Communicating about Grading

It seems that grading discussions are dominating my world lately, largely because my school is beginning the process of agreeing on common grading policies across Professional Learning Communities and departments.  I found myself in the position of needing to explain my grading philosophy to my colleagues via email.  While I am not a big fan of email, especially in light of the better choices out there, the medium did force me to refine my thinking and compose a concise explanation to the other members of my middle school’s Science department.  I though that Scripted Spontaneity readers, particularly those who have engaged in the recent grading discussions here, might want to see what I came up with:

So, I want to explain to everyone what I do and (more importantly) why I do it.  For more information, you can read about all of this on my website here.  My hope is that our department’s plan would incorporate many of these principles.
  1. The purpose of grades is to communicate a student’s level of mastery to parents and students (and other folks). Over time, we have allowed many other factors to be blended together into the grade (e.g., homework completion, on-time delivery of work, participation, and other work behaviors), which renders it useless for this purpose.  A parent can’t look at a B and say “My child is learning science well.”  That’s because a student can earn a B by working really hard on homework and classwork and yet performing poorly on tests and quizzes (which should be measuring what they’ve learned).  Imagine that your doctor’s nurse took your temperature and then added 2 degrees if you were late for your appointment (to encourage you to show up on time), but subtracted 5 degrees for every time you exercise in a week.  Would your temperature still be able to tell anyone if you were sick?
  2. Practice work is for building skills and not for demonstrating mastery. This is the whole formative versus summative thing.  We don’t rank teams in the NCAA tournament based on how well they practice.  Coaches encourage their teams to practice hard by providing other incentives (running laps for not working hard or taking a break when you do), not by changing their win-loss record.  So, classwork, homework, and any other skill-building activities should not be factored into the student’s grade.  Students need to do these activities, you need to provide feedback to them, and it needs to be reported on SPAN* and report card comments.  If you’re worried that students won’t do formative work if it doesn’t affect their grade, then we need to find other ways to motivate them.  This year, you’ll even be able to write up a SPAN referral for students who do not complete their work.  This is an inappropriate behavior and needs to be treated as such.
  3. Not all students reach mastery at the same time or in the same way.  This one is obvious, but it’s implications might not be.  If I finish teaching a unit and move on, but some of my students score poorly on the summative assessment, I might not have time to go back and remediate them.  However, if they can find a way to master the content later (days or weeks, but not months) through studying with parents, tutoring with peers, meeting with me at lunch, alien abduction and probing, etc., their grade should represent this new level of mastery.  This is why I offer LOTS of retake opportunities.  I have an alternative (all short answer) retake assessment that isn’t easier.  I limit their retakes to times when I am available.  I require them to complete any missing formative assignments before retaking.  This year, I’m going to require proof that they have reviewed prior to the retake and enforce a “waiting period” before retakes can happen.
Based on these elements of my grading philosophy, I have two categories: Formative Work and Summative Work.  Formative Work is 0% of the student’s grade and includes classwork and homework which is reported on SPAN with feedback for improvement.  Summative Work is 100% of the grade and includes tests, quizzes, lab reports, and projects.  I weight them relative to each other through a total points system (Tests = 100 pts. each, Quizzes/Lab reports = 30 pts. each) so that it doesn’t matter how many I have each quarter as they will always have the same relative weight.  I accept late work and I allow retakes for everyone if they complete the prerequisite steps (see #3 above).  I do not offer extra credit, but I do track work behaviors and religiously report them.

*SPAN is our online grade and behavior reporting system

What do you think?  Have I missed something?  Is there a better way to explain the reasoning behind these policies?

7 thoughts on “Communicating about Grading

    1. Thanks, Bill. I am discovering that I have both a passion for the subject of grading and a knack for getting my point across. Thanks for noticing.

  1. Thanks for your ideas. Everytime I revisit this topic, my heart is pulled in so many directions. I like the idea of formative being zero percent.

  2. While I agree with your grading policy, I was wondering how you get your middle school aged children to actually DO their class work/homework if you are not attaching a grade to it in some manner? For instance, I have students tell me, “why should I do this if it doesn’t count toward my grade?”. When I explain to them that it’s practice for the actual test and to let me know that they understand the material, process, vocab, etc. some tend to have an “I don’t care” attitude because it won’t have any affect on their grade OR they claim that they know how to do it and don’t have to prove it to anyone. It’s also unfortunate to say that most of their parents will stick up for this behavior.
    I had to come up with a way to make a daily grade as a test grade. It includes their class work, homework, promptness, etc. So I don’t grade each piece of work, I will average done vs. not done at the end of every quarter and count that as their final test grade. I explain this policy at the beginning of every quarter and explain the policy in their syllabus. If I don’t count their homework/class work toward SOME kind of grade, I find, that they just don’t do it. It’s unfortunate that some of my students don’t care if they are disciplined for not doing what they are supposed to do… so making their work a “quarterly” test grade is the only thing I can think of… any other suggestions?

    1. Kerry,

      Thanks for the feedback. Your situation is one that I have experienced myself. There are a few techniques, however, that I have employed that lessen the problem of students not doing their daily work.

      First, I make this work important by talking about and reviewing it, and praising those who complete it. I find that my students who are motivated by praise respond well to this.

      Second, I give students a grade for this work, which is displayed in our online gradebook with feedback about improvements that could be made, but this grade is weighted at zero. It doesn’t affect the student’s average in my class, but many students are motivated to avoid these zeroes (either intrinsically or by their parents/peers) and will get the work done. It sounds, though, like many of your students’ parents don’t provide this sort of motivation.

      Third, to reach the students who aren’t motivated to do their daily work by any of the others, I do not allow any student to retake any summative assessments (the ones that do affect their grade) if they have zeroes. I provide lunchtime opportunities for students to come in and get help (to avoid the “I give up” response from those who get too far behind).

      I don’t reach every students through these steps, but the handful that remain unwilling to do their daily work are those who are unmotivated by wanting to impress adults, get good grades, avoid failure, avoid punishment from their parents, or loss of social time at lunch. If a kid is not fazed by any of these, there is little that I can do to make him want to try.

      Hope that this helps!

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