De-emphasizing grades to increase learning

Jason Cowley, NBCT, Woodland High School

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Problems with Grades:

  1. Grades do not measure learning well
  1. Late work and behavior often affect a student’s grade
  2. So do effort and participation
  3. If grades are measures of learning, and/or meeting standards, these factors should not affect grades
  4. Also, grades attempt to quantify something that is primarily unquantifiable
  5. Learning is a story, not a number
  1. Averaging dilutes the usefulness of information
  1. F’s as 0s mess up accuracy of grades (one “F” affects overall percentage much more than one C or one A)
  2. Averaged assignments mean that information about specific knowledge or abilities gets reported in a way that will not be informative to parents (especially analytical 1-4 rubrics!) Does a 23/28 mean perfect writing but poor grammar, or the opposite?
  3. Averaged grades cannot accurately tell a student’s story over time.  Poor work at the beginning or end of the semester will result in a similar grade.
  1. Grades and mistakes
  1. Mistakes are punished… therefore, avoid mistakes, even though real learning and invention requires failure (Wright Brothers, Edison, Space X,)
  2. Avoidance of mistakes engenders unethical behavior!
  1. Grades decrease student motivation
  1. Extrinsic rewards only work over the short term and decrease intrinsic motivation
  2. Student attitudes towards school trend negative because of this. Think of first grade vs eleventh grade student views on school
  1. Grades > Learning
  1. Ultimately students care more about grades than learning.  When grades are present, grades become the focus

My system

  1. Essential Standards
  1. Grades are not based on classwork at all. Classwork is for practice, not for points!
  2. Instead, students must meet essential standards over the course of the semester. (Generally 4-6 standards per semester.)
  3. All CCSS standards are addressed, but only some are deemed essential.  Essential standards were determined at the building/department level with district approval.
  4. When students meet these standards, they earn credit for the course.
  5. Students can revise assignments and turn them in at any time. A student could be done in November, January, or July two years from now.
  1. Grade for the semester
  1. Students earn a final grade at the semester only.
  2. Grade is determined by student based on evidence. Student must address 3 questions:
  1.  What evidence do you have that you have met ALL the essential standards?
  2. What evidence do you have of growth throughout the semester?
  3. What evidence do you have that you can apply the same skill in multiple contexts? (Can students demonstrate the same standard on both student created assignments and teacher created assignments?)

  1. After a student meets essential standards, we switch to a personalized paradigm, where student growth and mastery of skills in different contexts can be honored and assessed
  2. Students reflect on their own learning and propose the grade they should receive
  1. Students share/have power
  1. Students always tell me how they think they did before I give my opinion (if I give it at all)
  2. When students reflect on their learning, they are more likely to see the value in it
  3. Students can also explain their grades well to parents and guardians
  4. The report card contains no surprises- it was the student and not the teacher that proposed the grade
  5. I will veto grades if I feel that there is not enough evidence to support a high grade, OR if I feel the students are being too hard on themselves.
  6. More students propose grades that are too low than propose grades that are too high.
  1. Rubrics are also problematic
  1. Analytical (numbers based, usually 1-4) rubrics suffer from many of the same problems as grades. (Averages dilute useful information- see above)
  2. Rubrics most often justify grades instead of offering meaningful feedback
  3. In fact, on most rubrics, it is impossible to talk about elements of a student’s paper that do not appear on that rubric
  4. Rubrics I use will be checklists, or three column rubrics, where the middle column is the standards, the left column is things to improve, and the right column is things a student did well. (Single point rubrics)

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