Grades have served many purposes for many people over the years. The general intent, I’ve always believed, has been to represent how students are doing in school. However there’s often disagreement on the specifics of the grade and exactly “how” it represents student performance. Some feel a grade should reflect the amount of work done by a student. Others view a grade as a representation of when a student learned the material. I would argue that each of these camps are missing out on a key aspect of a grade. Continue reading
Tag Archives: Learning
By Ken O’Connor
I am a keen golfer and I sometimes think about how much better golf is at assessment and grading than what we have often done in the classroom. Let me list the ways as I see them. Continue reading
by Jan Chappuis
Basketball is a “cut” sport—players try out and not everybody makes the team. We don’t usually think of our classrooms as places where learning is a cut sport; nobody wakes up in the morning and says, “Today I need to exclude a few students.” Yet some of our traditional assessment practices structure the rules of success so that education becomes a “sport” many students choose to drop.
How does assessment do this? Three typical classroom causes are not allowing students sufficient time to practice, grading for compliance rather than learning, and using assessment practices that distort achievement.
Not allowing sufficient time for practice: Let’s assume that the reason we as teachers have jobs is because students don’t already know what we are teaching. It follows that we can expect a need for instruction accompanied by practice, which will not be perfect at the start. We can expect that we’ll need to monitor the practice to intervene with correctives so students don’t spend time in learning it wrong. If practice time is cut short by a pacing guide or other directive about what to “cover,” only those students who need a minimum of practice to improve will succeed. The others will tend to conclude they aren’t very good at the task or subject. But that is the premise we began with: they aren’t good at it. Our job is to give them sufficient opportunity to improve through instruction, practice, and feedback. If we cut learning short by assessing for the grade too soon, we have in effect decided to exclude a few students.
Grading for compliance rather than learning: The practice of awarding points for completion tends to cause students to believe the aim of their effort in school is to get work done. When learning is not the focus of points received, it matters less who does the work and whether growth has occurred. This is often done to get students to do the practice, but it miscommunicates the true intention—to practice in order to improve. When done is the goal, rather than improvement, growth is often marginal. When we don’t look at the work, we can’t use it as evidence to guide further instruction, so we are shutting our eyes to students’ learning needs, thereby shutting a few more students out of the game.
Distorting achievement: Including scores on practice work in the final grade is a common grading procedure that distorts achievement. When students need practice to learn, their beginning efforts are not generally as strong as their later performance. Averaging earlier attempts with later evidence showing increased mastery doesn’t accurately represent students’ true level of learning, and some give up trying altogether when they realize that they can’t overcome the hit to their grade caused by early imperfect trials. This also reinforces the damaging inference that being good means not having to try and that if you have to try, you aren’t good at the subject. If one of our goals is to get students to try, then trying shouldn’t result in the punishment of a low grade assigned too soon.
A less common but equally damaging procedure used when students don’t do well as a group on a test is to “curve” the grades by reapplying the grade point cutoffs at lower levels, so for example, what was a “C” becomes an “A.” This distortion of achievement masks the cause of low performance: were the results inaccurate because of flaws in certain items? Were items too difficult for the level of instruction preceding the test? Were there items on the test representing learning that wasn’t part of instruction? Each of these problems has a different solution, and each of them leads to misjudgments about students’ levels of achievement–the most harmful perhaps being those judgments students make about themselves as learners. Or did the results accurately represent learning not yet mastered? When we engage in practices that misrepresent achievement, we cut more than a few students out of learning.
All of these customs can be justified, but if learning suffers we have created a more serious problem than the one we intended to solve. They lead us to ignore students’ learning needs, and they discourage students from seeing themselves as learners.
So what is the antidote? Some key places to start:
- Emphasize that learning is the goal of education and focus instruction and activities on clear learning targets.
- Ensure that your classroom assessment practices treat learning as a progression and mistakes as a way to learn.
- Offer penalty-free feedback during the learning that helps students improve.
- Use assessment as a means to know your students and to guide your own actions.
And finally, strive to implement assessment practices that help students see themselves as learners. If learning is truly the intended goal of the education game, we can all play.
Recently, a teacher wrote to us with a fantastic question, so we asked three great thinkers in the field of assessment how they might answer it. Here’s the question:
I am intrigued by the concept of not discounting grades for late work. While I understand, on a basic level, the intent being to not discourage learning, shouldn’t there still be some expectations of personal responsibility? One of the reasons students don’t get grades for late work is that late work infringes on my time by requiring me to take extra time to assess the work. Trying to assess that work in a timely manner makes me rushed in my feedback. Therefore the quality of the feedback is diminished if the work is submitted late, and I expect that they should be able to submit most work on time. Now, although “no late work” is my official policy, all someone has to do is to contact me, give me *any* excuse (just about), and I allow them to turn it in, because I recognize that my students are people and things get in the way. So, can I still give reduced points/zeroes for late work?
This question is one that many teachers have had as they move forward with assessing their assessment practices. We asked a few of the amazing people we work with here at ATI and they were kind enough to share their thoughts on the subject with us.
Author and presenter Cassandra Erkens writes:
It is always important to teach responsibility in schools, but the way it’s often managed, refusing or discounting points for late work, has missed the mark of actually teaching responsibility on too many fronts. First, this strategy actually teaches the opposite of responsibility. In the adult world, when someone misses a critical time line, he or she demonstrates responsibility by fixing the problem created by the tardiness; it would be considered irresponsible to walk away from it. Discounting points or refusing to accept late work encourages learners to act irresponsibly and walk away from the opportunity to learn. Responsible learners do the work; they do not opt out. Second, the message sent by such a practice is that timeliness is more important than learning. In essence, teachers devalue their own assessments when they suggest that what they wanted the learner to learn no longer matters since the timeline was missed. In this way, compliance trumps learning. The primary responsibility of students in schools is learning – it is, after all, why the learners are there. Finally, teaching responsibility requires modeling responsibility. Teachers model responsibility by requiring evidence of learning so they can offer feedback and provide support to ensure student success. They teach perseverance, commitment, and precision when they require evidence of learning first and foremost.
Managing late work without penalizing scores might seem overwhelming, but teachers across North America are discovering and employing strategies to increase the responsibility of their learners without using grades to punish or reward learning instead of a tool meant to reflect learning. In many classrooms, homework is not graded, but it is required. Students must use the results from their homework to make instructional decisions on what they require next in their progression of learning. They track their results and work to gather the evidence that will prove their readiness for upcoming assessments. In these classrooms, teachers report that there is actually an increase in student motivation and productivity. More students are turning in more work with consistency. The gentle switch from doing work to receive/avoid something to doing work to learn something reframes the overall process for both the teacher and the student. The quality practices of formative assessment can give teachers the necessary strategies and tools to increase student responsibility in their classrooms.
Myron Dueck added these words of wisdom:
We make the assumption that by reducing grades for late work we are somehow enhancing or supporting ‘personal responsibility’. This can be a misguided notion. My first response would be to ask a simple question: what do you want your grades to reflect? Perhaps this question might be adjusted to: what are you asked to grade? In the case of the second question, every jurisdiction I have encountered asks teachers to grade by a set of learning standards. Therefore, teachers should want to grade the extent to which their students meet the prescribed learning outcomes. Whether you use zeros or late deductions, these ‘consequences’ will ultimately obscure whatever grading has already occurred. Therefore, I have a pretty simple set of guidelines that I use to determine the effectiveness of grade-based student consequences:
- Does the consequence serve to achieve my ultimate goal?
- Does the student care about the consequence?
- Does the student have complete control over the variables associated with the task?
I used to use both lates and zeros in my grade book, but these three conditions caused me to abandon this practice. Lates and zeros did not achieve my ultimate goal of grading according to learning outcomes. In many cases, students proved they did not care as they willingly accepted the punitive actions, or in some cases actually prefered a zero to actually getting the work done. Lastly, I found that many students were not in control of the variables that led to successful homework or assignment completiton. Poverty, learning gaps, drug and alcohol issues, and mandatory work requirements were just a few of the barriers many students face. These factors may render it impossible for these students to complete homework. Adding a punitive “grade” to that challenge would only further diminish their ability to learn.
Ken Mattingly has this advice to give:
Academic grades should be a reflection of academic achievement. When we discount an academic grade due to behavioral problems, it results in a skewed picture of student performance. I see the real issue here being student accountability for completing the work, and I share your frustration with this issue. I think there are two questions we need to ask before continuing. First, are all students aware that they can get additional time? Second, could there be other consequences for late work besides the score or grade?
Hopefully the answer to the first is yes, and all students are on even footing. If not, they should be made aware of this opportunity and of how to ask for the time. After all, as adults don’t our employers expect us to do the same if we need additional time? This would be a great opportunity to begin to embed this life lesson.
As for the second question, there are always behavior consequences that can be applied to students who turn in late work. It can be the loss of privileges, such as lunch or break time with friends. It could be attending afterschool extended services. It could even be receiving a corrective action plan that provides structure and timelines for completion of the work. Each of these would be a way to address the underlying behavioral problem without impacting the academic assessment.
And Tom Schimmer has an entire blog post of his own on the subject which can be found here: