What is in a Grade?

What is a grade? Do they represent what a student is capable of doing? Or do they stand for nothing more than a letter of the alphabet? 

During my last years in public education there was a growing practice of standards based grading. If I heard it once, I heard it a million times, "As and Bs don't mean anything. You have to attach meaning to a grade. Standards based grading will attach meaning."  I never met anyone that could explain how assigning an 'M' was more meaningful than an 'A'. In my situation the ones telling us that we had to use standards based grading understood it far less than those of us using it.  In fact, the more we understood it, the more we realized what a nightmare that it was. 

Let me back up and explain how it was implemented from my perspective.  Two people heard about standards based grading. They thought that it sounded good. It sounded easier. So... they began a campaign to bring our school, and ultimately our district, to the common ground of 'Ms' and 'Is'. These two could already see their names on PowerPoint presentations touting their intelligence at discovering standards based grading.  The problem, they didn't 'invent' standards based grading, only devised a different system. There was confusion and this was just a pilot group. Parents and students complained. School board members asked that the plan be dropped until it was solid. Unfortunately for us, and the students, our administrators and the staff member manipulated their way into another school year.  And, this time they took all of us prisoner.  

Here's the 'brain-child' in a nutshell:
- Students have an unspecified amount of time to turn in an assignment. Due dates are outdated and actually hinder progress, therefore an assignment given in August could be turned in as late as May. 
- Students only have to demonstrate mastery (M) on one assignment. If the teacher assigns 10 under one CCSS category, the student only has to choose one and demonstrate mastery. 
- Assignments are grouped by CCSS  (common core state standards)
- Teachers are to select only the CCSS that they feel are the most worthy to be taught - hence, the "I Can" statements. 
Do you see where this is going? Okay, stay with me. 
-during grade reporting periods and conferences only report on what has been turned in. Everything is a work in progress. If a student has not turned in an assignment, there is insufficient evidence to determine mastery. Don't tell them their child is failing. They still have until May to complete one assignment and achieve mastery.  Just tell parents that there is insufficient evidence to determine how their child is doing. 
You can't make this stuff up! I know. I lived it for two long years. 
Now, image how a reading (or math or science) teacher would feel about facing a parent and telling them that they really aren't sure how their child is doing in school because they have insufficient evidence. What?!!?  Exactly. Not only was I frustrated, but now I was made to look like I didn't know how to teach or assess student progress.

How did the students respond? They loved it at first. No assignment is due. They could pick and choose what they wanted to do. School was a social time. Then they hated it. Really! The students began asking for assignments and they began asking for their grades. They wanted "real grades" - their words not mine. 
And, I began a rebellion of sorts. I was tired of overpaid administrators that hadn't worked in education in years suddenly appearing on the scene telling me how to assess and teach my kids. I was angry that new hires without a teaching degree were making up new educational trends, when they didn't know what to do when the power went off. And, most of all I was sick of what it was doing to my kids.  So... I gradually went back to my method, but I was sneaky. And, to prove a point neither administrator had a clue what I was doing. They didn't know that I wasn't using their method. Does that tell you how little they actually understood it?  I started providing both online and paper assignments. My kids asked for hard copies. They were sick of everything being one-to-one. Of course 1-to-1 sounded great. Successful implementation of Standards -Based grading which embraced the new Common Core Standards sounded cutting edge. We were leading the educational way for the state and according to the education secretary, the nation, when in truth we were not teaching and not meeting the educational needs of our students. It was all a farce. 

So this is my compromise (something that I had used for several years with no parent or student complaints). Before deciding on this, I researched several models of standards based grading. I wanted to stay in compliance to my district by following standards based grading, but I wanted a tested-proven method that would benefit my students.  This is my combination of many successful models. 

- Organize the standards according to the educational needs of my students. For example: before they can comprehend, they need to know how to read informational text and understand the vocabulary. 
- After selecting the main standards that we would emphasize for the quarter, I would select those that fit under the main categories. For example: Under vocabulary, I placed figurative language, affixes, and context clues. 
- Design sequential lessons that earn a number. I gave the 'Ms' a value of 4 and worked my way down from there. 
- Give due dates. Yes, in the real world we have due dates, so students might as well get used to them. And, before moving on to a more difficult concept they have to demonstrate mastery of the previous level.  
- No more pick and choose what I want to do. Students were given an assignment and expected to complete it within a given amount of time. Those who didn't score a 4 received remediation and those who did received enrichment. We all kept moving forward at our own pace. 
- Scores were averaged to determine what the overall score would be.  For instance in vocabulary a students earned a 4 on figurative language identification lesson one, a 3 on identification lesson two, a 3 on interpretation lesson one, a 2 on interpretation lesson two,  and a 4 on interpretation lesson three. Their overall score would be a 3.2. In the grade book I would record an 'AM'- approaching mastery. In my book they still needed to show me that they could identify and interpret figurative language. 

To me the whole situation was a gigantic disaster. What is the difference between an 'A' and an 'M'? Both have meaning as long as teachers assign and communicate what their significance is. If I assigned a B or an AM without telling the student that I wanted them to continue their practice until they completely understood the concept, I would be at fault. Regardless of what letter is used, it is up to us to make it meaningful. It is our responsibility to use a grading system that will hold students accountable and encourage them to achieve. Systems that allow students to be lazy or fail have no place in the educational system.  What a grade represents is what we attach to it. Not communicating an expectation, even if it is simply a due date, is allowing our students to fail. It is not preparing them for the real world.  Whether the student earns an F or an INS (insufficient evidence) is irrelevant if they can't read when they graduate. 


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1 comment

  1. Wow, what a nightmare! As an educator myself, you are preaching to the choir. It's only going to get worse, I fear. Everyone has an opinion about the best way to teach - but they don't want the opinion of the teacher. Why on earth would the teacher's opinion hold any weight? So, as you mention, you have consultants and administrators coming up with hairbrained ideas, parents who don't want to be involved other than to complain when coursework is too rigorous or teachers tow the line, and students who are, frankly, lazy. I could go on and on....

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