Disclaimer: I’m about to tell you some information about how I performed in school. My point in sharing is to show that grades are commonly a reflection of teacher bias and subjectivity. Therefore, when I include the grades I got in school, please read the information about my academic successes in the spirit in which it is intended, i.e., to make a point about the subjectivity of grading.
I did very well in school. To give you a sense of what I mean, I was in my school’s Academic Society beginning in the seventh grade. If I remember correctly, to “make it into” the Academic Society, students needed to have at least a 92.5 average with no grade below an 85 on their report card. I not only achieved this feat in seventh grade, I did it every quarter from seventh through twelfth grade. That’s 24 marking periods. That’s in upper level classes. That’s without weighted grades.
Even so, one year, for one of the marking periods my overall average was something like a 93.66. For the next marking period, my overall average dropped to a 93.33. The reason I remember this is not because I cared about the decline. I really didn’t. The courses I took were hard and my overall average was certainly good. Nevertheless, my mom (who, if not a tiger mom, was someone who lived vicariously through her children and therefore insisted that they were successful), lost her marbles and grounded me. This is why I remember that the drop from one marking period to the other was 0.33 of a point. At that time I was beside myself with irritation that this negligible decline mattered so much to my mom.
Fast forward twenty-five years (give or take) and I am irritated by this memory, but now I am better armed for the ridiculousness related to the grading conversation. Let me explain why we should all be suspicious of report cards to measure student success.
I’ll start with traditional report cards that report student learning according to averages, which is most common at a secondary level (watch this AWESOME TEDTalk, "The Myth of Average" about why averages are flawed). With report cards, I ask you, what is that average supposed to represent? If you said, “The student’s knowledge of the content,” you would be correct. However, in almost every single case, that average takes into account all manner of non-content based information. For example, if a student turns in an assignment late and is penalized by reducing the grade on the assignment, then the grade earned does not reflect only the student’s content knowledge—it reflects the student’s content knowledge PLUS the student’s behaviors towards learning. Yet, show me in any standards for any state where behaviors towards learning are included in content knowledge standards. They are not.
Let me give you an example of what this looks like in action, though I’m sure that you have experience with this even if you’re not an educator. As I shared in the May 12, 2020, post, “Redefining Student Success,” my oldest son had a
Spanish teacher who gave all late work a zero even if the work would have scored a 100% if turned in on time. On the other 7th grade team, there was a long-term sub for Spanish who was much more lenient. My son repeatedly complained to me about how he wished he had the sub so that his grade would be higher. I told him that the other students were likely not going to be as capable in Spanish as he was. In fact, on his Spanish final, he scored a 98% with a score of 100% for his speaking portion. I am sure that the students with a sub did not score as high on their finals. Nevertheless, in the fourth quarter he turned in an assignment late due to a band lesson and he received a zero on it. His average was significantly and negatively impacted by this one zero for homework (we’re talking a difference of nearly 10 percentage points on his fourth quarter average) and was lower than the students on the other team who did not do nearly as well on the final—which is the actual measure of how much Spanish the students knew (or didn’t).
Turing in work late is concerning and should be addressed. However, turning in work late has no bearing on a student’s knowledge of content. Period. End of story. And neither should a student get extra credit for behaviors like bringing in a box of tissues to school, contributing to the canned food drive, or showing up at a school-sponsored event. Nice kids are no smarter than challenging kids and challenging kids are no less knowledgeable of content than nice kids. We need to stop including behaviors in our assessments of students’ content knowledge. That's what the comment box is for.
The more common and progressive “standards-” or “skill-based” report cards usually seen at the elementary level still have problems. Here rather than taking the average of how a student does over time (even if the student has improved throughout the term and therefore can demonstrate high levels of proficiency), standards- or skills-based report cards are designed to report on how a student is doing with isolated standards or skills. This is an improvement on traditional report cards in theory because these skills and standards can tease out content knowledge from behaviors and usually have a section devoted to scoring students’ behaviors separately.
Unfortunately, there is very poor training in how to score students using the scales that are created for this style of report cards which usually uses a 1-4 scale. If done well, the highest mark, a 4, should show that a student demonstrated learning above what is expected for that grade level or time of year. This means that students who might consistently get all the questions correct would earn a 3 if those questions only asked about material that was taught. This is because unless a teacher provides the students with opportunities to demonstrate that they have the ability to do more than what was taught, a 4 is impossible. It can be true that a student’s writing can more easily demonstrate the ability to write beyond expectation. For example, a student might include transition words or dialogue even though the child wasn’t taught to do that. However, in math, most of the time unless a teacher puts one or two extension questions on the assignment, the teacher would have no way of knowing if the student could go above expectation. This is also problematic for parents who don’t understand the difference between a 3 and a 4. If the teacher is sending home papers with 100s on the top but never gave a student a chance to go above expectations, the parent is going to expect to see 4s on the report card, not 3s.
I am not saying that grades or report cards are bad. They are not. It is important that students and the adults connected to the students know how the students are progressing with their learning. This is important feedback and should be shared often. Just as often, the students should be asked to reflect on their progress and even set goals on what they hope to learn and accomplish. The challenge is that without a solid feedback cycle, the one-sided, quantitative feedback is insufficient to allow that number stand on its own.
For all of the reasons above, I am even more frustrated now about the drop of 0.33 with my average as a student. Unless all the grades that I got were hundreds—meaning I answered everything perfectly (which we know I didn’t because my overall average was not 100), all of the grades that I got (particularly for courses that have higher levels of subjectivity like English, art, etc.) were more or less made up. Even for courses with higher levels of objectivity—like math or science—though the answers I gave could be scored right or wrong, the value of the assignments was completely arbitrary. As well, one teacher could have weighted specific assignments like tests or quizzes, while another teacher might have made homework worth more points. One teacher could have decided to drop the lowest grade and another may not. One teacher might have just counted homework as completed or incomplete and another may decide that every assignment gets a grade out of 100. One teacher might have allowed for bonus points or extra credit and another may not. THIS is what I now understand as “an educational lottery.”
Report cards and grades in general are not a science—they are an art. They are subjective. They are arbitrary and capricious. My report card grades had some reflection of my efforts and knowledge, but the actual numbers out of 100 were wildly invalid and unreliable. This is why my report card average of a 93.66 meant nothing when compared to the 93.33 since those numbers actually had as much (and I would argue more) to do with how the teachers graded me, rather than a true reflection of my knowledge of the content.
Now that this is off my chest, I’m dying to hear your stories of grading.
If you’re a teacher, what are your challenges regarding grading and how have you attempted to resolve them?
If you’re a parent, tell me about what has been challenging for you with your child(ren)’s grades.
Either way, tell me about a time when you were in school and what grades/report cards were like for you.
Don't worry. I'm not grading your response.
P.S. Brian Kulak is a K-5 principal in New Jersey and the author of Level Up Leadership: Advance Your EduGame, a clever look at how the evolution of the gaming industry closely mirrors that of educational leadership. His work has also been featured in Stories in EDU: Sail With a Fleet, in Educational Viewpoints, and on Edutopia. Brian has also presented on teaching, learning, and leadership at conferences such as NJAMLE and NCTE/CEL.
Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant rents space in Brian's brain and drives his leadership. Grant's podcast, Work Life with Adam Grant, examines how to "make work not suck" by digging into all the nooks and crannies that make organizations tick. In particular, Grant's interview with Brene Brown and his interview with Trevor Noah provided plenty of fodder for Brian to use with his staff at Tatem Elementary School. You can follow Grant, who works at the University of Pennsylvania, @adammgrant.
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