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You've Got Questions


So I’m really excited because I actually did receive some responses to last week’s Lyon’s Letter, “Making (Up) the Grade).” As a reminder, the post was about how grades that students receive for assignments which ultimately get swirled together into an average or get distilled into a report card grade are, “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.”

I wanted to share three responses on my thoughts on the questions that each raises.

Feedback: Hi Heather, I read some of your article and wondered if you consider addressing the importance of standardized testing because of the subjectivity of grading. I think this is particularly important in the college admission process. Schools think they are being fair and equitable when they go "test optional" but they are really being unfair to those students enrolled in schools where grade inflation is not the norm and where Cs are considered good grades. We need standardized tests in order to standardized grading so to speak, to see how all students perform regardless of teacher or school, or district. Yes, some bright students do not perform well on tests. That is why SATs or the like should not be nor were they ever, the only consideration. They are a piece of the puzzle of whether a student is college-ready or a good fit for a college. The State exams do the same thing, show the gaps, show the strengths, and indicate what a child needs going forward. But, they are one piece of the puzzle.

My Response: Can you imagine going to the doctor’s office and having your temperature taken and then, with that one data point, being told that you either (a) are perfectly healthy or (b) need to have open heart surgery?! Of course not! Triangulating evidence, i.e., using multiple data points, creates a more comprehensive understanding of what is going on. Sticking with the medical analogy, this is why, when going to a doctor’s office you always get your temperature taken, your blood pressure is checked, and you step on a scale so that they know your weight. These three basic data points triangulate so that it establishes some very simple but essential information about your health. Those pieces of evidence, however, are then further compared to other evidence to determine your overall health and/or need for medical interventions.

Report card grades in isolation are wildly un-useful to determine a child’s success at college. In fact, this is in part why the Common Core Standards were created to provide higher expectations for students regarding what they were expected to know and be able to do upon graduation from high school. Though the intention and the impact differed, the reality was that students were graduating en masse with great grades from high school but entering college needing remedial coursework because they were ill-prepared for the rigor of learning expected at the collegiate level. (Please read my post, "Get Ready!" to read about my feelings about the importance of career-readiness in lieu of college-readiness.)

Though standardized testing is not the answer, it is an additional form of evidence that is free of some of the pitfalls related to subjective grading practices in schools like taking personality into consideration when determining the student’s score. Nice kids can bomb standardized tests not because they have test anxiety and even if their report card grades are high because the standardized test does not take the fact that the child is nice into account. The opposite can also happen. Kids who are jerks and turn in work late or not at all can ace standardized tests even if their report cards grades are low because their teachers took off points for the work being late. (Of course, none of this factors in some of the challenges that are attributed to standardized assessments, though the list is long. The challenges with standardized tests is one reason why some colleges have considered or actually have moved away from using them to determine acceptance.)

In short, in my opinion, the college admission process is likely aided, not hindered, by using a range of evidence to identify selection for admission and it can be helpful to include factors that allow for an apples-to-apples comparison.


Feedback: Great post!! Should (elementary) report cards be all anecdotal? I wonder how parents would feel about that? Now that I'm back in the classroom for just this year, I remember how HARD it is to grade 8 year olds. I want them all to be where they "need" to be at the end of the year and I'm trying to show growth on all their assessments (STAR, F&P). I think a "2" at the beginning of the year and a "2" at the end of the year is misleading if the student shows growth! It's all so tricky!!

My Response: If by “anecdotal,” you mean, “should report cards just be comments,” I have some thoughts on this. Having been on many report card committees, time and again from parents I hear that they spend the most time reading the comments. Given this, the comments parents are looking for are those that are personalized for their child; in other words, no one is wowed by reading generic comment bank comments like, “Your child is a pleasure to have in class” or “Your child rushes.” Parents would much prefer to read something like, “Mia comes to class every day not only with her homework done, but eager to get feedback because she wants to know if she is correct. This shows a commitment to learning. However, sometimes, she can rush through her work because she wants to know how she’s done. In times like these, I remind her that she is more likely to learn better and be correct when she focuses on precision and accuracy, not completion. Do you see this at home too? Since we’re a team working together to ensure Mia is successful, what do you tell her if she does this at home?”

The challenge with this type of feedback is that it takes a lot of time. Some might argue that elementary teachers who typically have 18-30 students might be better able to do this compared to secondary teachers who might have 80-150 students each. However, elementary teachers are responsible for teaching the same 18-30 students two to four different subject areas meaning they have 18-30 students per subject multiplied by the number of subjects. This total is equivalent to secondary teachers. The challenge of providing this type of feedback, however, I would argue far outweighs the argument of time. Taking numbers away allows people to focus on the learning rather than the grade—which is the point! That said, there will inevitably much push back from teachers (when will I have time to do this), parents (this is new and I don’t understand it) and students (I don’t care about the learning, just give me the grade)

There is a second issue raised in this reader’s feedback, “I think a ‘2’ at the beginning of the year and a ‘2’ at the end of the year is misleading if the student shows growth!” In some standards-based report cards, the grading key has the teachers indicate where a student is at this point in the year in relation to what they need to know by the end of the year. This is flawed, flawed, flawed! The key should be “where is the student NOW is relation to what the student is CURRENTLY learning.” Teachers are not fortune tellers who can see into the future. If a child is getting feedback (via grades or narratives) on formative work (homework, projects, tests, etc.), saying that the child is proficient with what is being learned now (which is a building block towards what the child is supposed to know by the end of the year), then the child should be scored as proficient on this report card, not given something less than proficient because the child is not yet demonstrating learning that they are not yet expected to know. This sounds obvious, but I assure you this crazy dance of "well, they’re getting 3s or 4s with the current work but it’s just the beginning of the year and they don’t know the end of year materials so they’ll get a 2 on the report card now" happens ALL THE TIME.

If the report card demonstrates what a child needs to know now in relation to how they are currently doing, then a 2 in the beginning of the year demonstrates the child is struggling with the current learning. If the learning is sequential, then that same 2 later in the year demonstrates that the child has progressed but is still struggling since no progress by a later date would be score less than a 2.


Feedback: I will gently disagree with you on a 4 being "above standard" ... Check out Thomas Guskey on this. As you pointed out... Did we give them an opportunity to go above? Probably not. So "above" is actually MEETS. And why are we trying to do above anyway? Is that the goal???

My Response: Honestly, who am I to argue with Guskey (or you for that matter). By the way, I love the 4 point scale over the 100 point percentage! It's so smart and I highly encourage folks to read Reeve's short but powerful article, "The Case Against Zero" to learn more about why a 4 point GPA is far fairer and just than a 100 point average.

The point I was trying to to make in my statement last week about a 1-4 scale with a rubric is that if there is no room on the rubric to show that a student has gone above, then the highest level demonstrates the expectation. In work I did years ago with Giselle Martin-Kniep, I learned that with a rubric, the second to highest level, should be the expectation, not the highest level. The highest level is reserved as the above expectation level. I think about this with Charlotte Danielson's Framework For Teaching where she says, "A level 4 is a place you visit, not a place you live."

With student assessment, the reason I like signifying the highest level as above expectation (meaning on a 4-point scale, a 3 is equivalent to 100%), is that this shows me as the teacher which students know more than what I taught. This means that going above is actually not the goal. However, knowing the students who can go above is. Identifying those students helps me to meet the needs of students who need enrichment--and those students are often the most neglected in schools where remediation and teaching to the middle are common.


I loved the questions and responses I got this week. Thank you! In reality, everyone has a been a student so everyone has an opinion about what’s best. I am just one person. These are just my opinions and report cards and grading are messy topics. My opinions, however, are not couched in years of experience in working with schools and students, but in thinking about, what is for me the most important question: How can we help students, teachers, and families focus on the learning? Thank you for helping me learn in this journey too!


P.P.S. Please remember to...

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