How do I get started with fixing my grading system?

It’s no secret that I get pretty passionate about grading systems and the ways in which we evaluate student learning.  When I recently joined the faculty at a new school, I found myself in an awkward position with a choice to make:

  • Do I push forward with my own strongly-held convictions?
  • Do I stick with the status quo for now and bide my time?
  • Or, do I try to forge a compromise that makes some progress but prevents me from becoming a pariah?

I decided that compromise was the best first step for me.  But, what is the first step for helping my colleagues recognize the need for change and begin to make that change?

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It doesn’t take a deep look into grading practices to recognize that the most fundamental change involves separating academic mastery from the behaviors that affect that mastery.  Grades serve as a way for educators to communicate student content mastery.  When we report a grade that includes effort, assignment completion, neatness, attendance, class participation, and other work habits, we obscure the ability for the grade to provide clear information.

Why do I need to change?

Imagine being in the position of a parent who receives her child’s report card.  Her child earns consistent “B” marks in all classes.  She assumes that this means that the child is learning what she should.  But, in fact, there are many scenarios that can lead to a “B” in most classrooms.  Her child may have performed really well on all of the tests–indicating mastery of the content objectives–but failed to turn in most homework assignments.  Or, the student may have done poorly on assessments but impressed the teacher with a strong work ethic.  Many teachers believe that hard-working students deserve a good grade regardless of their demonstrated content mastery.

How can educators, parents, and other stakeholders make decisions based on grades if their message isn’t clear?  Wouldn’t it be more effective if academic mastery and work habits were reported separately?  Wouldn’t the response/feedback/next steps be more effective if they were focused on whether a student needs to study more, complete more homework, or receive remedial instruction?

But, parents want to see a grade.

It’s clear that conflating mastery and behaviors is a problem.  It’s also true that many parents are accustomed to the current system.  Any time we are trying to enact real change, we will face pushback from those accustomed to (or invested in) the existing model.  But, if we believe that this change is needed, we owe it to ourselves and our students to make it happen.

I’ve found that explaining the reasoning behind a grading system like this (that separates content mastery from work habits/behaviors) is usually sufficient for parents to support it.  When parents are made to realize that this is really about communication, and that we are seeking what is best for their child, they come on board.  It often helps to demonstrate how differently one can support a child with a low mastery grade versus one with a low work habits grade.  If your child is succeeding with work habits, but lacks academic mastery, it’s likely that you will want to praise them for their hard work and seek out resources to help close their learning gaps.  On the contrary, an academically successful student who fails to consistently do their work on time, might need to be encouraged to build those skills because of the eventual impact on content mastery.  Students will low scores in both areas can benefit from an understanding of how work habits indirectly affect  academic mastery.

So, how do I get started?

The most important obstacle is the way that work habits are reported.  This is often not a task that can be accomplished easily by an individual teacher.  The best results come from entire schools redesigning their report cards to include behaviors or work habits as a separate measure for each class.  As an alternative, middle school teachers who work on interdisciplinary teams can provide an extra page attached to report cards that communicate this information.

It is a critical point that these behaviors must be assessed and reported.  Simply removing them from the academic mastery grade is not enough.  We must be careful not to imply that these habits are not as important as understanding the explicit curriculum, but rather that they are so important that they deserve their own mark.

Consider working with your team or faculty to identify a small set of critical behaviors–such as on-time work completion, non-disruptive participation in class, and engaged learning–and developing a simple rubric for measuring a student’s mastery of these.  It is very important that the reporting tool provides clear information to parents and students.  You may want to follow the distribution of reports with parent workshops that help them understand what these work habits are, why they are so important, and how they can support them at home.  Here is an example of the type of report that can communicate work habits to parents (click on it for a larger view):

BER Demo

Just the simple act of separating the reporting of academic mastery from behavior progress will revolutionize the way that you think of grades.  You will find yourself focusing the learning and teaching in your classroom on the mastery of content, and freeing yourself from the age-old practice of “figuring out a student’s grade” at the end of the term. Best of all, you’ll be able to tell from one glance at a student’s grade whether they know what they should.

In the next installment of this series, I’ll share some advice for slimming down your assessment practice to make fewer assessment items even more powerful.  In the meantime, hit up the comments and share your opinions and experiences.

2 thoughts on “How do I get started with fixing my grading system?

  1. Nicely written. Good luck with it. FYI I was referred to the article concerning grading practices, but initially saw a title of “Sexism, brought to you…” Not sure why?


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