Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, in the world of education grades are often the indicators of subjective merits. Educators have no intention of misleading their students or families, but the slippery slope of grading can often have us handing over report cards drenched with ambiguity. This ambiguity stems from our emotional attachment to what a grade represents for both our students and ourselves. Each professional brings with them a different lens through which to view student progress and what the letter they attach to their students’ achievement actually means. Sometimes we feel that if kids are not getting A’s or B’s we are failing as teachers and, without intention, adjust the rigor of assessments. Other times we can become frustrated with a student’s behavior or work ethic and mix in measuring acquisition with reporting out on character. We know that human nature breeds variation in how educators define achievement as well as how we measure it. Reflection on why and how we grade is the cornerstone to developing how our learners interpret the process of learning and growth.
Understanding the history of grades:
To reflect on our own personal attachment to grades it is important to understand the conception of grades in our educational system. Grades are not the long standing tradition most might think they are. Actually, according to the National Education Association (1971), letter grades, as we now know them, did not gain popularity until the 1940’s. In fact, as late as 1971, a mere 67% of primary and secondary schools in the U.S used letter grades.
Originally the primary purpose of grades arose in the late 1800’s in the university setting. Postsecondary schooling was quickly growing, both in size and number, requiring universities to coordinate their communication regarding a student’s academic standing. Grades were an easy way for colleges to have a common language. However, these grades were not made public or shared with students. Eventually Harvard began to experiment with public ranking and evaluations to “increase student attention to the course of studies” (Harvard University, 1832 ).
In their conception grading systems ranged from a four point scale to the 100 point scale that was divided into six divisions. These divisions would quickly get reduced from 6 to 5 and would be paired with letters to signify a student’s academic standing. The original letters were A, B, C, D, E with E quickly being exchanged with F. Legend has it that educational institutions made the change so that E would not be confused as representing “excellent” and preferred to use the letter F to represent “failure”. Holyoke College is credited with devising the marking system that we use today in 1897 when they decided to combine letters, percentages, and descriptive words to communicate a student’s academic performance.
Exploring this history is important because it shines a light on the one thing that has remained consistent in the area of grading: subjectivity. Since its dawn, academic institutions have debated and revised grading practices to increase validity. Each form of grading had its downside and to this day has left teachers with a lack of certainty on the best way to measure and communicate achievement to students.
How to make grades more meaningful:
Teachers are strong advocates for data and meaningful assessments. So much so that they will spend hours of their time away from family to tirelessly grade their students’ work. Given the investment of time and emotional energy teachers employ, they deserve to feel that their grading practices are meaningful.
- Define your process: Your grades are not as important as the process you used to derive them. Right now think about your typical process for collecting work, assessing its value, and delivering that feedback to students. How much time do you spend grading versus planning? Given the vast amount of time you put into grading, how impactful is the feedback your students receive from the letter placed on the top of the paper or the score circled at the bottom of a rubric? How many times has the thought of “how long is this going to take to grade?” affected the pedagogical practices or lessons you wanted to deliver? In order to establish a sound process for grading, we must weigh time and value. We must also release ourselves of the unrealistic burden of perfection. It is near impossible to generate miracle assessments that give us precise knowledge of acquisition without bias or subjectivity. However, the power of feedback is real. The power of connection is real. The power of exploration and growth is real. Try letting students utilize rubrics to grade their own work. Build the kind of classroom community where students can collaborate and give feedback on each other’s work making them and their learning the resource of choice. Grading does not need to occur outside of school hours. It can be embedded into instructional practices and learning opportunities that occur naturally within the school day.
- Make students a part of the process: If we want to motivate a student’s efforts and learning through grading policies, they need to be stakeholders. They need to be given a voice when discussing the criteria and expectations of achievement. This may look like creating rubrics together, grading sample assessments as a class to deepen their understanding of what is expected, or having students grade their own work and compare their score to yours. Teachers spend days unpacking state standards. We need to give that same devotion to ensuring that students understand those standards in the form of clear “I can” statements. What will a student be able to do after they receive your instruction and how will they know? The importance of student reflection on their own learning puts the investment of growth in their hands, not ours. That is where intrinsic motivation is born.
- Start with the end of the mind: I’m going to say this and bear with me: Teach to the test! The target should not be a surprise, nor should how you are going to grade or assess them on their skill acquisition. Students should not receive instruction for days at a time and then be confused by how the teacher is asking them to share their learning. When planning units, we must always start with how a student will demonstrate their knowledge. Wiggins and McTighe beautifully spell out this process in Understanding by Design (2005). If we spend time in the beginning constructing our assessments, the road map now becomes a clear line of travel from point A to point B. Furthermore we can be thoughtful about how we will teach and assess our diverse learners (students with disabilities, second language students, etc). This gives all students the gift of meaningful learning and reduces the anxiety of unexpected disconnected measures of progress. It also gives you room to breathe as you develop a proactive plan instead of last minute decisions that leave you feeling uneasy about the validity of your gradebook.
- Power is in the way you give your feedback: Just how important is descriptive feedback? Studies have shown, such as one conducted by Butler and Nian (1986) that students who were given descriptive feedback without grades on initial assessments performed significantly better on follow up assignments than students who received only grades and those who received neither grades nor feedback. This study went on to show that grades do not appear to enhance a student’s future performance particularly in the area of problem solving. Grades alone tell them what they are doing wrong. Feedback tells them what they should be doing to get it right. Giving each student individual feedback can be extremely time consuming. However, we know that if we are not explicit about what students can do to improve their learning and the quality of their work, we are leaving them in the dark without a flashlight.
- Beware of bias: Grades should be indicators of skill acquisition, not a reflection of a child’s cultural background, language proficiency, gender, or any other social characteristic. One practical strategy for making grading more equitable is to grade student work anonymously when possible. It is also important that teachers have a clear target or definition of what a “correct” response is. We want to make sure we are not formulating what an expected response is based off of the quality of student responses while we are grading. Another strategy that may help reduce bias is to grade a question or section at a time for your entire class. This practice paired with blind scoring limits your judgment creeping in as you work through a students work and grade content of assessment in isolation. Grading fatigue can also increase the likelihood of bias and decrease reliability. Take breaks and avoid cramming in grading. Lastly, feedback and grades are a way to respectfully communicate to our learners what they can build on and where they can grow so work towards offering concise, descriptive comments when marking something incorrect.
- Reflect on the purpose of your grades: Teachers have the power to create a climate of learning that is not simply centered around a letter grade. It is important to take time to individually reflect on the way you have established a culture of self improvement and growth in your students. Consider the role your routines, processes, and language have played in establishing your learning environment. Do your students feel graded on their compliance or their progress? Are the interactions between your students collaborative or competitive? Do students see your learning activities as tasks or do they engage in them as a learning opportunity? There is no doubt that teachers seek to develop a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn, not to comply. So we must be cautious of how we share the meaning of grades to avoid our learning outcomes becoming nothing more than an extrinsic reward. We want a student not to go through our class, but rather to grow through it.
Grading is a part of teaching that is not going away. We must grant ourselves the grace to acknowledge where we are in the journey of our practices. Release yourself from the version of grading that you grew up with as a student yourself. Give yourself the gift of transforming your feedback into the meaningful process you desire it to be. Teachers are bestowed with the gift of not just being a source of information, but perhaps most importantly to be a bystander of the beautiful relationship that develops between our students and their love of learning.