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On Your Mark: Challenging the Conventions of Grading and Reporting

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Create and sustain a learning environment where students thrive and stakeholders are accurately informed of student progress. Clarify the purpose of grades, craft a vision statement aligned with this purpose, and discover research-based strategies to implement effective grading and reporting practices. Identify policies and practices that render grading inaccurate, and understand the role grades play in students’ future success and opportunities.

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Chapter 1 Define the Purpose of Grades

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CHAPTER 1

Define the Purpose of Grades

Modern education reforms take many different approaches and address a variety of educational issues. Yet despite this variation, all share the same common goal of improving student learning in school. More specifically, modern education reforms seek to have all students gain the advanced knowledge and skills necessary to enter college or to begin careers that require advanced reasoning, creativity, collaboration, and problem solving.

The first movement in these reform efforts typically involves the articulation of clear and rigorous goals or standards for student learning. The Common Core State Standards Initiative in the United States, for example, attempts to provide consensus across states about what all students should learn and be able to do as a result of their experiences in school (NGA & CCSSO, 2010).

With standards for student learning clearly specified, reformers next turn to gathering evidence on student learning through various assessment procedures. This involves deciding what evidence best reflects student achievement of the established learning goals or standards, how such evidence should be gathered, and how best to summarize that evidence in order to facilitate improvements in both teaching and learning.

 

Chapter 2 Challenge the Use of Percentage Grades

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CHAPTER 2

Challenge the Use of Percentage Grades

Portions of this chapter appear in “The Case Against Percentage Grades” (Guskey, 2013b).

As I described in the previous chapter, grading and reporting have become a major focus in education reform. Educators are becoming aware of the inadequacies of many current grading practices and the poor alignment of those practices with other reforms in standards and assessments. What most educators fail to recognize, however, is that a basic component in most present-day grading systems stands as a major obstacle in efforts to make grades fairer, more accurate, and more meaningful. That component is percentage grades.

Nearly every computer and online grading program available to educators today calculates percentage grades. Many state education programs are based on percentage grades, and in some instances, state or provincial legislation mandates percentage grades (Friess, 2008). Yet despite their popularity, percentage grades are the most difficult to justify or defend from a procedural, practical, or ethical perspective.

 

Chapter 3 Challenge Plus and Minus and Half-Grade Increments

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CHAPTER 3

Challenge Plus and Minus and Half-Grade Increments

A few years ago, a serious debate arose at my university. The topic led to heated arguments in meetings around campus and was the focus of countless editorials and op-ed pieces in the campus newspaper. The subject of this debate was a proposal to use plus (+) and minus (–) grades in all classes throughout the university.

A university administrator who knew that I had studied grading issues invited me to testify before the university senate. So on the appointed day, I walked across campus to attend the senate meeting. When asked by the senate chair to present my perspective on the policy to use plus and minus grades, I offered the following:

As a professor in the College of Education, I’ve spent considerable time in recent years surveying the research on grading and reporting student learning. That research suggests that the issue of plus and minus grades is not as complicated as many contend. In essence, it comes down to a rather simple choice: Do you want a five-category grading scale or a twelve-category grading scale? Of course, the more important question in this regard is whether or not adding more categories to the grading scale makes it better and fairer to students.

 

Chapter 4 Challenge Bell-Shaped Grade Distributions

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CHAPTER 4

Challenge Bell-Shaped Grade Distributions

Many of us can remember being in classrooms where our performance was judged against that of our peers. A grade of C did not mean you had reached step 3 in a five-step process to mastery or proficiency. It meant “average” or “in the middle of the class.” Similarly, a high grade did not necessarily represent excellent learning. It simply meant that you did better than most of the other students in your class (Guskey, 2011). The goodness of your performance was not determined by specific criteria that were made explicit by your teacher. Instead, it was based on how your performance stacked up against the performance of your classmates. This process of assigning grades based on a student’s relative standing among classmates is referred to as normative-based grading, or more familiarly as grading on the curve.

Curving Grades

Most teachers, students, and parents have a general understanding of what grading on the curve means. But in practice, this phrase can have a variety of meanings depending on the context (Wall, 1987).

 

Chapter 5 Challenge the Computation of Class Rank

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CHAPTER 5

Challenge the Computation of Class Rank

Portions of this chapter appear in “Class Rank Weighs Down True Learning” (Guskey, 2014).

Those who choose education as their profession must answer one basic question about their purpose. How they answer this question will largely determine the direction of their career, how they go about their work, and how they judge their success. No other question about their role as an educator will be more important.

That one basic question is this: Is my purpose to select talent, or is it to develop talent? The answer must be one or the other, because there is no in-between.

If you decide your purpose as an educator is to select talent, then you must work to accentuate and maximize the differences among students. In other words, on any measure of student learning, you must try to achieve the greatest possible variation in students’ scores (Guskey, 2011). If lots of students score at the same level on a measure of their learning, discriminating among them becomes very difficult, perhaps even impossible. In order to select the most talented students in any academic area, you must teach and assess learning in ways that allow you to distinguish those students with greater talent from the others with lesser talent. That means you must spread out the scores.

 

Chapter 6 Challenge the Use of a Single Grade

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CHAPTER 6

Challenge the Use of a Single Grade

Imagine two students, Marie and Robert, who attend the same high school and take many of the same classes. Marie is an exceptionally bright but negligent student. She consistently gets high grades on classroom quizzes and assessments, even though she rarely completes homework assignments and seldom participates in class discussions. Her compositions and reports show unusually keen insight and thoughtful analyses of critical issues but often are turned in a day or two late. Because of her missing homework assignments and lack of punctuality, Marie receives Cs in most of her classes, and her grade point average ranks her in the middle of her high school class. But Marie scores at the highest level on the state accountability assessment, qualifies for a state honor diploma because of her scores, and is eligible for state scholarships.

Robert, on the other hand, is an extremely dedicated and hardworking student. He completes every homework assignment, takes advantage of extra-credit options in all of his classes, and regularly attends special study sessions held by his teachers. Yet despite his efforts, Robert often performs poorly on classroom quizzes and assessments. His compositions and reports are well organized and always turned in on time but rarely demonstrate more than a rudimentary understanding of critical issues. Robert also receives Cs in most of his classes and has a class rank very similar to Marie’s. But because he scores at a low level on the state accountability assessment, Robert is at risk of receiving an alternative diploma and will not qualify for state scholarship funds.

 

Chapter 7 Challenge the Use of Mathematical Algorithms

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CHAPTER 7

Challenge the Use of Mathematical Algorithms

Ask teachers today how they determine their students’ grades, and the first thing most do is open their gradebook. In earlier years, gradebooks were booklets in which teachers recorded by hand detailed information about students’ performance. Today, teachers use computerized grading programs that allow them to enter the same information online.

Like the old-style grade booklets, modern electronic gradebooks present a spreadsheet record of data for each class. The first column of the spreadsheet lists all the students’ names in each class in alphabetical order. Following students’ names is a series of columns in which teachers record scores or marks from homework assignments, daily work, assessments, projects and reports, major examinations, and so on. In some schools, teachers are required to enter a minimal number of scores or grades each week or each grading period.

In explaining their grading practices, teachers point to the complex array of data in their gradebook and describe how they weigh different pieces of the information. At the end of the grading period, they use a computer-generated, mathematical algorithm to combine these varied measures and calculate a summary score that is determined to the one-hundred-thousandth decimal point. The grading program then converts this summary score to a percentage grade and letter grade that is printed on a report card and sent home to parents.

 

Chapter 8 Challenge Practices That Confound the Meaning of Grades

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CHAPTER 8

Challenge Practices That Confound the Meaning of Grades

Conversations with teachers about grading typically reveal a staggeringly diverse array of policies and practices. All teachers, of course, begin by describing the various sources of information on students’ academic performance that they gather and summarize. But as discussed in chapter 6, most teachers also include evidence on student behaviors or actions that may have little or no relation to what students learned. Grading policies that include these nonachievement factors muddle and confound the meaning of grades. Yet strong evidence shows they occur in every subject area and at every grade level (McMillan, 2001; McMillan, Myran, & Workman, 2002).

School leaders are generally reluctant to question teachers on the inclusion of nonachievement factors in academic grades. Most consider such policies to be a part of well-established grading traditions. In addition, many school leaders acknowledge that grades represent a powerful means of control for teachers and accept teachers’ explanations that “if it doesn’t count, students won’t think it’s important.” Questioning grading policies also can be seen as challenging teachers’ academic freedom.

 

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