Sunday, September 6, 2015

Not Grading

Of all of the tasks that are part of the job description for "teacher", grading is probably the most elusive to pin down in terms of how to do it well.  Some teachers I know just mark what the student got wrong without any explanation, emphasizing the idea that this is a judgment, along with a numerical label, of the student's ability.  Sometimes, the number of points "taken" for each incorrect response corresponds to a detailed rubric, from which the teacher, for the sake of fairness, does not stray.  Other times, the teacher will take points according to a more holistic feel for how well a student did on a particular exercise, making notes about what they have done on previous tests to make sure the grading is consistent from test to test.  It is rare in either case that the teacher will provide meaningful feedback about what they were actually looking for compared with what the student provided on the test.  And even if such feedback is provided, it is often ignored by the student, who tends to only be interested in the numerical grade at the top of the test, leaving the teacher to wonder why they even bothered to put the more detailed information on the graded test in the first place.

While there are certainly other things that are wrong with education in our country, this emphasis on grades and not on learning should be really close to the top of the list.  Many teachers and students (as well as many parents, administrators, politicians...) have reduced education to a game of numbers. As long as the grades are ok, learning must be happening, right?  If we're honest about it, the correct answer to that questions is, "No."  If the grades meant the students were actually learning the material, then the disconnect between high school grades and college placement tests (ACT, SAT, or from the colleges themselves) would not exist, the amount of review currently present is subsequent courses would not exist (example: how much of the beginning of algebra 2 is actually algebra 1 revisited?), the number of remedial courses in colleges - courses that contain material from classes the students actually passed in high school - would not get the point.  If we're honest about it, grades actually detract from what should be the goal of education, namely: help the students learn.  Instead, the focus has become the grades themselves, and not if they are accurately reflecting the learning.

Enter the first round of testing this year in both algebra 1 and honors pre-calculus.  First, as I mentioned in the previous post, I'm calling the assessments "checkpoints" this year, hoping to emphasize the idea that we're just seeing where the student currently is and where we still need to work.  Second, I created a feedback form for each of these first checkpoints, listing the skill that I was checking for, with options for "mastery", "proficiency" and "developing" next to each, along with room for me to write any comments.  For honors pre-calc, I made the mistake of putting a number (5-mastery, 4-proficiency, and 0-developing) next to each exercise, so the kids were somewhat instinctively drawn to look at the numbers rather than at the comments.  On the sheet for algebra 1, no such number existed - just a checkmark next to the level along with the comments.  For both classes, the opportunity to show me within the next couple weeks (the requirement is before the next checkpoint) that they have developed proficiency in those areas that were marked as developing exists.  This is not a second opportunity on a similar checkpoint; rather, the students need to create an exercise, get my approval that its successful completion will demonstrate the level of proficiency for which I am looking, and then answer the exercise they created.  This set-up made the comments important, since they contained the information about what I didn't see on the checkpoint, and therefore what the student needs to include in the exercise they created and show me in their solution.  In other words, the emphasis was on the material and not on the grade.

It has only been a couple days since I returned to first checkpoints, and many of the kids - algebra 1 and honors pre-calc alike - have completed the second chance, and I've changed the mark from "developing" to "proficient" accordingly.  Only a couple kids have mentioned the grades.  I even figured out a way to get the grading program my school uses to report only the levels and not a semester grade, so that even the online report is about the material and not the numbers.  The rest of  the kids are focused on demonstrating that they now know the material.  The first after school help session, which occurred last Thursday, was the best attended session in years - well, other than those that occurred the day before a test/IES/checkpoint/whatever-we-called-it-that-year.  Kids getting help with material they didn't understand, kids demonstrating that they actually do understand the material but drew a blank on the day of the checkpoint, kids explaining things to other kids...all good things, and all of which I hope happen every Tuesday and Thursday after school.

Just to be clear and complete, the grades will show up eventually, but not until the unit is actually "closed" and the marks for that unit are "final" - meaning, the "grades" for unit 1 will appear after the checkpoint for unit 2 has been taken.  Until then at least, the focus will be on demonstrating knowledge of the material.

So, is it possible to change the focus to learning and away from grades?  For the time being, it seems the answer is at least a short-term yes.  Hopefully the remaining kids will come around soon.  Regardless, I'm going to enjoy the fact that the majority of the students are currently focused on learning and not on getting grades, work toward getting everyone on board, and try to find a way to have this focus continue even after the grades are posted.

1 comment:

  1. Great post and good ideas. How many "checkpoints" do you give before the unit is "closed"? I am coming up on week 5 (September 17th) so I will let you know how my "3 exams per quarter over the whole quarter's material" idea starts to shape up. Keep rocking it!