August 27, 2015 by

There’s Still Time to Learn the Standards! A New Look at Grading

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By Matt Townsley

Townsley Grading 300x300Do you agree or disagree with the following statement? Students learn at different rates and different paces.

As an educator deeply entrenched in thinking through effective grading practices, I have asked more than 1,000 teachers and administrators about this statement. To date, not a single practitioner has argued with the idea that students (and adults!) learn at different rates. Yet, in secondary schools across the country, students are penalized for learning more slowly than their peers:

  • Didn’t understand the Pythagorean theorem on last week’s test? Get the gist of it three days later? Too late.
  • Struggled to label the parts of the digestive system on the quiz, but nailed them on the test? Thanks for playing. These two scores are averaged together.
  • Needed extra time to get an extra set of eyes on the term paper before turning it in? Too bad. Ten percent off your grade for each day late.

When it comes to grading, our practices often do not match our actions. Several years ago, my school district adopted five secondary grading guidelines to reconcile this juxtaposition and ensure our grades better represent how much students are learning.

Guideline 1: Entries in the grade book that count toward the final grade will be limited to course or grade-level standards.

When grades are calculated based on a combination of participation, worksheet completion, quiz accuracy, and test scores, they lose meaning. Like a good basketball coach who gives her players specific feedback (“You’re really great at dribbling, but you need to spend some time practicing free throws.”), our teachers provide students and parents feedback on each standard using a consistent 4-point scale. Our grade book now represents a thermometer, figuratively speaking, that is written in pencil and describes students’ current level of learning. Students’ performance on the standards is then converted into a letter grade, so that colleges can read the transcripts.

Guideline 2: Extra credit will not be given at any time.

Gone are the days of students bringing in tissues or white board markers for extra credit. We realized that families providing classroom materials for extra credit is not only counterproductive when communicating meaningful grades but also widens the gap between the “haves” and the “have nots.”

Guideline 3: Students will be allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding of classroom standards in various ways. Retakes and revisions will be allowed.

We believe students learn at different rates and paces and, therefore, should be allowed multiple opportunities to demonstrate their understanding without penalty. We still have due dates, and report card deadlines still keep us from truly honoring what we believe, but providing students who learn more slowly than peers with multiple opportunities is a step in the right direction given the constraints of a 180-day school year we face.

Guideline 4: Teachers will determine grade book entries by considering multiple points of data and emphasizing the most recent data and provide evidence to support their determination.

Our high school principal often asks new teachers if they think it’s a good idea for him to average their first-year evaluations with the evaluations they’ll receive three years from now. They all laugh and frequently cite the fact they are likely to improve over time and prefer to be viewed based on their most recent performance. In this same spirit, when students are provided an additional opportunity to demonstrate their understanding of a standard, we do not average the two attempts. Instead, we use the most recent data point so grades communicate students’ current level of understanding.

Guideline 5: Students will be provided multiple opportunities to practice standards independently through homework or other classwork. Practice assignments and activities will be consistent with classroom standards for the purpose of providing feedback. Practice assignments, including homework, will not be included as part of the final grade.

Walk the halls in any secondary classroom 15 minutes before the first bell and you’ll likely see students copying each other’s homework. The currency of these classrooms is point accumulation and the focus on learning is often diminished. Another way of thinking about the importance of homework as ungraded practices is through a sports analogy. A high school football team that practices poorly during the week does not start its game Friday night with a negative score, yet that’s what happens to students when their practice counts toward the final grade. It’s no wonder students feel pressured to “get it right” on homework despite their lack of understanding. If the purpose of homework is truly to practice, it should not count toward the final grade.

Some critics of this system suggest it may not prepare students for life after high school. After all, are there retakes in “real life?” The answer is yes. Teens and adults taking the driver’s license test are offered multiple (unaveraged) attempts. Students finishing up law school may complete the bar exam more than once. Even physicians-in-training practice on cadavers first!

In our “standards-based” grading system, students are now able to take more ownership of their learning. Not happy with your current B- grade and there’s four weeks left of school? There’s still time to learn the standards!

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Matt Townsley is director of instruction and technology in the Solon Community School District in Iowa and is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader. He regularly presents at conferences and leads professional development on secondary assessment and grading shifts. One of his articles, “Redesigning Grading—Districtwide” was published in the December 2013/January 2014 issue of Educational Leadership magazine. Connect with Townsley on Twitter @mctownsley and by e-mail at matt@mctownsley.net.