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

20140331-203836So, I have not written in a long time.

The biggest reason?

I’ve been grading a lot more than usual.

Yes. Unfortunately, the verdict about my new grading policy is that it definitely creates more work for me. And, hopefully, more productive work for my kids. But it has been a lot and I am feeling a little overwhelmed. Still, I think the extra effort on my part has been worth it — I just need to find a way to make this system more sustainable in the long run.

For instance, because my school has a stacked schedule  (the same seven 50 minute periods every day), the only time kids can meet with me for help or to retake something is before school, during lunch, or after school. So I don’t really get any kind of break from them during the day now, which is okay, but kind of hard for an introvert like me. I always have someone signed up (usually four or five kids) during lunch time and a bunch of kids after school. (Fewer of them seem to want to get up earlier and meet with me in the mornings, so that’s good).

Next year if I continue to teach sophomores, it may be easier because I will already have created multiple versions of the same assessments. Right now, though, if I make a test and offer a retake on it, then I have to create at LEAST one more test and usually more versions to help prevent cheating.

However, all of this work is just part of the job. I think that’s the thing I really need to accept. I love teaching, but part of teaching involves devoting a lot of time to grading. That’s true of most jobs — in order to do what you love, you have to sacrifice a lot of time.

Here’s a summary of the results of this new policy for my kids:

For my strong students: The grading policy makes a small difference for them, but not a big one. Many of them learn the stuff the first time around and do not need to do retakes. A few of them have retaken their Poetry Essays and benefited from meeting with me about them.Peanuts_-_school_advice

For my struggling students: The grading policy has made a HUGE difference for the kids who just don’t get it the first time but want to improve and get better. It’s really helped some of my kids get motivated and not give up on themselves. It’s for these kids that the retake policy really matters, and seeing them improve has made me a big believer in it.

But then there are a few struggling students who do not benefit at all from the retake policy because… well… they never retake anything. It’s too much work to meet with me and get extra help and then write a letter explaining their mistakes. Or perhaps they have already given up on themselves. Or maybe…

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Part I

Part II

Part III

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

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source: cse.buffalo.edu

What usually happens when a student fails an assessment?

Does he

a) come to see the teacher to find out what he did not understand

b) get reprimanded by his parents and try to do better next time on a different assessment

c) roll his eyes and forget it about it

In my experience, the answer is usually C. A and B do occur, occasionally. A, of course, is the best option and the one for which all good teachers hope. After all, grades should be about learning  and if a student fails an assessment that means he has not learned what he was supposed to learn.

Perhaps this failure to learn is the teacher’s fault. Perhaps it is the student’s fault. Perhaps it is nobody’s fault. But it happens. And what we hope is that a student can gain some helpful information from an assessment, such as: “Oh. I have not actually mastered Parallelism. I should go talk to Ms. Shea to find out what I did not understand for the sake of learning itself.”

Ha.

Under normal circumstances, and under most grading systems, option A rarely occurs because the student, the teacher – nay, the class itself – has already moved on to a new objective or concept. Why waste time laboring over an exam you failed when you have another one looming on the horizon? If a final exam is coming up, then perhaps you will ask the teacher to help you so that you do not make the same errors on the final exam. But this points-based motivation is hardly ideal.

What we really want is for kids to be intrinsically motivated. To care not about grades for grades’ sake, but to care about grades only insofar as they reflect learning.

This sort of virtuous motivation may be 90% grace, 5% parent-influence, 4% peer influence and only 1% teacher influence, but we must do what we can with that 1%.

Assessments can be a learning experience. And if the assessment says, “you did not master this concept,” then, ideally, the student should go back, try again, and then retake (an altered version of) the assessment so that we can measure whether or not he has mastered the concept the second time.

Therefore, I have decided to offer retakes this semester – something I NEVER thought I would do. I used to think that if a student had not mastered the objective by the time of the assessment, then his grade should reflect that. If I schedule the test for Februrary 19th and the student did not study, or studied incorrectly, or thought he paid attention in class but did not… then for any of the those reasons he deserves to earn a low grade.

This, as far as it goes, is true. But the real question is this: what happens after failure? Do we want our kids to fail (or perform poorly) and merely move onto the next topic, hoping for a better outcome next time? (Experience shows all teachers that the kids who fail one assessment are far more likely to fail the next one, even if it is on a completely different objective unrelated to the first.)

Or…

Do we want them to go back to that failed assessment, analyze it, think about it, talk to us about it, and learn from their mistakes? Of course we want the latter. Because grades should not be about punishment, they should be about what a student has learned. And if he can show us he has achieved the objective after all, even on a second (or third!) try, shouldn’t his grade reflect that learning and progress?

Yes? Are you with me?

So how do we make this happen? By allowing retakes for assessments.

This is my new retake policy in a letter I wrote to my kids:

Dear Sophomores, Based on the research we have been discussing in class and that has been presented by [Principal], I believe it is in your best interest to adjust our grading policy for second semester so that your grades will more accurately reflect your learning. However, I also believe it would be best to introduce a gradual change based upon some of the feedback I received in your grading proposals instead of the full assessment-only model. The changes are:

  1. Re-takes for assessments will be introduced

After certain major assessments, and at my discretion after looking at your performance, I will be offering re-takes on certain assessments so that you can learn from your mistakes and show me that you have met the learning objective. The retakes I offer will be available to all students, regardless of your original grade. If you chose to retake the assessment, I will not average your scores: the higher grade will go into the grade book to reflect your mastery.

  1. In order to retake an assessment, you must complete the following:
  • Two days of NHS study hall with me or with the student mentors to review concepts you missed on the assessment.
  • A full-page typed letter explaining how you prepared for the first assessment, the mistakes made on the previous assessment, how you prepared for this retake, what your plan of action is from this point to avoid making these mistakes again.

These requirements are in place to ensure that you try your best on all your assessments, and that you only retake an assessment to show me your growth in learning.

  1. Homework will make up a smaller percentage of your overall grade

You will still receive credit for homework, bell work, and other completion grades on a random basis. This will be worth 15% of your overall grade in this class. Late work will be accepted for a reduced grade (70%) until the end of the unit. After this time, late work will not be accepted. The goal in this adjusted policy is to ensure more clearly that your grades reflect your learning of the Archdiocesan standards and objectives. If you or your parents have any questions, please email me. I will be happy to meet with you to discuss the policy. Sincerely, Ms. Maura Shea [email]

Ideally, I would allow retakes on ALL assessments. But since I am still grading some non-assessment work (homework, bell work, class work, etc.) my principal suggested I take a partial approach. Basically, I am trying to offer retakes on as many assessments as I can. Keep in mind that this means creating NEW assessments and grading a LOT more of them. Ahem.

Later, I gave each student a simplified version they put in their binders for easy reference:

Retakes

  1. Sign up for two spots [on the schedule posted by the door] – one so that we can go over your previous assessment, and another so that you can retake a new assessment.
  1. Check in with me to make sure these times are okay.
  1. Prepare your typed letter.
  • How did you prepare for your first assessment?
  • What are the mistakes you made on the first assessment – why did they happen?
  • How did you prepare for this retake?
  • What is your plan of action to avoid making the same mistakes?
  1. Come see me on the scheduled days!

Thoughts? Suggestions? In my next post, I’ll explain how this new policy (implemented in January) has been working so far.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.