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Make Grades More Meaningful for Students

Make Grades More Meaningful for Students

Gabrielle Lensch Plastrik

At the end of my second year of teaching, I was asked to do some research on why so many freshmen were failing English. The results were fairly predictable: most of the kids were either not doing their homework and failing or not coming to class and failing. This led to a discussion among the administrators and teachers about whether or not it was actually okay to enter zeroes into the grade book.

The assistant principal in charge of English claimed that if 100% is the best grade a student can receive, a 50%, the bottom of the letter grade scale, ought to be the worst that a student could do. She said that it was almost impossible to recover from zeroes, but not fifties. This led me to do further research on grading systems.

Somewhere in my research, and I apologize profusely for not having the source for this because I have looked extensively and have not been able to find any information on the original author, I came across a chapter of a book on assessment that suggested the flaw with grades is not the number so much as the system. The author observed that most teachers grade with categories such as “tests and quizzes,” “homework,” “participation,” “in-class work,” etc. We divide our grades by the type of assignment. This was certainly true for me as a teacher. It had been true when I was a student. The author’s argument was that teachers ought to group grades by the skill they assess.

My third year, I implemented this idea with the following grading categories: Ideas and Analysis, Reading Comprehension and Content Knowledge, Organization of Ideas, Creativity and Voice, Discussion Preparation, Participation, Grammar and Mechanics, Progress toward Goals and Improvement, and Timeliness. I took these categories largely from Spandel’s six traits system for assessing writing, which I had been using for my writing rubrics since I learned about the six traits in graduate school.

I explained it to the kids on the first day of class. They were confused. I brought them a sample assignment and showed them how a major paper would have six grades on it. A smaller assignment might only have two or three. I asked them to give it a try for a quarter. After the first progress report, they said that it made sense. They liked that when they looked at their grade print-outs, they would see if they were falling short in ideas or organization, that they could keep track of their improvement in each of these skill categories, and that the system matched the major paper rubric that I use.

One of the most controversial aspects of this system is the timeliness grade. Every assignment has one. The philosophy behind the timeliness grade is that lateness does not represent a student’s inability to excel in English, it represents a student’s inability to excel at turning assignments in on time. At the end of the first quarter, this was the only part of the grading system that the students questioned. Some of them thought that it was unfair that they always did their work on time while others did it one or two days late fairly regularly. They wanted a bigger penalty for those students who were frequently tardy. I explained my philosophy over and over again, but they still felt that timeliness should matter more than it did. This year, I made the penalties for lateness much greater and also explained the policy to parents at back to school night. All of this seems to have helped considerably or my students are just less interested in what their classmates are doing this year.

Overall, I am much happier with this new grading system. It makes parent-teacher conferences much easier because the grades show the analytical break down of what a traditional grade would be. Mostly, though, the system helps the kids learn, and I feel like grades matter more as a learning tool now than as a means of judgment. Kids eventually give up the need to know if they would have gotten an “A,” and they compare themselves with their peers less because the system is more complicated. Grades have become a tool for individual improvement, and that is what they ought to be.

Gabrielle teaches English and Drama at a school for gifted students in Madison, WI.

Related Reads:

Why Do We Give Grades?
What is Student Achievement?
Using Rubrics to Increase Teacher Effectiveness.

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