By Principal Michael Beyer, Ed.D., NBCT
Every now and then Ogden administration receives questions and concerns from parents about teachers’ grading practices. One common question asks why teachers have different grading practices, such as the frequency of when grades are entered in Gradebook, how many grades should be entered, and the weight of the grades.
Admittedly, we only have two local policies regarding grading practices at Ogden International. The first is the weighting. For example, in grades 6th-8th, formative assessments can count for no more than 35% of the final grade. Homework can only count for up to 10% or less, participation 5%, exams (or summative assessments) 20%, quizzes 10%, and projects 25%. The total is actually 105%, but this is because these are maximum amounts that can be assigned to each weight. However, this policy does not mean teachers must give, for example, quizzes. Teachers have a wide range of discretion in what they can assign and grade.
The second local policy is that Ogden teachers are required to enter in Gradebook at least one grade per student per subject/course every week. This is a low number of grades, considering many schools require three to four per week. Best practice suggest teachers should enter more than one grade per week, but in my experience, mandating more doesn’t change a teacher’s practice. When I was a teacher I had colleagues who would simply add fluff grades to achieve the quota. We want grades to mean something, and quotas won’t guarantee that.
Teachers at Ogden are also undergoing a transition. We have a small but dedicated core that are experimenting with criterion-based grading. This is similar to standards-based grading, but criterion is the IB parlance.
What is criterion-based grading? First, let’s understand the traditional way teachers have typically graded student assignments. On an assignment with ten questions, and the student answers eight correctly, this would translate to an 80%. On a ten-point scale that is the grade of a B. This is a simple way to grade, but it does not tell us if the student has mastered a skill or concept, because each of the ten questions might align to a different skill or concept. The student receiving this grade simply knows they answered 80% of the questions correctly. What does the grade tell them? Essentially, “Do better next time!” Not very useful.
Even if all ten questions align to one skill or standard, if the assignment entered into Gradebook is titled “Mice and Men Quiz”, or if the student is never told what skills and concepts are being assessed, again, the student won’t know what they need to do better next time.
Sports are a good analogy to compare best practices. Imagine if a baseball batter has an average of .250. Every fourth at-bat they get a hit. They want to improve their hitting, but how? All the batting average tells them is what the end-result is, not what is causing this result. An effective batting coach, like a teacher, will give the batter feedback on their swing, stance, and dozens of other factors. Each factor could be individually assessed and graded. The batter then knows they have to focus more on their stance, whereas their swing might not need additional attention. That is criterion-based grading.
With criterion-based grading the students are informed of the skills and concepts they have to master, ideally at the start of the unit. Students receive a rubric that describes what is required to show mastery of the criterion. The teacher, maybe with the help of the student, grades the assignment using the rubric. Lastly, the assignment is entered into Gradebook with a name such as “Compare and Contrasting Characters”, or “Solving variable equations”. The student and parents can then look at Gradebook and know specifically what skills and concepts the student needs to work on.
This is a significant transition that takes several years for a teacher to develop. It requires a lot of preparation and planning, along with a deep understanding of the content being taught and how to assess the content. If teachers are given different courses or grade levels to teach every other year, it isn’t likely they will develop this expertise.
Criterion-based grading is also a mind shift because students are given additional opportunities to demonstrate mastery of the criterion. With the traditional approach to grading, students have one shot at the assignment. Even if they demonstrate mastery of a skill or concept later in the semester, that earlier grade remains, typically preventing the student from achieving the highest grade possible.
As an example, imagine if a student began the school year in a world language course and did not know any of the language. The student struggles more than their classmates, and fails the first assessment. Then, the student improves their study habits, receives tutoring, and masters the world language at a level higher than all other students in the class. Unfortunately, their final grade will be lowered due to the earlier failure. With traditional grading, we have seen students give up because they know they can’t pass because of early failures. We have also seen students who know they can’t achieve an ‘A’, so they skate by, forced to be content with a ‘B’.
We want students to continue to learn and improve their skills, and criterion-based grading enables a growth mindset, whereas the traditional grading is a system of compliance and completion.
This is all to say that we are encouraging our teachers to experiment with criterion-based grading so they make this transition. Mandating the same grading practices will likely turn off many teachers and, while they might seem to comply on the surface, they won’t adopt the philosophy required for this new grading method.
Regardless of a teacher’s grading practices, there are three questions students and parents should ask about grades.
Is it fair? Does the student agree they deserve the grade? If not, has the student asked the teacher to explain why they received the grade? If the teacher can’t adequately explain in a manner that helps the student understand and agree the grade is fair, a parent-teacher conference might be warranted.
Does it inform? Grades aren’t simply measures of a student’s ability, they are also road marks indicating where they are in the course, and what they need to do to improve. If a student receives a grade and can’t explain how or why they need to improve, there is probably something missing in the grading process. Often it is the lack of a detailed rubric.
Is it timely? If a teacher grades an assignment long after the assignment was turned in, it is likely the student won’t remember what they did on the assignment, so it won’t mean as much if they received the grade within days of completion. Similarly, if a teacher enters critical grades a couple weeks before the end of the semester, the student is not given a chance to improve. This is difficult to rectify, since most teachers give end-of-unit tests, which can drastically affect grades for the better or worse. Yet, if the assessment is fair, it should align to how the student had already been performing. In other words, if a student has an average grade of a B in a course, but then fails the final test, were the assignments given throughout the course assessing the same skills and concepts on the test?
Grading is an imperfect science, but at Ogden International we are always here to help students and families understand how their child is learning, and how they can improve.
This blog has contributions from a variety of faculty and staff at Ogden International.