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More Than A Number

Updated: Mar 24

Originally published on January 27, 2019

Hello Again!

I have taken a break from blogging because I was working on my book...I found it hard to find balance between family, work, book, blog, etc., so something had to give. I'm THRILLED to report that my book (at least in draft form) is completed and I've sent it out for feedback. Fingers crossed that the response is positive. I'm going to write more about this in a future post, but for now, I've had something else on my mind for a while that I want to share today.


I have to confess, as a teacher, I'm not sure how much I understood about grades and grading. I do not recall taking any coursework in my teacher prep program or grad school that was linked with assessment and grading. When I was a teacher, I do not recall conversations as a department or school about assessment or grading either. I know that I tried to encourage participation and created these sheets for students to track their participation and one that I used to track it as a class. I would even tell students, "Thank you for your participation" so that they knew what I was looking for. I was careful about recognizing that doing what was asked was a form of participation so it wasn't just that the students who spoke were earning that credit. In terms of grades on the report card, I'm pretty sure that I calculated the average according to whole points--which is simply to say that I do not remember weighting tests more than homework, etc., although I'm sure that there were things that were worth more points or that I counted more than once.

In my first real job as an administrator, I worked in a K-8 building with nearly 600 students. The superintendent came across the book, Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work by Robert Marzano and we engaged in some very pointed and poignant PD around grading. I will never forget that the PD started out with four math problems that looked something like the 4 below and asked the simple question, "What grade should this student receive?"





If you are a traditionalist, you look at these equations and say, "The student correctly answered 2 of 4 problems, the grade is 50%." However, what if I told you this child is in first grade and the only thing the child has yet to be taught is addition? The subtraction, multiplication, and division problems were all diagnostic (a pre-test). If that's the case, the child has earned a 100%. What if this was a pretest? Does the student need any score? In other words, there are important questions that should be asked before we determine the grade. This was my first entree into metacognitively assigning grades.

Since this point, I have read other great books like Myron Dueck's Grading Smarter, Not Harder and watched TED Talks like Todd Rose's The Myth of Average. I have also participated in or facilitated several committees on changing report cards. I have become a HUGE fan of standards-based (informed) report cards that separate the knowledge of the content from the behaviors of the learner. After all, on the summative assessment, it does not matter if the child was respectful to others or completed homework on time; what matters is their knowledge of the content. I have very strong opinions about grading homework.

I also know that, as human beings, we have biases that can sometimes creep into our grades if we are not careful. In her book, You Don't Have to be Bad to Get Better, Candi McKay writes about how parents can put their value in their child's performance at school. If your child succeeds in school, "Who wouldn't argue that this child was raised by great parents? On the other hand, if the teacher has your number on speed dial because your child is always getting into are much less likely to see yourself as a successful parent" (p. 2). Teachers also measure their value through their students.

As a result, many teachers are reluctant to present students with complex, challenging, work which may cause their students some initial struggle and result in a lower grade. Instead teachers will stick with a more routine, predictable path that has been tried and tests, ensuring more (if not all) students will achieve at high levels. After all, if the students are struggling and don't perform well, isn't this a sign of poor teaching? Certainly I will be seen as an exemplary teacher if most of my students attain the highest grades--even if they didn't learn anything new. (p. 2-3)

So, there is a hidden incentive to either inflate success or deny challenge. This happens for several reasons, but rarely because someone is intentionally trying to get away with something.

I'm thinking about all of this because I just got my oldest son's report card. Several weeks ago, around the midway point of the quarter, I looked at my son's grades in the parent portal and noticed that his grades has slipped in all but one of his classes since the first quarter report card came out. It is obvious to me that even though his teachers are on a middle school team, each has their own system of calculating grades. One is by overall points, some are by category weighting, etc. This means that in one teacher's class he can turn in the homework every day and bomb a test and his grade would be affected differently than if he had those same learning behaviors in another class.

I'm also thinking about this because I'm currently working with an elementary building that is revising their report cards. The first question the team had to tackle was "Who is the audience of the report card." We all read "Defining the Purpose" (Chapter 3), of Thomas R. Gusky and Jane M. Bailey's book, Developing Standards Based Report Cards. We all agreed that the audience of the report card is parents. Given this, the parents were asked what they would like to see on the report cards. There were two things that came out. The first is that they wanted to know how their children were doing NOW (not how they were doing now in comparison to the end of year expectations). The second is they wanted more personalized comments. When the teachers were asked for their feedback and input, the teachers agreed that they would like to report how the students were doing now as well. They also said that they didn't think more comments were needed because they meet with the parents at conferences.

All of this brings me to what's been on my mind. All of this thinking about grading and assessments swirls in my head as an educator and as a parent. First I want to acknowledge the genuine and positive intentions teachers have and how much energy goes into grading. It is more time consuming than parents or students realize! And, as a parent, I know that teachers see my children in ways that I do not and cannot. I do not have words for how interested I am in their assessment of my children as learners. Thus, I ask (BEG) that all teachers do more than just tell me that my child is "a pleasure to have in class" or is working on project. I send you a child who is a pleasure and my kids tell me what they're doing in school. What I want to know is who they are as mathematicians, scientists, writers, and readers. I don't send them to you with these titles. Thus, rather than what they are working on, I want to know how they have grown as a result of the work. And, if you believe my child is more than a number, then I want the comments to give life to the numbers.


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