Taking “The Long Road” to Grading Reform

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By Jay C. Percell

In his article “The Value of a Pointless Education,” published in the December 2013/January 2014 Educational Leadership, Jay C. Percell describes how he eliminated points from his grading system. Here, he discusses one of the challenges he encountered in making this change.

Jay Percell on grading practicesImplementing serious grading reform into one’s classroom practices is never easy. Grading reform is a dark and winding road fraught with uncertainty, obstacles, and challenges such as gaining administrative or departmental approval, appeasing parental concerns, and continually attempting to enlighten students confused by a grading system that is unlike any they have ever encountered. This may be why many teachers opt not to reform their grading practices.

Reflecting on this, I am reminded of a scene from the 2003 movie Big Fish in which Edward Bloom (played by Ewan McGregor) mistakenly arrives prematurely at the utopian town of Spectre, a metaphorical representation of the afterlife. Knowing that Bloom is ultimately fated to arrive there anyway, the mayor and townsfolk insist that he remain in Spectre. Bloom instead opts to leave, promising to take “the long road” back and return one day. Clearly, Edward Bloom values the journey and experience of life above merely arriving at a destination.

I wonder: Could the same be said of our classroom instruction? Are we assessing and grading our students in ways that value the learning process itself? Or are our grading methods only concerned with the end result, a right answer?

As one who has traveled the thorny path of grade reform, let me offer some advice to those considering doing the same. The challenges from administrators, parents, and students are real. But one of the recurring difficulties I have faced implementing the grading reform I described in my article, “The Value of a Pointless Education,” is the concept that completing all requirements does not correlate with the top possible grade.

In my No Points Grading System, students who complete all minimum requirements of a performance objective receive a Meets (M), the minimum passing score. To achieve the top score, an Exceeds (E), they must be able to demonstrate something more, make an outside connection, or apply a learning extension. Although many students have heard terminology like “go above and beyond” or “exceed the standard,” they have rarely been required to actually do so. To achieve top scores in my system, students are actually required to go above and beyond.

As you can imagine, this produces a certain amount of consternation within students as they are forced to think creatively, and they grapple with why completing all requirements on an assignment only yields the minimum passing grade. It is a different way of thinking, and although it is difficult to usher in a new paradigm, we need to try to change our students’ thinking about what we are ultimately attempting to achieve. In my classroom, the work was less about the answer they arrived at, and more about how they got there, how they chose to demonstrate their understanding, or how they were able to connect to outside information and incorporate it with their new knowledge and skills.

This is not an easy process. In fact, it is very difficult. But somewhere, I remember hearing that anything worth doing typically is.

As Edward Bloom from Big Fish begins to leave Spectre—the town he has stumbled upon (losing his shoes in the process)—a young girl makes one last-ditch effort to get him to stay, asking, “How will you leave without your shoes?” He tells her plainly, “I expect that it will hurt. A lot.” Then he sets off, undaunted.

Will we, as teachers, be willing to take the more beneficial path, even if it is more difficult? Or will we choose the quick and easy way? In an education climate where others are attempting to define what should be valued in our classrooms, can teachers use their grading practices to shift the focus from a mythical destination students are supposed to reach to the journey and learning experience itself?

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