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In classrooms around America, hands go up every day with the question, “Is this for a grade?” But perhaps a more pressing question would be "what is a grade for?" Today, the grades on a child's report card reflect not only a grasp of academic subjects, but also a variety of other factors such as attendance and behavior. Do traditional grading systems tell us what we really want to know about a child's learning?
What’s wrong with traditional grading?
A lot, according to many experts. Under traditional grading, extra credit, late work, class participation and non-academic assignments (returning a signed progress report, for example) can influence a student’s score. These factors represent life skills which, while important, don’t necessarily reflect a student’s content knowledge.
Ellis Middle School teachers Eric Harder and Curtis Bartlett saw issues with this firsthand at their Austin, Minnesota school, where a hard-working student with good life skills might earn a passing grade and yet fail a standardized test, but a student with sub-standard life skills and relatively poor grades might ace that same test. And if a substantial portion of a student’s grade consists of these non-academic factors, then grade inflation (the awarding of higher overall scores for lower quality work) can become an issue. Bartlett and Harder came to see traditional scoring as potentially misrepresenting a child’s success in class.
The two 8th grade math teachers decided to study the problem of grading as part of a grant partnership with the Hormel Foundation, the University of Minnesota and Austin Public Schools. Their studies introduced them to Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades. O’Connor, an expert on assessment and evaluation, says that traditional grading—which takes into account many non-academic factors such as behavior and participation—isn’t necessarily a true representation of what kids really know.
Through O’Connor’s work, Harder and Bartlett saw a solution to this disparity: increase evaluation accuracy by splitting students’ grades into more accurate component parts. What began as an experiment by two curious teachers four years ago has since branched out into a new assessment philosophy called Grading for Learning. Grading for Learning separates the two elements of traditional grading by assigning each student a content knowledge grade and a behavioral life skills grade. “We believe that it is impossible to give a student one letter grade to help parents, teachers, colleges, and even the students themselves to get a hold of what they have learned,” says Harder, a veteran math teacher.
Knowledge grades . . .
Knowledge grades are letter grades based on both content knowledge and local, state and national standards. These grades are “based on students’ performance on preset standards,” according to a Grading for Learning overview, “not on students’ achievement compared to other students.” Grading for Learning introduced some big changes in knowledge-based assessment at Ellis:
- Students who complete all their practice work (commonly known as homework) can retest
- Students whose quarter percentages fall below a 50% will be adjusted to a 50% to give struggling students a better chance at passing a class
- Students are not awarded extra credit
- Students’ tests, quizzes and projects make up 90% of their knowledge grade, while practice work comprises only 10%
The shift from homework to so-called practice work at Ellis is both semantic and philosophical. “The word ‘practice,’ we found, has cleared some of [the homework debate] up by having a word that means what we are doing. We are asking the students to practice using the information we have been giving them,” says Bartlett, a 3rd year math teacher.
The other half of Grading for Learning is the life skills grade, which involves four facets of important student characteristics:
- practice (responsibility)
- preparation for class (responsibility)
- behavior (caring and respect)
- teamwork/participation (citizenship and fairness)
These characteristics are scored on a 4 point rubric in which 4 is “excellent,” indicating that a skill is consistently practiced, and 1 is “unacceptable,” indicating a skill that is rarely demonstrated by the student. Under conventional grading systems, academic dishonesty or late work might have cost students points; now such issues are seen as behavioral, not academic, and are reflected in the life skills grade.
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