Meet Your Grade Book

AP Language, Junior English, Senior English. Tue, Aug 30th, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Alternate title: My Grade is WHAT?!

There is a problem with schools today. It isn’t budget cuts, teacher salaries, bullying or drugs1—it is much more fundamental. The current grades you receive too often do not reflect your strengths (if you receive a low grade) or weaknesses (if you receive a high one). The result of this is several fold:

  1. You (and your parents) do not receive an accurate indication of your strengths and weaknesses from your report card. This means you aren’t sure what is holding you back when you have trouble with an assignment or test.
  2. Even if you do well on a major assignment or semester test, your final grade is lowered by that one paper you didn’t do well (or at all) at the beginning of the semester. You are essentially penalized for not learning at the same rate as the class.2
  3. If you fail a course, it is often because you did poorly on a major assignment or were consistently frustrated by a particular skill (one you may or may not have been aware of—see #1 above). When you retake a course it is often with the advice (or motivation) to “try harder.” This only works if you know exactly what you are “trying.”
  4. If you quickly master the skills practiced during a course, it can be frustrating to be unable to move forward. So, you recognize that grades are important and remain bored in lock-step with the rest of the class or you neglect your work—destroying your grade.
  5. You play the game. Every single student who has been given a list of assignments and their worth has played variations on a simple cost/benefit-analysis game:
    1. At the beginning of the year: “What do I need to focus on?  Notebook neatness is 10% of my grade?! Time to head to Target.”
    2. At midterm: “I’m 3 points from a B. Maybe I can do some extra credit to raise my score.”3
    3. At final: “I have 2350 points of 3000, the final is worth 500—how hard do I have to work to maintain my A?”

Of course, every one of these conversations with yourself overlooks the very reason you are in school: to master the skills that will make you a more intelligent, successful, and interesting person.

So how do we solve this? I don’t have a magic wand but I have some good ideas.

The Current Gradebook In a Nutshell

Along the top of a normal grade book are columns headed by assignments. You’ll see labels like “Quiz 1,” “Worksheet 17b,” and “Death Final.”4

When you get your grade reports, each of these assignments has a score out of a total number of possible points. Like this:

Quiz 1 Quiz 2 Quiz 3 Final Class Grade
Rowena Ravenclaw 9/10 10/10 10/10 45/50 74/80   92%

Neat. Rowena seems to be a good student: she does well on her quizzes5 and nearly aced the final. What is she good at? We’re not sure, but I bet her parents are proud. What might they tell her? “Keep doing what you’re doing! You’re such a good student.”

Now let’s look at the grade report for a student who isn’t doing so well to see where our current grading system becomes a problem:

Quiz 1 Quiz 2 Quiz 3 Final Class Grade
Godric Gryffindor 4/10 5/10 6/10 45/50 60/80   75%

Poor Godric6 here has earned a “C.” He has done well on his final, but his score (his “grade,” his “understanding,” etc.) is average. What was the trouble? What did he not understand? Not sure, but he gets a “C.” What do his parents say? “Well, if you studied a bit more you’d be more successful. You’re such a smart kid; I know you’d do great if you applied yourself/got off the computer/listened to better music/stopped eating so much cheese.”

The disconnect is one of communication: a student (and his or her parents) should be able to use the gradebook as an additional tool to understand strengths and weaknesses. The gradebook above only induces is unfocused sense of unease.

“We’ve all been there, but there must be a better way,” you think. I can tell you: There is—and it is beautiful. Let me show you.

Standards-Based Grading

I’m sure we’ll come up with a better name. At least it is clear: inside the grade book we use standards (skills7) to grade your progress in the class, rather than “Quiz,” “Essay,” or “Papier-mâché robot.”

During the first day of class I’ll give you a list of the skills you will master over the course of the…course.

What do the skills look like?

“Ability to cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Or,

“Ability to analyze the use of appeals to credibility in an argument, connect each appeal to the message, and provide support for claim.”

In clearer terms: “Ability to support your claims” and “Analyze an author’s use of ethos,” respectively.

Each skill is graded on a 0–5 point scale which for my purposes works like this:

  1. Attempted skill with very little success (you purchased a journal but have only doodled in it; you used the word “ethos” in an analysis, but incorrectly; you have a page entitled “Works Cited” with no citations, etc.)
  2. Attempted skill in appropriate context (you write about your novel in a journal but provide only summary or stop after the second chapter, you tag an appeal to virtue without support or connection to author’s argument, you list the titles of your sources without any other information)
  3. Success with qualifications (you appropriately journal over most of your novel, you analyze an appeal to virtue and support it or connect to author’s argument, you provide the necessary information for an MLA citation in improper format)
  4. Success (you journal the entire novel, making connections and providing support for insights; you analyze an appeal to virtue, support it with textual evidence and connect it to the author’s argument; you provide a beautiful Works Cited page)
  5. Mastery: you do number four regularly.

Where does this leave you? With a grade book that tells you in no uncertain terms what you need to do to master the skills of a course.

Some nuts and bolts, caveats, common questions:

This means that your grade (that percentage thing you keep your eye on) is going to be low in the beginning. Terrifyingly low. I’d prefer that you ignore it, but if that is impossible I’d like to suggest a paradigm shift:

Your grade percentage is a progress bar, not a value statement.

This means that if you find yourself at 65% come midterm–50% through the class–you’re ahead of the game.

This also means that focusing on those few things you are good at (and ignoring those things you aren’t) is a good way to finish the class with a 65%. Keep an eye on your progress, note any skills you seem to have trouble with, and come see me with questions.

If you feel that you have mastered a skill and your grade doesn’t reflect it, prove it in your next assignment or see me one-on-one. If you’re right, I’ll change your grade. If you aren’t, I’ll give you some feedback and ways you can practice.

“Does this mean that I can avoid all assignments until the last minute? If the individual paper or project isn’t important, and I can demonstrate mastery, then why should I do all these assignments?

  You are certainly free to try. (Not without some emails home and a few conferences, though.) The problem with this plan is not only is it a waste of your time, but the chances of you knocking out all the skills with mastery by the end are somewhere near zero. In addition, you are required to turn in at least the midterm and final. I can’t justify passing you based on one data set. If this is your goal, try something else: prove it to me now. If you can demonstrate mastery before the end of the session of everything I’m going to teach you, I’ll move you to Senior English. If you’re already in Senor English, we’ll work out a really cool independent study.

“What if I start to do poorly on a skill that I was previously good at?”

  This is rare, but it does happen. Simply: your grade goes down. I’ll usually talk with you, give you a chance to explain, but the scores in the gradebook reflect your current level of mastery. If you suddenly become less masterful the gradebook will reflect it.

“Can I do extra credit?”

  My boards are clean enough, thank you. You can come to me with an idea for a paper or project that would allow you to demonstrate mastery of a skill. Go nuts.

“Is there a penalty for lateness?”

  Not exactly. I will not penalize you for turning in a paper or assignment late (except the midterm and final; those dates are set in stone), but I reserve the right to refuse a stack of makeup work at the end of the session. We’re going for quality here, not quantity.

  1. though far be it from me to downplay those issues []
  2. If you have failed because you aren’t turning in work, this isn’t going to help you. I have only two principles when considering someone’s  grade:1. If a student knows the material and has mastered the skills, he or she should pass.2. I can never assume #1. []
  3. “That white board sure looks dirty…” []
  4. That last one is from a school of rock; not nearly as dangerous as it sounds. []
  5. Those quizzes are called formal formative assessments in teacher jargon as they reflect knowledge that is still being formed. Standards-based grading does not alter this arrangement–it merely provides a more concise and cogent method of communicating progress. []
  6. Bet you thought I would use Salazar—Slytherin always gets a bad rap. []
  7. Skills are things you do in real life; things you can be good at. No one is good at “quizzes.” []

4 Responses to “Meet Your Grade Book”

  1. Lisa says:

    Ok. I get it now. Thanks. I’m still keeping my eye on her (and her percentages) though. 😉

  2. […] plenty of annotations, suggestions, and praise), but if you’d like a longer explanation, see this post. The goal is to get you thinking about the specific things you are doing well and not so well […]

  3. Peter Myers says:

    Would you mind if I used this as a way to introduce students to SBG for my class this fall? I may edit it a bit to make it more applicable (I’ll be teaching 8th), but you’ve done a great job summarizing things here.

    Thanks