Problems with Grading

I had the opportunity while presenting at the Texas ASCD Conference in Austin to attend a session presented by Tom Guskey-Toward More Effective Grading Policies and Practices. (See link for his book.)

I’ve always enjoyed listening to and reading Tom’s work as it engages my thinking. I was particularly interested in this topic as I had been asked last year to examine grading with high school teachers (See earlier blog).

Guskey suggested that grading was an area where our knowledge and practice were perhaps at the greatest gap in all of education. He shared a study where 200 secondary teachers were sent a sample of student writing and asked to grade it using their criteria. The results were 15% A, 15% F and everything in between. Some suggested that the problem occurred because writing was a subjective product so the study was repeated using a math paper. The results were an even greater disparity in grades. I was surprised to then learn that the study he shared was conducted in 1912. We have known about the problem a long time.

The audience that I was part of was polled on three questions. How would you respond?

What are the reasons for giving grades?

Ideally, what should be the purpose of grades?

Options ranged from communicating with students and parents, sorting students for special programs, encouraging work and punishing lack of effort.

In the ASCD audience there was not consensus on purpose.

What evidence should be part of a grade?

Nearly twenty items were listed from end of course test, course projects, homework, participating in class, effort, attitude, attendance, punctuality, etc. When we voted on the number of items we’d use, I was on the low end selecting 4 items which were all summary test or major projects, others selected 8 items including homework, some selected 14 including attitude. Again the message…there was no agreement! So when students and parents get their grades, it’s quite possible no one knows what it means.

Guskey stated that research would support these findings:

#1 Grading is not essential to the instruction process. Checking and feedback are essential.

#2 No one method of grading serves all the purposes well.

#3 Mathematic processes do not guarantee fair or more objective grading.

#4 Grading and reporting should always be done in reference to learning criteria – NEVER on a curve.

Guskey suggested that most educators received no training in how to grade (I know that I didn’t). He said we therefore consider what was done to us. Often taking the most recent example- college….where often the worst practices existed.

My thoughts as I sat through this presentation: WOW! Coaches and mentors should be spending lots of time helping teachers consider why and how and when they grade. Lots of PLC time should be invested in how grading impacts student achievement. This is complex work because multiple purposes for grading require multi-faceted comprehensive grading and reporting systems.

I can’t help but to see a connection with all the grading problems listed above and the current race to evaluate teachers. I met with some Tennessee teachers this week and listened to their frustrations regarding implementation of new evaluation and grading methods. Looks like many reasons are being given for the grading of teachers and yet a single system is trying to achieve multiple outcomes.

As Guskey identified, a grading system designed to promote learning is different form one designed to sort and reward. I often see the same dilemma as schools look to generate teacher development in the midst of a sorting/rewarding/punishing teacher evaluation system.

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4 Responses to “ Problems with Grading ”

  1. Cognitive Coach Jay Says:

    The connection of evaluating students, in part to improve performance, and evaluating teachers to improve their performance is one I frequently explore with teachers.

    Just last week I posed a comment to nearly 100 teachers, “Think of an assessment experience when you left feeling more motivated, more confident, and more excited.” After giving some time to think and share with a partner, I asked them to raise their hand in agreement if this statement was true: “How many of you said your teacher evaluation?” As you might expect there were none.

    I have used this comparison for many presentations and remained stunned when teachers struggle themselves to see the connection! They still grade primarily for the purpose of “motivation” – mistakenly believing that the absence of it will collapse the entire learning experience. Yet they feel hopeless to try anything new, while not rising up strongly in opposition to legislatures around the nation who target teachers for their alleged inexperience and laziness.

    If decision-makers are all about research-based methods for students in the classroom, I wonder when they will rely on research that indicates the adults, too, need less evaluation and more support to improve in their practice?

  2. Stephen G. Barkley Says:

    Jay…. great example! Thanks

  3. Brandi Gray Says:

    I enjoyed reading this information and wish that my administration and board parents would also read it. I also recently attended your Drive-Inn in Little Rock for AASCD. Thank you so much for making my day worth leaving my students!

  4. Brandi Gray Says:

    I have enjoyed reading this information. I wish that administration and board parents would also read it. I recently attended the Drive-Inn conference followup in Little Rock. I was thrilled that you made it so enjoyable and worth leaving my students for the day! Thank you again for your enthusiastic delivery.

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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