Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Sep 29 2009

What do grades mean?

I love talking about ideas. I stayed late at work today again to be a part of the committee on grading. It was a mixture of students, teachers and administration who are set with the task of deciding what grades mean and what they should mean.

The mission of our school is to prepare people to be intellectually courageous and to know how to be part of a positive community. The mission is not focused on making us super star academics though we certainly do have a rigorous academic program. The debate today is about what a grade should mean. Should it be about the final product or about the process? If a student does badly at the beginning of the semester and gets it together by the end should the grades be weighted evenly. Punctuality, participation, work-ethic and interpersonal skills are an incredibly important part of getting ahead in the world. Should my grades reflect those or just how well students know Calculus? Right now I give them full credit on their homework if they correct it using different colored ink, write comments on their own papers and attempt every problem. They can use the answer key but they have to document it. I don’t think this is a horrible thing even though I know it would be possible to take advantage of it. I can’t condone doing away with grading homework altogether because I know that after I started auditing a class and the homework didn’t count for a grade I started doing less of it and learned much less immediately.
Even if I knew I was going to take the final I would have put it off a bit.
It’s funny because the veteran, wonderful, lauded teachers at my school are all impressed with transparent tracking that I’m trying to FINALLY implement for real in my fourth year of teaching. I did track in TFA but not with the gusto I’m doing now. I’m doing it sooner and paying more attention to what I find as I make instructional decisions. I’m finally starting to do what I think my kids need on a given day instead of what my plan was for that day. I’m becoming more flexible as a teacher. It helps when I don’t actually have any standards to master.

I’m trying to decide right now if my 6th period class has a lower class average because they talk so loudly or if they are just weaker students. It is hard to know and I’m resisting the urge to decide “I don’t like loud classrooms and kids off task” and then attribute their lower scores to that fact. I will have a talk with them tomorrow about the rule for the day is on task talking and some of the expectations. Come in. Get your work out. Start comparing it to the person next to you. Ask someone if you aren’t sure what to be doing. Don’t talk while others are talking.

One thing I thought was interesting in the conversation tonight is that most teachers thought that grades should be based on mastery of course objectives and most of the kids thought that behavior and work ethic should play a part in grades as well. It’s such a confusing thing because obviously innate ability at math is not a good predictor for success in life and in college. It’s really hard for me to know what my grades should be though they obviously need to be carefully considered so that I’m grading based on something important. The learning strategist thinks that formative assessment should not be weighted as much as summative assessment and that consistent formative assessment is the best way to help students learn. I think that the time spent having students analyze their own quizzes today was really valuable. We throw the word formative assessment around so often at my school it confuses me. They talk about the middle school using formative assessment when what they really mean is that their grades are broken up by mastery of standards on the report card. I don’t think that those things are the same.
Should students who play the student role really well have as good of a grade as someone with a great understanding of math? Should the person who is a gifted writer have a higher grade than someone who works much harder but isn’t as talented? It’s such a tough call. There are so many issues and I can’t believe my principal has the goal of finishing the discussions in one more session. There is so much work to be done and data to be collected.
I’d like to conduct a survey of teachers to see what makes up their grades. It is such an objective thing with that percent making it look like it maybe isn’t. It’s so important to remind people that Easy Grade Pro isn’t God. It’s so much easier to feel justified when you are able to come to a number with a spreadsheet but the infinite variability in the spreadsheet make the illusion of objectivity easy to destroy.

Eventually I’d like to find a job that involves sitting around all day talking about ideas. I’m not even sure if I care it is education as strange as that sounds. I think I just like talking about ideas and coming up with solutions.

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    Learning more about life than math…

    Las Vegas Valley
    High School

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