November 2018 Volume III Issue X
Marcia Baldanza, the author of Professional Practices and a Just ASK Senior Consultant, lives in Arlington, Virginia. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.
Achieving Equity in Grading
My sixth grader received his first middle school report card this month and we had our first middle school parent-teacher-student conference. He has worked hard this year and seems to have found himself as a student who understands how attention, focus, perseverance, and teamwork lead to academic success. The school he attends separates academic grades and effort grades for each subject. Effort grades include things like punctuality, organization, asking for help, sharing knowledge, tolerance of other viewpoints, and more. A student cannot earn academic honor roll without top scores in effort. This makes a big impact on the students and their parents. It’s not enough to get top grades; students must be tolerant, collaborative, organized, and focused.
Our parent-teacher-student conference was quite productive. My son had prepared a self-evaluation that he used for talking points. It included a combination of a ranking scale and open-ended questions designed to assess where he felt his best efforts were placed and where he fell short; that section was followed by writing two SMART goals for the second quarter. He wrote that he wants to better manage his time and to get A/A+ in all subjects. To reach those goals he notes he will sacrifice play time to studying; not forget an assignment at school; and get 9-10 hours of sleep each night. Not bad for a 12-year old! Let’s see what happens the rest of the year.
His school, like many, has an online portal that holds calendars, assignments, homework, and grades – a really useful tool most of the time. My son is concerned with grades, and I suppose I am too. Lately though, I’ve been thinking about grading connected to the idea of equity and how it can undermine our best efforts to provide equitable opportunities for students. While discussing with the students in my graduate class the elements of school leadership that are within the principal’s control, we explored things like climate/culture, budgets, schedules, teaching assignments, room locations/use and never mentioned grading. Why? This issue is uncomfortable, challenging, and emotional. In my tenure as a teacher, principal, and district administrator, I touched upon it, but never pressed the issue. I so wish I had a do-over.
You have a chance today to make the real and lasting difference I did not make. If the following variables describe you, then I encourage you to join me in exploring how we can achieve equity in grading. This issue is for you if:
- You want to make a big impact on student engagement and learning.
- You grade, or support the grading of, homework and inclusion of those grades, perhaps along with participation and notebook check grades, to determine a final grade.
- You are working to develop a growth mindset over a fixed mindset.
- You use (or support the use of) zeros for homework not completed and/or deduction of points for late work.
- Your school’s report cards look very similar to the ones you received in school.
- Your grading policy includes the practice of averaging grades over the course of the semester and then assigning a number or letter grade based on all those grades.
- You care about all students learning.
- You are confused when low standardized test scores are earned by students who have A’s on their report cards.
The whole grading issue was brought back to me front and center a few weeks ago when my non-educator husband met Joe Feldman, learned of his work, and thought I’d like it. That’s an understatement! I immediately ordered his book and even paid extra for overnight shipping. I have since marked up this 2018 book with a highlighter and margin notes. Joe is the CEO of Crescendo Education Group, which partners with schools and districts throughout the country to improve the equity, accuracy, and consistency of grading and assessment practices. He is a former high school teacher, principal, and district administrator. In addition to devouring that book titled, Grading for Equity: What It Is,Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools, I have listened to his webinar six times! It is available at https://youtu.be/xtYWdsT1O8k and am pleased to include some of his key points in this issue of Professional Practices. I encourage you to listen and take to heart the compelling argument he presents. Talk with your faculty, students, and parents. Make a change that can change a life. Support your equity initiatives.
In this issue, I additionally share a brief history of grading and illustrate the inherent problems with many of our current practices. I share some strategies to start this conversation with teachers and offer some best practice and current thinking on equitable grading.
A Brief History of Grading Practices in the United States
Here are my take-aways from A Century of Grading Research: Meaning and Value in the Most Common Educational Measure by Susan Brookhart, Thomas Guskey, Alex Bowers, James McMillan, and Jeffrey Smith.
- Grades are a central common experience of all students and have a pervasive influence on schooling.
- Grades are predictors of important future educational consequences, such as dropping out of school, applying to and being accepted to college.
- During the 19th century, student progress reports were presented to parents orally by the teacher during a visit to the student’s home, with little standardization of content.
- Oral reports gave way to written narratives that described how students were performing.
- In the 20th century high school populations became so diverse and subject area instruction so specific that high schools looked for ways to manage the increasing complexity. They moved to percentages.
- Elementary schools tended to stick with the narrative while high schools remained with percentages that assisted in college admissions.
- In the 1920’s teachers began adopting grading systems with fewer and broader categories (e.g. the A-F scale). Still variations persisted with variability in how often grades were issued and what was graded.
- By the 1940’s more than 80% of US schools had adopted the A-F scale and this remains the most commonly used scale until the present day.
- Around 2010 standards-based grading becomes a new and increasingly common practice among elementary levels. In this type, work habits and other non-achievement factors are reported separately from academic achievement, which is based on the adopted state standards. High schools remain on some variation of the 1920-1940 A-F grading scale.
- Teachers often make grading decisions with little or no school or district guidance.
- Variance in grading persists with achievement-oriented behaviors, perceived engagement, persistence, conduct, and homework completion included.
- Sun and Cheng showed that teachers interpreted good grades as a reward for accomplished work, based on both effort and quality, student attitude toward achievement as reflected in homework completion and progress in learning.
The Problems and Hidden Messages in Grading
According to Feldman, grades drive many of our decisions including remediation and support, awards and opportunities, course placement and graduation, athletic/extra-curricular participation, employment/work permit, insurance rates in some states, and certainly college acceptances and financial aid awards. Homework is a sticky point to address and one that must be discussed if our equity efforts are to prevail. Here’s why it remains a rub for teachers. Teachers have enjoyed an island of autonomy with regard to grading, especially homework. Some include homework grades in the overall grade by awarding points correct, if it is completed, and/or to drive effort. The rationale for grading homework sounds something like, “If I don’t grade it, they won’t do it and won’t be prepared for the class.” Given that we no longer believe and support Bell curves to sort learners; tracking learners into categories based on grades; and the behaviorist approach that rewards and punishes with extrinsic methods, we must change the century-old practices that keep us from really achieving our equity goals.
Dumping the Toxic Culture of Grading
Low or failing grades have a cumulative effect over a student’s time in school and contribute to the eventual decision to leave. Allensworth showed that failing a core subject in ninth grade is highly correlated with dropping out of school, and thus places a student off track for graduation. Balfanz, Herzog, and MacIver showed a strong relationship between failing core courses in sixth grade and dropping out. My own experiences and observations show that students fall behind in second grade and never catch up. These same students sit in remedial classes in high school, making them drop out potentials. If you’re a principal supervisor, please do not move an ineffective teacher from one level to another. If you’re the principal, please do not move an ineffective teacher from a higher grade to a lower grade…especially to a grade where reading is a primary focus. Take the hard right over the easy wrong; either work with the teacher to make them effective or let them go.
So What Do We Do?
Strategies for More Equitable Grading Practices
Averaging all scores together presumes that learning at the beginning of the semester (after the teaching and presumably learning has occurred) is as important as learning at the end of the semester (after the teaching and presumably learning has occurred). Consider the practice of the 6th grade team at Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School in Falls Church, Virginia. My source for information about this process is Hillary rebels who is a sixth grade science teacher and one of my students at Virginia Tech. I’m impressed with the practices she and her administration are putting in place to support all learners. Way to go Huskies! See an excerpt from their Grading Practices Handbook presented in the box above.
Assessment rubrics help to level the playing field and make grading transparent for all.
Re-dos of tests and updating of assignments offer an opportunity for the student to show the teacher that he/she has learned the material. Afterall, isn’t that our end goal? Here are two great strategies. (See thumbnails below of two Just ASK Online Tools and Templates that support that effort.)
Download these tools at https://justaskpublications.com/areas-of-focus/instructional-leadership/resources/
Don’t penalize practice. Rather than grading everything a student does, base grades on the final product not on the practice along the way. Give growth producing feedback on those practices.
Focus on demonstration of learning, not task completion. If a student can demonstrate that they can perform a math function, how many times must they show this for a passing grade? Rigor doesn’t mean more of the same.
Assigning a zero for late or incomplete work is not motivating and is not an effective strategy. If the work is important, then the goal is to get the work completed. How about an I (incomplete) or MA (missing assignment) with the expressed understanding that the work will be completed at a quiet lunch table, at a study hall, before or after school, etc. Students aren’t let off the hook for completion, rather provided an avenue to get the work done.
What about homework? It’s complicated and yet there are some simple possibilities:
- Remove or significantly lower the percentage for homework
- Collect, review, and give feedback on homework
- Continue to record whether or not students complete it, but not with a grade
- Send the message that
- Homework is to help prepare for assessments
- Homework is not for the teacher, but for the student
- Homework is for practice and making mistakes
- Homework is expected
If students don’t do their homework and do poorly on the test, what do they learn? They learn that homework practice is important to doing well on tests. They internalize the value of homework and their own choice to do or not to do it.
Without realizing or intending, our grading homework practices reward students with privilege and punish those without. As I learned from Joe Feldman, our grading homework practices impede and prevent students with less privilege from academic success. We counteract this by putting into place grading homework practices that don’t reward students who have privilege with resources, time, structures, and prior knowledge and don’t penalize those who don’t. A student is more likely to do homework if:
- There is a separate workspace (desk)
- There is/can be quiet
- Support is available in evenings
- Support is college educated
- Support is fluent in English
- There is a computer and internet
- Homework time is protected from other responsibilities
Feldman‘s compelling words, “Homework filters privilege. Many poor and minority students without the supports listed above are less likely to complete their homework and the inclusion of a homework grade therefore perpetuates the achievement and opportunity gap” sealed the deal for me!
Now, I ask you to return to the variables I listed at the beginning of this issue and honestly reflect on your own practice or that of your district or school. Knowing what you now know, how can you have an impact on your equity agenda? At least one answer is to stop grading homework. Can you do it? Sure, you can. Will you do it? That’s up to you.
Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only.
Please include the following citation on all copies: Baldanza, Marcia. “Once More with Feeling: Evidence for the Power of Student-Led Conferences.” Professional Practices. October 2018. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development. © 2018 All rights reserved.