95 Things I Hate About Traditional Grading. A Rant and then a Standards Based Grading Journey

The List

This isn’t a church door in Wittenburg. However, just like Martin Luther, I think the system is the problem. It’s not corruption, and this is not a revolutionary argument, but the main drivers of the issues with grading are apathy, lack of time and resources and a grade-driven college process. So here are the things I hate about grading, and then I share my thinking and resources so far in trying to reform my own classroom. (So not solely a rant).

  1. I spend hours giving feedback on essays, and most students spend less than a minute looking at the feedback.
  2. Students make the same mistake again and again on essays, meaning my tireless feedback isn’t actionable.
  3. If a student rocked the final exam, demonstrated true mastery, but didn’t get it all right the first time, (i.e. learned something), there was no mechanism to reward growth, they get an average of their efforts?
  4. What does a B- mean? seriously? 80% mastery? 80% effort? 8 answers correct out of 10? what truly distinguishes that from a C+? (besides in the psyche of student and parent?) what is the difference? Is it arbitrary?
  5. The external audience for grades, outside of my classroom, (colleges, parents) causes anxiety to students, so much sometimes that they can’t focus on actually learning
  6. I see tests and quizzes as opportunities to learn more about my student’s thinking, data collection points, they see them as punishments, that I am trying to “catch them out”
  7. When a student (maturely or immaturely) doesn’t care about a grade, the typical strategies of external motivation give them no incentive to learn.
  8. Curiosity and inquiry are really hard to grade, but we value them more.
  9. Cheating and ethical boundary pushing sometimes come from not having space to fail first, as part of the learning process.
  10. Perfectionism is encouraged: “Look, students, it is possible to get a 100 out of 100!”
  11. Every student, teacher, and parent bring a different idea of what a letter grade means to the table. A B could be devastating to a student, fine to a parent. For example, a student gets a C for C work (but what does C work mean? See #4). To the parent, they say average, to the kid, depending on the school that is a failure.
  12. Do you set the bar, and then help students work toward it? Or do you gradually raise the bar as the year goes on? I find setting the bar high from the start in a traditional grading system is overly punitive.
  13. Letters don’t give the context of a student’s learning.
  14. It is hard to see the human behind the letters.

I could come up with more, but you get the point. (What if Luther had been so lazy?).  I should say that while I have very strong feelings about the merits of traditional grading, I still have to translate my system into letter grades at the end of each quarter. Also, last year even though I felt this way, I used a more traditional grading system in one of my classes (can you see my guilty wince?). It can be used with effect toward student learning, also there is a lot of work behind changing the system, and it just wasn’t a reality for my class. One of my colleagues after I shared some ideas about Standards Based Grading recently said, “That has to go on the back-burner for now, but the back burner has never smelled so good or looked so tempting.” We do have to make that decision in our lives as teachers. No shame in that.

Why I Grade?

Why do I grade? to give feedback.

Why do I give feedback? Because it informs learning.

Why do I want to inform learning? Because I am a teacher dammit!

Shouldn’t all assessments be formative? Designed to inform learning? Even if there is a grade attached?

Formative assessment is often described as a simple check in, a low-stakes assessment that allows students and teachers to see what they do not know in-between a student’s ears. But, shouldn’t the “traditional” test or essay also be formative? There is a grade attached, so the low-stakes part evaporates, but isn’t that what a test is? a test of knowledge? Interestingly, before the modern grading system developed in the l890s, students at universities and colleges didn’t have grades but were evaluated by a panel, and evidence of their learning came from their degree and three letters of recommendation. With the growth of compulsory education, a standardized more efficient system was introduced (Brian Palmer).

I think my language has to change. To grade means “to sort”, and if I don’t care about “sorting” then I should just think about using the term feedback. This section might better be titled: Why do I Give Feedback? However, is this like me speaking Arabic to a room of English speakers? How do I get the kids to speak the same language?

My Evolution

A 7 year Journey

Right before I began my first year teaching, I attended EdCamp CT at the Ethel Walker School. I learned from a savvy teacher the power of assessing based on standards, what I have come to call standards based assessment. He shared the following images with me.

I found his presentation, statistics of student improvement on standardized testing and the idea compelling. I had been a perfectionist, Type A student (and, yes, now I am a perfectionist Type-A teacher), and I was I think I was a genuinely curious kid, I also had to have a perfect binder because that was 20% of the grade in each of my classes. Is that really where my cognitive energy should have been partially spent in my teens? No.

I was inspired but I didn’t have the guts to do it year one.

I moved to a new school the next year, found my footing and three years later I gave Standards Based Assessment a go.

First Try

It was in a senior elective on modern countries of interest, North Korea, Iran, Russia, and Nigeria. I could build the class from the ground up and I made all of my standards skill based, I knew skills were something I would assess multiple times. I used an early version of the Canvas Based Learning Mastery Gradebook to organize it. The skills I graded were group discussions (group grades), reading comprehension (informed by Bloom’s Taxonomy, every quiz had one question for each standard) and writing.

Main Ideas

  • The most recent grade on a standard is the one that counts
  • There are four grades. I introduce them as a check system that students are fairly familiar with, then there is the number, the language and the color they appeared in Canvas.
    • Check Minus, 0, Not Proficient (appeared Red) 
      • I will admit, I felt more comfortable giving these in earlier feedback than on the last quiz/essay before the grading period closed. It was helpful for me because while I had certainly doled out some early Ds on papers in my classes in the past, the shock and hurt of the hardworking student were often counter-productive. In this system, negative feedback didn’t sting perhaps quite as much.
    • Check 1, Partially Proficient (appeared Yellow)
      • I love this feedback. I felt like whether it was a kid working on something that was on track for an A or for a D I could give the same feedback: “you are on the right page, but not there yet, keep working”. Some SBG systems are just these two grades: you have it and you don’t. In reality, that is rare for a kid.
    • Check Plus, 2, Proficient (appeared Green) 
      • Just like what it sounds like. This is the “mastery” level.
    • Check Plus Plus, 3, Star (appeared Green) 
      • I dole this out very rarely, but I didn’t like the idea that the system didn’t allow for students to push beyond mastery or proficient.
  • How I translated?
    • I said to the kids, all 2s would be an A. They said, “But a 2 is a 66%” and I realized they were still working in a percentage paradigm. I liked that this disrupted it.
    • I said to kids all 1s would be a high C, low B.
    • I said zeros are bad. Period.
    • I wasn’t confident enough with these pithy statements, so I also had this chart to fall back on for the really grade-focused kids.

Canvas Learning Based Mastery Transcript

This tool helped enormously. It organized the standards well. It can be used in tandem with a traditional grade book–meaning you could just do this for a certain skill that you want to track over time (like writing). Also, this view allowed me to see that most of my kids were still grappling with how to fully address the prompt in their thesis. My goal was always to eliminate the red slice of the pie first, and then make the green slice bigger.

 

Canvas- I would tailor what I said in class based off of these pie charts.

How did I Communicate it to Kids? 

I used this presentation to introduce the grading system to students.

How did it Go?

The Good: One student whom I was teaching now for the third year had an aha moment because of this feedback. I had been writing comments about his topic sentences and paragraph organization for two years, and I had talked to him about them in our one-to-one conferences. At one point after getting feedback on his paper he said in front of the entire class, “So my topic sentence standard is red, I guess I need to fix that!” I was dumbfounded. I thought he knew he had to work on it (I had told him after all) but it was in one ear and out the other. The next paper? Topic sentences. Victory.

A student who lacked a lot of confidence in her writing and reading said after the class that her anxiety about getting it right the first time dissolved in the early essays, allowing her to actually “practice” and carry that confidence over into the final essay.

The Bad: Students who were good at traditional grades were frustrated that their early “good work” wasn’t counted towards their grade. They felt high pressure at the end of the grading period. They were more anxious than they otherwise would have been.

The Ugly: This was a group of seniors, so in my independent boarding school, there is a lot of tension with this age group around quarter one grades for the college process. They only got three papers before grades closed (which is infuriating, because if they are taking a class for a year, they shouldn’t be good at it to start! What is the point of taking it then?) They learned in Quarter 1 how to game the system realizing they didn’t need to “try” on anything but the last paper in my class.

The Next Year, New Courses

I kept the 0,1,2,3 grading scale but “fixed” some of the above issues with the handy new “decaying average” in the Canvas Learning Mastery grade book. The most recent grade is weighted to a 65%, and all the others are 35%. Meaning, that they get a small nod for being good consistently, but are rewarded for getting better and having mastery at the end.

Canvas- The Decaying Average. Brilliant.

Research Methods: this is a sophomore skill-based course. I used the similar standard rubrics for discussions and writing, it worked ok. What I experienced felt like grade inflation, but is it inflation if they are learning more? I’m torn. It felt like inflation because kids weren’t penalized for not reading or doing the daily work of the class if they pulled it together for the bigger writing assignments. I’m not proud of the word “penalized” but that is how it felt at the time.

AP US History: this was the next challenge. I felt I understood how valuable this grading was for giving feedback on skills, but what about content? Reading comprehension was the closest I had gotten. The content list for this class is enormous. Mastery based grading is all about giving students multiple bites at the apple, many chances to show mastery. I already felt the crunch for time, was it possible? Luckily both years I had excellent teachers to team up with and talk about these questions.

Year 1: Grading skills was a huge success, we used the AP DBQ rubric (now outdated) and student writing developed much more quickly and they knew what they needed to fix. Grading content (we tried to go by the thematic objectives in the curriculum guide) was a huge flop. There were too many and there still wasn’t a systematic way to get through them all multiple times. In January we switched the grading system to be 50% SBG for all skills and 50% traditional for content.

Year 2: Grading skills continued to work. Grading content we tried a new strategy. For each Period (there are 9 in the curriculum) we came up with a list of identifications, then we sorted them into categories for example in Period 1: 1491-1607 we had “People”, “Native Societies” etc. Then we came up with “Big Understandings” that we wanted the kids to take away. When we had a multiple-choice set on a quiz, we would grade the “Big Understanding” necessary to answer the questions correctly. All of the AP History multiple choice questions begin with a source and then have 2-4 questions. If students got half of the questions correct, they got a 1 on that standard. This worked better, allowed them to get some multiple choice wrong and still do well, but we still didn’t give them the “multiple bites” of the apple that we had hoped. They got something like 30 thesis statements graded (sometimes we put a prompt on a quiz and ask for just a thesis statement), but some content only got graded once still. Argh.

Canvas View: when a kid clicked on my “thesis standard” this is what they would see

 

Canvas Shows Me: not enough alignments or “bites at the apple” argh!

Here is an example of the standard sheets we developed for each period. We wanted to do historical terminology as well, and while it was part of the curriculum, we didn’t figure out how to grade it.

Honestly, I think that while Standard Based Grading improves student learning through giving them actionable feedback immensely, the bigger advantage might be that it forces teachers to hone in on exactly what is important to them and their classes (especially important for a teacher of a historical survey course) and my teaching improved becuase I had done that heavy-lifting.

*A disclaimer: I acknowledge that these are AP students, and as such, they are probably the best at taking feedback and acting on it. However, I had taught this class for a few years before, and while a few students would make the necessary changes in their writing after getting feedback, this system made it so that 100% of the students could communicate (and did in their journals) an area they needed to work on in their next paper after reading feedback.

This Year? 

So, my school moved away from Canvas. I had to come up with a new system. I am pretty pleased with it. It has less “bells and whistles” but is perfectly tailored to my classes. I am trying a new system will all of my classes (this year, AP Comparative Government and Politics and Advanced History of the West, a team-taught, 2-year course combining AP European History and AP US History- read more about it here).

A few changes we are experimenting with for this year.

Four Grades

Only the 4 most recent grades count in a decaying average. (The first three- 35% of the grade and the last is still 65%). I hope to get at least 3 for each content standard.

Content 3.0- A New Attempt

  • I am transitioning from several week units to weekly topics. Each week I will grade content in a short quiz that has two types of questions on it:
    • Comprehension: How well are students comprehending the material from this week?
    • Retention: How well are students retaining ideas and concepts from past weeks? I will ask a question from a prior week.
  • For the content each week there are four things I am grading:
    • Free Recall Key Terms
      • You are able to free-recall key terms and describe them.
        • An example from my AP Comparative Government and Politics course:  What are the three ethnic groups in Nigeria? What regions do they live in and what is their majority religion?
    • Connections between Key Terms
      • You are able to explain the connections between key terms
        • An example that is a past AP question from AP Comparative Government course: Describe one major difference between a revolution and a coup d’etat. Identify a country in the APCG course where there have been several successful coup d’etats in the past 50 years. Describe a political consequence of the coups d’etat in the country you identified. (there is also an evidence component to this question) 
    • Contextualize/ “What is Missing?” for Sources
      • You are able to explain the context of a primary source using key terms, or you able to share what evidence is not included in a historian’s interpretation
    • Inquiry
      • You are able to frame questions about periods, sources and/or historical model.

A New Organizational Method- Google Sheets. 

Canvas was great- but we have a new LMS, (Blackbaud)

  • Using the code “Import Range” I have made an individual grade book for each student so they can see what I see, but just their columns.

MY VIEW

John Smith has some sample grades

STUDENT VIEW

Student View in the New Gradebook

  • I wrote some code (total newbie here) for a decaying average once 3 grades get in the grade book. It took me way longer than it should have, so here it is for someone else: This is for “equal participation” for John Smith.
    • =IF(F9=“”,(((C9+D9)/2)*0.35)+(E9*0.65), (((C9+D9+E9)/3)*0.35)+(F9*0.65))

Decaying Average Code

  • Note: “The Your Average Right Now” will not be correct until they have at least three grades for each standard.  I probably will not use this view with ages other than seniors. They are so anxious I think it will help them to see, but it could backfire, time will tell.

  • On a separate sheet, I have a list of assignments with more of a “comment” feedback, and where I can note what standard was used, the students see this in the column on the right

My Assignments List View

 

Want to Try My Gradebook Out?

It is clunky at moments. But it is also customizable and, if you have a google account, FREE.

These links you can make a copy of the google sheets. Please email me or comment below if you have any questions and/or you are using it. I would love to know how it is working! 

Master Gradebook

Student View

How To Make Copies for your Class (and adjust the Import Range codes), this page was really helpful in my figuring it ou.

An Important Note: Formatting and Import Codes don’t adjust easily. So….

  • Make your Master Gradebook FIRST
    • Wait until you have really close to your final roster before you make changes. You can’t “add columns” to insert a kid later without disrupting the import range for the entire class. You can add rows, but not more columns once you set up the “kid view”. Right now I have a kid with the last name B, out of alphabetical order after an I- last name because a J dropped the class and  B added it…. annoying.
  • Make one student copy FIRST- be sure it is how you want it before you change it.

A General Implementation Suggestion

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. –John Dewey

Students need the opportunity to reflect on experience AND your feedback whether it is given in a standards based approach or a traditional system. There are a lot of variables in why students started getting better faster at writing, for example, it might have been standard based grading, it also could have been that I gave them time in class to look at the feedback and then asked them to write a journal entry summarizing the feedback. Then before they wrote the next essay they went and re-read their journal entry and created two goals for that essay.