I did a lot of reading last spring about how to assign grades such that they reflect students’ actual learning, rather than their compliance or timeliness or enthusiasm or other things that are fine qualities but not the same as learning. In particular, I became a big fan of Ken O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning. Of course, putting his ideas into practice is an uphill job, given that I teach at a school with traditional grades, but I’m trying to build his ideas into my approach for grading within my traditional context.
One thing in particular that O’Connor convinced me of is that we should move away from averages for calculating grades, for “The mean always lets the bad overtake the good so that for every low mark earned, a student needs many good marks to return to his or her real level” (157) — something that probably every teacher has recognized at some point. If we must use a centralizing tendency, he argues, we would be better off using the median or the mode as a more accurate picture of students’ learning, although even then he warns that “the more inconsistent a student’s performance is, the more none of the measures of central tendency work” (157). However, our online course management system calculates final grades only through averaging grades, and there isn’t really a way to disable that component of the system.
The most important point for me was O’Connor’s argument that “learning is incremental. Determining a grade should, therefore, be based on the trend in the student’s performance with considerable emphasis on the more recent assessments” (157). I think about this particularly with my 9th-graders, who learn and grow so much with every passing month; why shouldn’t their grade reflect what they know at the end of the term rather than how long it took them to get there?
I tried to craft my gradebook this year in light of what I had learned by following in the footsteps of a colleague who sets up two categories in his gradebook: working toward mastery (worth only 10% or so) and demonstrating mastery (90%). So homework and quizzes and the like would actually be worth very little for the term grade, and the term grade would essentially be based on only a few major assignments such as essays. And I’m feeling pretty good about how this system is working thus far for my 11th- and 12th-grade students …
… but it turns out that my 9th-grade students are a different story. I realized today that I pretty much want *everything* they do to be in the “working toward mastery” category because they really do know so much more with each passing week. I basically want everything to be practice until some future point when I’m finally willing to count their work as a true representation of their learning … maybe in June? Okay, so I need to give them a term grade in November, but what should be included in that grade if I really do want it to reflect what they can do in November rather than some average with what they could do in their first month of high school? At this point, every grade I’ve given has been in the “working toward mastery” category.
One option I’ve considered is to have the students submit a portfolio of revised writing at the end of the term, and only that portfolio grade would be in the “demonstrating mastery” category. On the one hand, that strikes me as odd … and on the other hand, it makes a lot of sense. It would mean that only revised work would count as demonstrating mastery, and the term grade would by necessity emphasize what they’ve done at the end of the term, since that’s when the portfolio would be due.
Life was so much easier when I was a college professor and assigned only two essays and a final exam!
I’d love to hear folks’ thoughts on how you’ve set up your assignments and gradebook so that the term grade reflects as accurately as possible what the students have actually learned. It’s one thing to talk philosophically or abstractly about student learning, but I find the rubber-meets-the-road gradebook to be the challenge. I’m interested in what other teachers are doing!