Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part II


48.94 % of the people who took my poll on grades said that the primary purpose of grades is to “give feedback to students on their learning.”

Most teachers at my school agree. When I was presented with this question by my principal, I said the same thing.

Strangely, however, the grading policies of many teachers do not reflect that purpose. I came to realize that my own grading policy–teacher approved and administration approved for 4 years–was just as unclear.

I weighted my grades according to category:

30% = Homework, Bell Work, Class work… basically completion grades for practicing concepts. These are not evaluative of learning.

55% = Quizzes, Essays, Tests: Assessment grades. These do attempt to evaluate learning.

15% = Final Exam grade. Also an assessment, and also an attempt to evaluate learning.

So basically I had a 30% non-assessment and 70% assessment breakdown, which is what I learned was appropriate for high school. When I taught in Louisiana, I was advised to adjust this to 35% / 65% or even 40%/60%. In middle school, the assessment value is usually about 40% non-assessment and 60% assessment. In grade school, the weighting is even more even.

Some teachers do not weight grades at all, but work according to a point system where all assignments, assessment and non-assessment, are equally weighted. Usually assessments are assigned a higher point value. If you can calculate ahead of time the number of assignments of any kind you plan to give, you can still maintain control over the assessment / non-assessment percentage breakdown, but that takes a lot of foresight that I don’t usually have.

Following in the footsteps of my own high school experience, if you did not turn in homework, you did not earn any credit for it. Some teachers (the nice ones) accepted late homework for partial credit, and some (the hardcore ones) did not. I am one of the hardcore ones. I mean, in the real world, deadlines matter.

But notice what happens. A student’s grade is now 30% about compliance and turning stuff in on-time — not necessarily about the concepts he learned or did not learn.

So a student who dutifully turns in his homework every day — no matter how riddled with mistakes, or with cheating (I can’t always catch it) — can pass a high school class, even if he fails a majority of his assessments. He may not know the first thing about Algebra, but he did his homework, so he can pass the class and move on to Geometry.

On the other hand, a student who does not do her homework but can pass all the assessments with B’s can end up with a D as an overall grade.

Does that D really reflect her learning? Or just her irresponsible bad habits?

It was really scary to bring all this up to my kids, but I felt like it was the right thing to do. Most of them don’t really understand how their grades work, or how much certain behaviors affect their grades. I can tell you they were very interested in all this, because it was the first time most of them had ever really thought about it.

Should grades be partially about behavior and good working habits? Even though these things do not really measure mastery of the skills and concepts of a class?

Many teachers, students and parents say yes. After all it’s “fair.” A kid who never does his homework should be punished for that. And a kid who always does his homework should be rewarded.

I agree, it is “fair” in a certain sense. But I was starting to think that using grades as punishment for non-compliance was not really reflecting their true purpose.

More to come!

Why I’m Changing My Mind About Grades – Part I

4 thoughts on “Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part II

  1. I never thought about this before myself, so this is just off the cuff. But I wouldn’t say grading behavior and work habits is good because it’s “fair.” If it’s good–and I think it probably is, but I’m not sure–then it’s good because good work habits are important. A student might be smart enough in biology that he doesn’t have to do all the work to ace his exams. But if he sticks with biology then the day will soon come that his poor work habits will hurt him.

    I remember in 10th grade I had a geometry teacher who would occasionally check to see if we did our homework. If you didn’t do your homework then it hurt you final grade. I rarely did my homework, and yet I received an A in the class. How? As long as you maintained an A average on the tests, then missing a homework assignment didn’t count against you (but it’s really hard to maintain an A average without doing your homework assignments).

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