Fair Isn’t Always Equal: 3 Grading Malpractices
Many conventional grading practices undermine students’ learning and our system of schooling. If you’re like me, you’ll recognize some of these grading don’ts from your current practices or from those you used earlier in your career.
This is okay: It’s hard to know everything in our field, particularly when we are new to teaching. Once we realize our mistakes, however, we must work to fix them.
We all know that if we expect to maximize student learning, we must provide helpful feedback, document progress, and inform our instructional decisions with relevant student performance data.
Grades are a significant part of that data, and we must do everything we can to make sure the grades reported for evidence are accurate renderings of mastery.
This requires us to critically examine some commonly accepted but often inappropriate grading practices and make necessary changes with genuine urgency. The students sitting in front of us today have a right to helpful assessments and accurate grading.
Here are just three examples of grading-related practices that warrant our close scrutiny.
1. Withholding assistance when students need it.
Imagine the situation in which a few students are struggling to make sense of text and the teacher provides a matrix or similar graphic organizer to help them structure their thinking.
Using the prompts from the organizer, these once-struggling students are now able to identify and organize salient information; they learn well. When it comes time to take the test, they are competitive with the best thinkers in the class.
Is this fair? Yes.
Do the grades for all students in this class represent accurate renderings of what they know and are able to do? Yes. The limitations to learning have been removed. Differentiation and scaffolding are in play.
If we did not allow students to use the supporting organizers, yet still administered the same test, we would not give the struggling students an equal chance to do well. They would have foundered once again, and the grades written at the top of their tests would not indicate what they were capable of achieving. We would be limiting them to the lockstep, conveyor belt model of schooling, which we know does not meet the learning needs of most students every time.
If we want grades to be accurate indicators of mastery, then we have to remove any barrier to students gaining knowledge of the material, as well as any barrier to their successful demonstrations of mastery. To not do either of these tasks makes any subsequent grades reported false; they are based on misinformation, and the grade is no longer valid or useful.
Barriers in instruction and assessment include using inappropriate testing formats, requiring all students to learn at the same pace as their classmates, using the same tools with all students when different tools are needed by some, choosing inflexible teaching methods, and narrowing the focus of curricula, among others.
By the way, is it appropriate to offer the same graphic organizers to all students if we’re going to offer them to a few? Yes. Remember, the most professional thing we do sometimes is to get out of our students’ way. Some students won’t need graphic organizers, but some will. Using them doesn’t make it easier to learn; it actually pushes students further than they would be pushed without them.
2. Assessing students in ways that do not accurately indicate their mastery.
Let’s stop here and assess everyone who is reading this article.
Please express what you know about differentiation, grading, and assessment through a six-minute interpretive dance. You have three days to prepare the dance. You must be accurate, you must incorporate three major concepts within each of those areas, and you must cite all your sources properly.
Some readers would find this task intriguing, even motivating. Many others would be appalled. They’d ask for extensions, special resources/tools, coaching, or alternative formats, or they might even pursue unethical means to pass the assessment. Many would lose hope.
Welcome to the world of students who learn differently. A regular, no-nonsense, traditional test can stir the same reactions in many of our non-traditional kids.
Consider the following word problem:
Each new military jet costs 7.8 million dollars. The government wants to purchase eleven of them but has only 83 million dollars to spend. Will they be able to purchase all eleven jets?
Which operation(s) should students use to solve this word problem? Multiplication and subtraction. How do we know this?
Seriously, how do we know this?
Most of us probably have a picture in our minds: an image of a plane with “7.8 million dollars” written over it. Then maybe we realize that all we have to do to solve the first part of this problem (yes, we realize there will be more than one part) is to add 7.8 million dollars to 7.8 million dollars to 7.8 million dollars to 7.8 million dollars and so on, eleven times.
Just as soon as we imagine this, however, we realize that this repeated addition is the same as multiplication, which is much faster. Then we start searching for which numbers to multiply, and based on our understanding of the picture in our heads and what we think the problem is asking, we choose to multiply 7.8 million and eleven.
Whatever this total is will be compared with the 83 million dollars, which is done by subtracting. We’ll note the difference, revealing whether we are over or under the stated budget, and then answer the question.
Clearly, this example shows that word problems often require reading comprehension in addition to knowledge of math. We can’t begin to solve this problem until we have a clear picture of the situation’s logic and what’s being asked of us, and that can be captured only if we read the problem correctly.
Now imagine a student who is brilliant in math but new to this country. Her English proficiency is very low. She cannot form a picture in her mind from the word problem itself, but if the problem were explained to her orally in language she understands, she could accurately multiply the larger numbers and compare them with the $83 million budget, arriving at an accurate answer.
The word problem test format previously discussed does not allow her to reveal her true level of proficiency with the mathematical concept.
Or how about the student who speaks conversational English, but is not familiar with academic English? He doesn’t understand that compare and contrast in the assessment prompt means similarities and differences nor that compare means both similarities and differences, not just similarities. As a result, he doesn’t respond fully to the assessment prompt, and he scores poorly.
There are many students who don’t speak the “language” of the assessments we give them:
- The highly interpersonal child is asked to work alone for hours at a time.
- The impoverished child is asked to determine the appropriateness of a budget for an extended European vacation.
- The writing/reading learning disabled child is asked to make sense of advanced text without any of his or her normal tools or strategies for success (a focusing T square, a graphic organizer, listening to the text on CD or download, being able to read the words aloud, using assistive technology to make a response, or being given an extended time period).
With all three students, their performance will be distorted by the assessment format or approach. The grades reported are useless to the teacher and to the student.
If a child doesn’t write well, yet understands diffusion and the role it plays in the lives of animals and plants, why would we give an assessment that requires a written essay on diffusion and its roles in the lives of plants and animals? It would be more a test of essay construction than of diffusion. For those of us who cannot play the violin, we would be hard-pressed to express a novel’s theme through a violin performance; yet, this is similar to what we ask students who can’t write well to do when we assign thematic essays in content areas.
As students, we would say the test is unfair. We’d claim that we knew the novel’s theme, just couldn’t get it across to the teacher via the assigned format. If we are assessing students’ essay writing, then we use essays as assessments. If we are assessing something else, then we consider using an alternative format in lieu of the essay or, at the very least, in addition to it.
Let’s be clear: Essays are excellent assessment tools and are worth assigning for their own sake because they teach students rhetoric and reasoning that transfer to many other subjects and life. When it comes time to consider the accuracy of a grade, however, we must be sure that the assessment format reveals the truth about a student’s proficiency. If not, it should be scrapped for something more accurate.
With every assessment, we must consider what we are trying to test and find the best way of revealing what students know.
3. Allowing extra credit and bonus points to change the grade report.
“Mr. Terwilliger,” David asks. “I didn’t do so well on that written political cartoon analysis. I need to do something to raise my grade. Could I do a poster or something on cartooning for extra credit?”
“Sorry, David,” Mr. Terwilliger replies. “I’m not a fan of allowing students to do extra credit to boost their grades. You can’t substitute posters and other things for assignments, because I give assignments with a specific purpose in mind. In this case, how does doing a poster on cartooning teach you to analyze political cartoons in writing or prove that you can?”
David looks down, his face crumbling in early panic. “It doesn’t,” he admits.
“I tell you what,” his teacher continues. “You can go back and redo the written analysis until you meet the high standard of excellence set for it. What do you say?”
David looks up, not appeased, but not completely lost. “I don’t think I can do any better. I worked on that for a long time, and all I got was a D+. I don’t know how to do it differently.”
“Well, look at it as your first attempt. You have more feedback now. Let’s take a look at what still needs improvement. I’ll help you decide the right direction to go as you rewrite it. You’ll get it.”
David thinks for a moment before speaking. “Okay, but I don’t know how I’m going to do this and keep up with my regular work. I have a baseball tournament every night this week.”
Mr. Terwilliger nods. “It’s not insurmountable. Let’s see what we can work out.”
Many teachers offer extra credit as a way for students to improve a low grade. They think it gives students hope, and if the student is willing to take the initiative to do something a little extra, he should be rewarded by the addition of more points or a raised grade.
Remember, though, that grades should not be used as rewards. Nor should they be used as affirmation, compensation, or validation. Grades should represent an honest report of evidence at this moment in time, nothing more. If we make them something more than that, we undermine the student’s maturation and any useful purpose for grading.
Some teachers also offer extra credit as incentive to students to stretch themselves, pushing beyond the regular unit of study. They might announce to a class, “Anyone who wants to earn an extra 25 points can do so by analyzing the current political climate for environmental protection programs and compare it with the political climate for such programs in the mid-1990s. What’s changed, how are we affected today, and what is the likely climate for environmental protection programs twenty years from now?”
Such opportunities for advancement seem relatively safe and routine, but we need to be very careful with extra credit offers. We should avoid anything that will alter a grade’s accuracy. For example, if a student demonstrates a C level of mastery, she shouldn’t be given an opportunity to artificially inflate that grade with other work that doesn’t hold her accountable for the same benchmarks or learning outcomes as the original assignment.
Although we might consider alternative ways to demonstrate mastery when we are designing our units, we want to give serious consideration to the final choices, ensuring that each one has a clear purpose. If an alternative assignment accounts for everything we are seeking, then we can use it.
Other grading practices that harm students
These are just three of the 10 malpractices I explore in Fair Isn’t Always Equal (and the discussion of these three has been shortened for space). Rather than leave you wondering, I’ll list the other seven:
► Incorporating nonacademic factors, such as behavior, attendance, and effort, into report card grades.
► Prohibiting re-dos and retakes for (yes) 100 percent full credit.
► Grading practice work (including homework).
► Using a group grade to assess any one student on the standard.
► Grading on a curve.
► In mastery-based classrooms, using norm-referenced terms to describe criterion-referenced attributes (comparing students).
► Recording zeros on the 100-point scale for work not done.
If any of these common grading missteps triggers a flashing red light in your teacher brain, I hope you’ll take the time to explore their perils more fully.
Rick Wormeli is one of the most sought-after middle grades teaching experts in America. He has spent the past 38 years teaching math, science, English, physical education, health, and history, as well as coaching teachers and principals. Rick is a columnist for AMLE Magazine, a contributor to ASCD’s Educational Leadership, and has presented in all fifty states and around the world. He was among the first educators to become a National Board Certified Teacher, in 1995.