefits to motivate students to turn in work in a timely manner. This time I gave students a rolling deadline with a range of dates. I told them that that if they turned it in earlier, I could give them feedback, and they could revise for a better final grade. They would also have time to work on an extension project that would enhance their final oral presentation. This felt a lot better than an arbitrary deadline with penalties for lateness. It worked better too. All but two of my special needs student – who benefitted from the extra time – completed the project with time to spare.

This section in the book helped me see that I was on the right track but need to be more consistent and systematic, using this approach on all long-term assignments/projects when appropriate and possible.

At the conference, it was also stressed that all students should be given the opportunity to retake summative tests or improve papers, projects, etc. after completing some independent or guided practice work. In essence, no final grade is ever final, until the course is over. Teachers even talked about reopening a closed grading period if necessary. I have always had a policy like this, but it wasn’t clearly articulated to students or parents. This, I intend to fix.

This type of policy not only puts the emphasis on learning, and effort=achievement, but will more accurately report a student’s ending level of achievement. The required practice work or time necessary outside the classroom discourages slacking on the first round, but still provides a chance for improvement.

When it comes to achievement, it doesn’t matter if a child took 1 or 10 tries. If they get it, they get it. For those who would argue this is unfair, well, think of all the extra work it took that child to get there.

We don’t punish athletes for training longer to surpass themselves; we applaud them. This warped idea of fairness comes from a fixed mindset, and the concept that intelligence is innate and should be rewarded as such. When students are told they need to always get it right on the first try, we’re discouraging them from risk-taking and fostering defeat in struggling students.

Information about how much time it takes a student to achieve standards can still be noted, but they should be reported separately from achievement. We should never lower grades because a child tries harder or needs support. That is so counter-intuitive to motivating students, it’s laughable.

Another interesting idea that came up in the conference was the idea of “productive struggle” and that we need to teach students that struggle should be expected at times, and it’s okay. The “everything’s easy if I’m smart” mindset is a dangerous one because at some point a child will experience struggle, will feel like they’re not smart as a result, and may not have the perseverance necessary for success.

Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades:

We had quite a few problems with blatant plagiarism in the past. I feel that I adequately prepared students to do what I expected them to do, but some tested boundaries and took the easy way out. I did lower grades for this. I felt that parents even expected it.

O’Connor insists that academic dishonesty is a behavior, and mixing in behaviors with grades distorts the picture of achievement. I’m inclined to agree. A lower grade doesn’t reflect the student’s achievement in that area, but the cheating. The fix is to have them do it over to get an accurate sample of achievement, report the cheating separately and/or impose other consequences that match the behavior.

Don’t include group project scores in grades:

I started to feel this was wrong last year as well, and I began separating out elements of projects students were individually responsible for along the way to the final group presentation. They received feedback, but we’re not “graded” on the group project because it didn’t represent the students’ individual achievement. In O’Connor’s book, he suggests that group projects can be viewed as part of the learning, and individual assessment should come after.

Again, I wasn’t transparent about this with students. They still believed they were doing everything for a grade. I did this out of fear that they wouldn’t finish it if it didn’t “count”. But group grades can feel unfair for many reasons, and grades do not need, nor should be the motivation for finishing a project.

I know not all teachers will buy into this, but I’m going to try it anyway. I hope I can support intrinsic motivation in students – if not, there are always consequences besides grades that motivate students. One teacher at the conference simply put it that every child is required to do the work. They can do it in class or on their own time with lost privileges becoming more and more severe as time goes on – but it will get done.

Don’t include 0s when assessments are missing:

I didn’t technically include 0s, but I have had cases where incomplete work significantly impacted final grades because I allowed the fact of their incomplete work to affect my professional judgment about what grade they deserved. I didn’t feel right about giving them a similar grade to another student who completed their work.

This is still hard to rectify in my mind, but it goes back to mixing behavior with achievement. In fact, in one case, I was particularly frustrated BECAUSE I knew the student’s output didn’t match their level of understanding. However, I felt compelled to represent this in grades because I didn’t feel a narrative comment or poor work habit grades would make enough of an impression. In the rare, extreme cases, I think it will still be case-by-case, but overall, I agree with this fix. One policy example from the book says that if a student doesn’t complete enough work to accurately assess their achievement, then the reporting is “too incomplete to assess”, and the child may fail the course due to incomplete work.

Overall, this conference was really enlightening, and I feel invigorated to move forward and try new things to support students. I didn’t list all the fixes in O’Connor’s book or outline every concept discussed at the conference. But if this has peaked your interest, you can learn more from two book resources I picked up there:

Seven Strategies of Assessment for Learning by Jan Chappuis

A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor

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