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When Grading Harms Student Learning

Andrew Miller

Instructional Coach at Shanghai American School
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A closeup of a stack of blue, old, faded books on a circular table.

There are so many forces at work that make educators grade, and grade frequently. For sports eligibility, coaches constantly look at grades to see if a student is at an academic level that will allow him or her to play. Colleges review transcripts to examine what type of courses students took and their corresponding grades. Teachers must follow policy that demands them to enter a certain amount of grades every week, month, or marking period. There's no stopping it. However, we need to reflect upon policies and practices like this -- and possibly consider regulating them. Is grading the focus, or is learning the focus? Yes, grades should and can reflect student learning, but often they can get in the way and actually harm student learning.

The Dreaded Zero

I used to give out zeros in the hopes that it would force students to do work and learn. This was a terrible idea! I'm so happy that I received the professional development and resources to challenge my thinking on how I was graded as a student. Myron Dueck notes that students need to care about consequences, and many students simply don't care about zeros. In fact, some of them will say, "Fine, I'll take the zero," which totally defeats the intended purpose and in fact destroys any leverage that I have to help students learn. Zeros do not reflect student learning. They reflect compliance. Instead of zeros, we should enter incompletes, and use these moments to correct behavioral errors and mistakes. Often, one zero can mathematically destroy a student's grade and pollute an overall metric that should reflect student learning. Here, grading is getting in the way of truly helping a student, as well as showing what that student really knows.

Points Off for Late Work

I'm guilty of this one as well. Similar to using zeros, when students didn't turn in work on time, I threated them with a deduction in points. Not only didn't this correct the behavior, but it also meant that behavioral issues were clouding the overall grade report. Instead of reflecting that students had learned, the grade served as an inaccurate reflection of the learning goal. Well, I certainly learned from this experience, and instead began using late work as a time to actually address the behavioral issue of turning in late work. It was a teachable moment. I had students reflect on what got in the way, apply their problem-solving skills to these issues, and set new goals. Students should learn the responsibility of turning in work on time, but not at the cost of a grade that doesn't actually represent learning.

Grading "Practice"

Many of our assignments are "practice," assigned for students to build fluency and practice a content or skill. Students are often "coming to know" rather than truly knowing. Consequently, these assignments are formative assessments, reflecting a step in the learning process and not a final outcome or goal. Formative assessment should inform instruction. It should not be graded. If we assign a grade to failed practice, the overall grade won't reflect what they learned. It won't be a reflection of success, and it may even deter students from trying again and learning. Practice assignments and homework can be assessed, but they shouldn't be graded.

Grading Instead of Teaching

As mentioned earlier, many teachers are required to enter grades on a frequent basis. While this policy may be well intended, in practice it can become a nightmare and run afoul to the intent. Districts and schools often call for frequent grades so that students, parents, and other stakeholders know what a child knows, and what he or she needs to learn next. This is a great intent. In fact, we should formatively assess our students and give everyone access to the "photo album" of learning rather than a single "snapshot." However, if we educators do nothing but grade, we rob ourselves of the time that we need to teach. We've all been in a situation where grading piles up, and so we put the class on a task to make time for grading. This is wrong, and it should be the other way around. Teaching and learning should take precedence over grading and entering grades into grade books. If educators are spending an inordinate amount of time grading rather than teaching and assessing students, then something needs to change.

Hope

Our work as educators is providing hope to our students. If I use zeros, points off for late work, and the like as tools for compliance, I don't create hope. Instead, I create fear of failure and anxiety in learning. If we truly want our classrooms to be places for hope, then our grading practices must align with that mission. Luckily, standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, and competency-based learning are making strides in many schools, districts, and states. These methods more accurately align with the premise that "it's never too late to learn." If you want to learn more about equitable grading practices, read work by Ken O'Connor, Myron Dueck, Dylan Wiliam, and Rick Wormeli.

With that, I will leave you with an essential question to ponder: How can we grade and assess in a way that provides hope to all students?

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Mrs Hitchcock's picture
Mrs Hitchcock
8th grade science teacher from Eagar, Arizona.

I've gone back and forth with this topic. On the one hand, our kids are more than just grades. On the other hand, we ARE still trying to teach kids to be responsible adults. A doctor may be absolutely BRILLIANT, and know every malady known to man, but if he only shows up once a week, or waits until a patient is almost dead to do anything, or has office hours nobody can rely on, he's not going to be a very effective doctor. Compliance is a HUGE part of being an adult, and public school is the only place a lot of kids will ever be held accountable for anything.
We are our students' biggest cheerleaders, but we are also the coach and sometimes the only spectator. If all we are supposed to care about is the academic side of this, and to bolster their precious self-esteem by never holding them accountable for anything, extending deadlines until they are really just suggestions, and letting them do whatever they want, I feel like we are failing the society we are feeding these babies into. Everything in life has a deadline. EVERYTHING. The sooner we teach people that, the better off everyone is going to be. As a teacher, if I just showed up whenever I wanted to, I'd get fired. By allowing students to turn things in whenever they feel like it, we are teaching them that it doesn't matter. The truth is, it does. A LOT.

(1)
Mrs Hitchcock's picture
Mrs Hitchcock
8th grade science teacher from Eagar, Arizona.

There's more to learning than just academic standards. Life is all about compliance or nobody would have business hours posted on their doors...

Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

While I understand your point about not taking points off for late work, I have a late policy that actually does provide hope for students. I allow them to turn in late work, but they earn no more than 60%. While that may seem harsh, the truth is that if they turn in missing work, their grade soars (I take a little time out of my English lessons to teach some math: the difference between a 0% and 60% means the difference between passing and failing; and when that 60% is combined with many other on-time grades, they see their overall grade go up significantly higher than 60%). There are many reasons why students might turn in work late, and I think it's important to teach them that late might be OK once in awhile, but there are penalties to pay (like with bosses or credit card companies). So how does this policy give my students hope? Because if I didn't accept late work, they could reach a point in the semester when they would not be able to earn enough points to pass, and that would make it really hard for them to be motivated to keep working. If I did accept late work with no penalty, there would be a nightmare of students turning in work whenever they feel like it, causing a domino effect of getting behind and not being able to do the next lesson because they haven't done the previous ones. In part, this policy comes out of trying to manage 165 students and all their assignments. It's not easy, but it can be done in a way that helps kids learn to manage their time better.

All Students Thrive's picture
All Students Thrive
Changing the World One Conversation at a Time!

I have been looking at a grading rubric that aligns the expected outcomes from the Common Core Math Standards and Mathematical Practices with our School Learning Outcomes. Using a rubric allows students to self-assess themselves and set set individual goals.

JR
allstudentsthrive.com

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Leslie Jones's picture
Leslie Jones
Has taught English in several high schools

I've found that taking off points for submitting late work is better than awarding a zero in terms of getting good results. It teaches the pupil that there is a value to completing work on time and also respects those who bother to get their work in on time. However, although I recognize that a zero does have a disproportionate mathematical impact on a term grade but I also feel that it is an appropriate grade in instances of dishonesty, i.e., cheating, or refusal to take a test, rather than for completing work late or other behavioral problems.

Michael Paul's picture

I am in a teacher book study at my school, reading 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by O'Connor. We are in the middle of this exact debate. Thanks for posting, it serves as further reinforcement of what we are trying to accomplish. Switch the focus from using grades to motivate behavior to reflect actual student learning.

Debbie Liu's picture
Debbie Liu
International Education Expert

True! As educators, our mission is to provide #hope to our students!

Kimberly Livaudais's picture

Here is where I get bogged down. Twenty-first century learning, Global learning. College and career readiness. These are words we fling around, but nowhere in the curriculum do we see time management, deadlines, or consequences. I also teach at the college level. Those students are so used to being able to turn work in late or re-test that many of them fail their first year when they have that rude awakening. Many of my friends in the business world moan about the lack of personal responsibility. Young workers (as in early 20s) have actually brought in sick notes from parents for missing a work shift. They get fired for not doing their job. How are we actually getting them ready for that world? And I keep hearing that it isn't our responsibility; it isn't our curriculum. If it isn't the responsibility of teachers to prepare them for those expectations, then whose is it? People live up (or down) to expectations. There IS harm if we do not really prepare them. I have had too many of my students drop out of college because they couldn't hack those expectations. That IS harm, and that needs to be addressed just as surely as the harm of a zero in K-12.

John Walkup (@jwalkup)'s picture
John Walkup (@jwalkup)
Education Researcher, Consultant, and Grant Writer

The author makes almost no effort to address counterarguments. Perhaps the most crippling learning disability of all is procrastination, and many of the ideas espoused in this article will only propagate this behavior. Parents who are illiterate or speak little English will also struggle trying to track their kids' progress; to them, grades are easy to understand. I'm afraid that educators need to roll up their sleeves and design policies that take such issues into account. Until then, I consider these ideas too simplistic to roll out on a wide basis.

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