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June 1, 2012
Vol. 54
No. 6

Bound by Tradition

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Few topics in education generate as many differing opinions and as much controversy as grading. That's why change, when it comes, comes slowly to grading practices. Just the mere mention of grading reform sets off ripples of anxiety across education communities.
"District leaders as well as teachers recognize that grading is the one element in their improvement efforts that remains dreadfully misaligned," says Thomas R. Guskey, professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at the University of Kentucky and an expert on grading.
"They have worked hard in recent years to clarify standards for student learning and to develop authentic assessments to measure accurately how well students have achieved those standards. But they report students' learning progress to their families using report cards that look much the same as they did 100 years ago."
Those grading practices have remained in place because they are familiar, even though they might not accurately reflect what students are learning. In the Educational Leadership article "Five Obstacles to Grading Reform," Guskey explains that grading is bound by tradition.
"Because no one addressed the topic of grading in their teacher-preparation programs, teachers typically base their grading policies and practices on what they experienced as students," he says. "Likewise, most parents interpret grades in the context of what they experienced in school."
In fact, too often teachers use grades as punishment, deducting points for absences, missed homework, bad behavior, or lack of class participation. However, lowering students' grades won't necessarily change their behavior, says Douglas B. Reeves of the Leadership and Learning Center.
"You see proficient students getting D's and F's for cutting class," Reeves says. "We have a rich tradition of using grading not as assessment but as punishment—but it just doesn't work."

Making the Mark in Minnesota

As more educators realize how little connection there is between grades and students' mastery of skills and how devastating one poor grade can be to a student's academic career, grading changes are coming.
One of the factors that prompted grading reforms at Minnetonka High School in Minnesota was a teacher survey in which teachers were asked to describe the reasons for assigning a B– grade. Assistant Principal Jeffrey A. Erickson says teachers identified 13 different reasons—only one of which had to do with knowledge of the material.
Although students at Minnetonka High School still receive letter grades, the school has adopted standards-based assessments. Teachers are now required to use formative and summative assessments, and grades in these two categories determine the quarter and semester grade. Within the summative category, teachers of the same course must conduct at least four common assessments, one of which must be a performance task.
"Grades should reflect what students know and are able to do," Erickson says. "Grades no longer are used as control mechanisms."
And so how does Erickson's school deal with kids cutting class? "In the past, consequences for unexcused absences were not seen for 17 weeks, when report cards were issued," Erickson says. "We still wanted to have consequences, so in the first year, we moved to immediate interventions."
In the first year after instituting the change, the school saw a radical decrease in unexcused absences, and suspensions decreased by 40 percent. Now when students have an unexcused absence or miss a class, staff members follow up within 36 hours by calling parents and conferring with the student, Erickson explains.

Be Clear and Communicate Policies

Guskey says that changes to a school's grading policy should be purposeful and well-communicated. "Teachers must be clear about the purpose of grades and must communicate that purpose to everyone involved in the process: students, their families, fellow teachers, and school leaders," he says.
"Second, teachers must recognize that since they strive to have students achieve multiple learning goals related to academic achievement as well as responsibility, work habits, study skills, et cetera, they must report student learning in each of these areas separately. It simply requires abandoning the practice of combining all of these diverse sources of evidence into a single symbol or grade."
Standards-based assessments, which seek to measure student performance within different areas of a subject, incorporate some of the criteria listed above. The idea is to identify the areas in which students need improvement and target those areas.
Robert J. Marzano, an expert on standards-based grading, says, "Educators want more specificity, and they are realizing that a single grade does not mean much. Parents and students are realizing it as well."
In the November 2011 issue of Educational Leadership, Marzano and Tammy Heflebower outline the four elements of an effective, standards-based assessment program:
  • Eliminate an overall grade.
  • If you can't eliminate the overall grade, also include performance data for different areas.
  • Expand the assessment options available to students. Besides traditional exams, include probing discussions between students and the teacher, unobtrusive assessments by the teacher, and student assessments.
  • Allow students to continually upgrade their scores on previous measurement topics. If students did not score well on assessments in the first quarter, allow them to raise their scores in those areas and then include those scores with the second quarter assessments.
One way Marzano suggests evaluating students' understanding of a topic is by using a scale of 1 to 4, with the higher number reflecting proficiency of more complex material. There is no downside to these types of reforms, Marzano added; teachers can still use an overall grade with these systems, if they so choose.
But better grading policies don't necessarily equate to more student learning, Guskey says. "Honestly, I know of no well-designed, systematic studies that have shown this to be so," he says.
"But why would we expect changing grading practices or the report card to affect student learning in any way, positive or negative? Standards-based grading and reporting are more about communicating better and giving more accurate information to families and students in order to provide thebasis for improving student learning."

Changing the Grading Scale

Other changes researchers encourage include eliminating grading on a curve or tightening up the numerical spans on the 100-point scale. Consider that while the difference between an A and a B usually is 10 points, if an A is 90 percent and a B is 80 percent, aD often is 60 percent and an F is 0.
"There is no logical defense for that span between 60 and 0," Reeves says. A student who earns one or two 0s but does well on every other assignment is still at risk of failing the course. Rather than give students 0s for failing to submit assignments, missing class, or being late, teachers should require students to complete the work during the day, Reeves suggests.
This position can generate a lot of very angry e-mails from teachers, Reeves says. They are frustrated with students who don't complete assignments and have little ammunition besides grades to reinforce deadlines.
"I understand their frustration; but why continue to punish them with grades if it doesn't work?" he says. "When you give kids an F or zero, they get off the hook [without doing the assignment]. A much tougher consequence is getting the work done."
In keeping with that philosophy, some schools have chosen to eliminate zeros completely, instead focusing on having students complete the missing work in a timely way. When the Collier County School District in Florida eliminated zeros for elementary school students in 2008, some teachers and community members viewed the move as coddling students and feared they would not learn to accept the consequences of their actions, according to the Naples Daily News.
But Beth Thompson, the chief instructional officer for the district, says that now students are getting their assignments done, whether it's before or after school or during their breaks in the school day.
"A zero doesn't tell you if students have mastered the skill or not. It just says a student failed to turn the assignment in," Thompson says. "What we're trying to get across to teachers is to separate achievement from effort and behavior."
Collier County School District is also now using standards-based assessments for preK through 2nd grade and expects to have standards-based assessments in place for all elementary students by the 2014–2015 school year.
So far the only concern about the new system among parents is that it could eliminate the traditional honor rolls, because students would no longer be issued one grade at the end of the quarter. However, students will still be recognized for achievement at the end of the quarters and school year, Thompson says.
Despite the flaws in the current grading systems, no one is abandoning grades anytime soon, Guskey notes, because students and parents want to know if students are meeting expected learning goals.


Ellen R. Delisio is a contributing writer to ASCD.

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