Friday, January 13, 2012

Not Your Mama's Grading System

Today is the last day of the fall semester at my school. Grades are due soon, at which point parents will be able to see where they're students are on the continuum of success in my classes. I thought I'd explain how grading works in my world, because it's very different from the traditional.

My school has adopted a standards-based grading model, which means that students are not given grades strictly as an average of their work on assignments (tests, homework, etc.) over a given term. Rather, teachers define at the start of the class a series of things that students should be able to demonstrate they know or can do by the end of the class. For example, my class has 15 Learning Targets, including the following (they are each meant to be preceded by the phrase, "I can..."):

...Carry on a conversation in the language I’m studying about familiar topics, with appropriate vocabulary.

...Identify and use the numbers from 1-100 in the language I’m studying.

...Use a foreign language dictionary.

Students are then assessed (repeatedly, in lots of ways, over time) on their ability to know or do these things, and their progress is measured on the following scale:

4 – Exemplary, or "I wicked get it!"

3 – Accomplished, or "I get it."

2 – Developing, or "I kinda get it."

1 – Beginning, or "I’m just starting to get it."

Over the course of the year, students work toward being accomplished at the things they set out to do in the classes (I try very hard to communicate that this is not the same as getting a grade). At the end of the year, I evaluate where each student is at on all of them and, together, we make a determination about whether they are prepared to move on to the next level of language. I have come to love this approach for several reasons:

1. The conversations I have with my students are not about getting grades (which, ultimately, mean nothing), but about learning stuff. When I student does a crappy job on an exam, for example, I don't talk to them about the crappy job they did. I ask them what went wrong and, through that discussion, we come to some conclusions about how to do better next time. Maybe they didn't study because they've got a lot going on in their world at home. OK, fine. How can the studying of my material live in harmony with that? What needs to happen at school to support doing that practice? I'm finding that this is far a more effective and meaningful conversation to have than, "You got a C."

2. It takes away the fights over why, "You got a C." The goals my students are working toward in the class and are clear, and so they are able to make good connections about how my material relates to the big picture. "Have a conversation in French" is clear and understandable. When I tell them to practice reading dialogs out loud, it's not just work. It's work with a purpose that makes sense. When it comes time to look at how well they can do that, we can both refer to the evidence and come to consensus about how well they can do each of the standards. The discussion about advancement or retention is based only on their performance on the 15 standards of my class -- things like attendance, behavior and timeliness of homework are not on that list, and so my students know they won't be used punitively by me. That doesn't mean I don't report on them or that they don't enter the conversations we have about how to do the best they can; what it does is put those things in their rightful place, which is NOT in the gradebook.

3. It allows me an incredible amount of flexibility to help students in individual ways. There is no single way students have to demonstrate a standard. For example, if the goal is to get students to be able to have conversations in French, but they're very shy and don't participate in class, I can sit with them one-on-one in the hallway or in the library or at lunch and, totally informally, add French to our conversations (it's worth mentioning that I spend a lot of time with my students that doesn't take place during my class), over time and without realizing it, they've shown me that they can talk with someone in French, and how well. This is a lot harder to do well without fudging a grade in a traditional system.

4. It makes clear that grading is subjective and that it involves professional judgment. Any teacher will tell you that there is no such thing as a truly objective grading system. We have created countless methods to make them appear objective but, when it comes right down to it, we fudge grades to make them say what we want them to. By bringing the conversation openly to my students (who, it is worth noting, are generally harder on their performance than I am), I take away the mysterious math and convoluted averaging, weighting and coding and own what my impressions are based on what I know the standard to be. I have the benefit of a professional understanding of what the standard contains and I work hard to communicate that clearly and regularly to my students, so when we talk about their readiness to move on I can be forthright about saying, "I have worries about..." and be clear about what I need them to show me they know or can do.

5. It communicates much more comprehensively what students know and can do for the outside world. What does a C communicate about all the myriad things a French student might know? What about "Accomplished" next to the standard, "...Can use a bilingual dictionary." A composite grade means very little in terms of explaining well the performance of students. A standard comes much closer. Colleges, sadly, will be a long time accepting this (which is ironic because it is through their research that the idea of performance-based grading came to be), but it is very useful in evaluating how best to serve students.

This is the first year my school has used this system in all its classes (I piloted it last year, along with a couple of other teachers).  What do you think?  If you were/are a student, would you like it?  Would it be helpful to you as a parent?  How would it change your teaching practice, if you're an educator?  I'd love to hear your thoughts!

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