Win, win not fail, fail

November 3, 2008 at 4:48 am 2 comments

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GRADING day, end of the first quarter. After a long day writing individual assessments, I have some envy for my colleague teachers who have been punching in percentages into their computers for the past few weeks.

As the email reminded us at the beginning of the day: hit the yellow button and the magic software will turn all the numbers into a grade and get the report cards ready for dispatch. Bingo! Easier than punching in 180+ grades and descriptive assessments by one-by-one.

I note one of my colleagues’ students has a percentage of 92.827. Well, that’s an A, then. To three decimal places!

Clearly the assessments that built this grade had not just 100 criteria, not 1,000, not 10,000… but 100,000. Some grading!

But what is this percentage of..? What exactly has our student achieved 92.827% of..? What, exactly, is being measured?

Percentages are a mathematical nonsense, unless they are of something. Just what did our student fail to do to miss out on the last 7.133%? Nothing on the report card gives an explanation.

Even being more sensible about the three decimal places (the very expensive software used across school district spewed those out, not I), just what would, say, a rounded 90% actually mean?

More important what about the student who got a 65% and got an F? What practical advice does the 65% contain to tell the poor unfortunate who has been branded a failure need to do to become a success?

The A, B, C, D or dreaded F may contain no help in specifically describing what a student has or has not learned… and certainly contains no help in telling a student what they need to do to improve. But it does label the student.

This might be ok for the (albeit stressed-out) student labelled an A or B… but it’s not so hot for the student labelled C, D or F. Labelled a failure… but given no clue as to what to do.

And, believe me, where these percentage-based letter grading systems are used with enthusiasm, then these numbers have been pinned up fresh every week in classrooms… raising stress levels in all the students weekly and forcing them to focus and re-focus… not on the joys of learning, but on the terrors of the grade.

You might get an A one week on your assignment. The next, you miss it. That means you’re at best 50% and failing wildly. There’s plenty of teachers who practice, and defend this as a perfect reflection of their students’ learning. You get a perfect 100% A the following week… that still does not lift you back up to passing!

You might be well on top of the learning… but you can’t meet deadlines = F! What’s important here?

So, what’s on your mind? The beauties of that Shakespearean sonnet or doing something desperate to scrabble together a few more percentage points? Or, just call it quits? You can’t win.

What if you are the kid who doesn’t get As? And you miss an assignment? And you work nights?

Is this education… or just a confusing nightmare? Life was much more fair in Catch-22. Welcome to school.

❏ So, what is to be done?

Drop the As, Bs down to Fs. Learn the lessons of pre-algebra and accept that percentages without a definable “of” are a mathematical nonsense.

Instead, describe in student-friendly phrases just what it is they need to learn, what they have learned, and what is the next achievable step they need to take to improve.

And give them as many chances as they need to do it, to learn. It’s the learning that’s important, whenever and wherever it finally happens. Not the grade.

That’s a win, win. Not fail, fail.


Entry filed under: Assessment + Grading, Thoughts from the classroom, What's on the PiFactory blog.... Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Working inside the black box Competitive grading still sabotages good teaching

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. none today  |  November 15, 2008 at 3:38 am

    All these points are so relevant. Grading day is a day of tears for me both of frustration and guilt. I never fully understand exactly what I am telling the parents with these numbers and letters yet feel guilty that one way or another my marks will impact this child’s perception of themselves.

    Forget high school take grades down to a kindergarten level and really what are we telling our kids? I had to check (poorly written) boxes that informed my student’s parents that their child knows alphabet letters or not. Well, today they do, yesterday they forgot one of them and tomorrow who knows? When these report cards go home will they even be relevant to what the student knows three weeks later?

    I don’t know what the “right” answer is for grades but at least there are people out there like you challenging the way we label our students!

  • 2. Lee  |  November 19, 2008 at 5:51 pm

    Wow. You are an intense dude. I am from Canada and we are just beginning the “Assessment” dialogue. Of course, as late adopters – in Canadian education – our School Division is mostly interested in Testing. I agree with the movement to individual learning descriptors…but they want to put a grade on every descriptor. I am desparately trying to modify a 20 year career from “old school” grading (ELA teacher) to a constructivist approach. What I learned from your discussions was the idea of honouring the curriculum – but breaking it down into learning tasks or descriptors. Then I can try to work around the “grading” and try to achieve real learning. I see that even i n your system you have to ultimately come up with a grade for report cards and parent teacher interviews.

    I hope my journey can become as successful as yours seems to be. I appreciate you sharing your ideas. I find it interesting that you moved to the US from Britain.


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