An Alternative to Averaging Grades

Grades are tricky.  They're powerful.  Yet they're often not.  They're meant to inform about progress.  Yet they often don't.  They're used to motivate.  And, yet again, they often do not.



In my class I want to communicate with students and parents about students' growth across the semester.  Many skills we work on are recursive, not one time objectives easily demonstrated on a single assessment. What does it tell students and parents when they see “C” on the report card?  What does it tell me, their teacher about what they’ve gained and what they need next? What does this letter mean in terms of success in the larger worlds of school and beyond?

Nothing.

I can have two kids getting a C if I average my grades.  Let's say 75%.  One of them has gotten 95% on half of our tasks and 65% on the other half.  The other student has been a straight 75% the whole way through.  And yet on the report card, they look exactly the same. 

Still another student also has a C.  She started out the semester horribly...life was a mess and she failed the first four assignments, earning 55%.  But then life settled down, the student came in for extra help, worked extremely hard, and earned 95% on the next four assignments.  Huge turn around, success!  Put it all together and what do you get...75%!

Ugh.

Creating a system of grading that is fair, that truly represents a student's learning, and that communicates the complexity of a grade is not going to be answered in one blog post. The trick is to learn as much as you can about grading, focus on what you want to communicate about the student's learning, and then try again and again to refine a system that works for you.  That's what I've been doing for the last ten years.  Still a work in progress.

Instead of solving all your grading woes, or convincing you to ditch grading all together, in this post I’ll offer one small part of my grading system:  how I replace rather than average grades.  Because there are skills in every class that develop over time, some grades shouldn’t be added to; they should be replaced on a regular basis.  Here’s what I do:

Portfolio Grades and the Practice of Replacing
I want my kids to grow across each semester, and I want their grades to reflect this growth, so there are skills we work on all semester long. One such skill is independent reading – which in my class has three parts:

1)     Engagement
2)     Stamina
3)    amount of reading (this category is my trickiest one, and is still a work in progress)


Every month, students and I determine their current level of progress in independent reading, and that goes into the grade book.  In my computer grade book, I do not add a new independent reading grade, I replace the grade that is currently there.  I change the heading to reflect the current month, and update the grade.  For clarity, it is worth 100 points.  Kids and parents easily interpret 100 points to mean what I want them to mean:  100% - advanced; 90% = proficient; 80% = strongly developing; 70% - developing; 60% = needs improvement; and 50% means they have failed (no further degrees of “f-titude” as Rick Wormeli calls it, are needed).  Students only could earn a zero if they are absent and have done no reading the entire month (this of course could be replaced on the next month’s portfolio assessment). 

The kids use a portfolio scoring guide and their reading records, notebooks and other class work to score themselves, and I use my anecdotal and formative assessment records (recorded in my notebook, not in the computer grade book).  Honestly, the kids and I usually agree on what grade they’ve earned, but sometimes we don’t.  That simply requires a conversation to resolve.    

All semester only one grade is present for independent reading – I change the heading to reflect what month we’re on and record their current progress.  I decided that having my grades reflect where a student is NOW is the most accurate reporting of this skill.   If I had a student whose independent reading grade was 50% in January, 60% in February, 70% in March; and 100% in April and 100% in May, the student deserves 100%, not a 76%!  Growth as a reader matters, not the average of all their attempts.

I don’t do this with all of my grades.  Some of our learning doesn’t carry forward in the same way.  When we do a unit of study, for example, and learn strategies that only apply to that unit, those summative grades get recorded and stay (unless a student choose to revise the assignment).  These particular skills aren’t taught repeatedly; they occur in that unit only. As a teacher, I have to be very clear about what we’re learning and what I’m assessing.  Ongoing skills that require time and growth deserve to be measured accurately across time in a way that doesn’t penalize students for early attempts.  We all improve with practice and our grades should reflect this. 

What else, besides independent reading, improves across time?  Writing – fluency, idea development, organization, style.  Speaking – contributing to class discussions, participating effectively in small group conversations and online discussion boards; Listening – in whole class settings and in small groups. 

Grading effectively requires time and thought.  Some teachers put time into deciding how many points an assignment is worth, thinking that will reflect its importance and the skills being taught.  Unfortunately, this is behind the scenes, and students often aren’t aware of what the points mean.  A grading system that involves the students and that allows for growth across time has more meaning because students see that they have control over their learning.  Their growth will be reflected in their grades, and there is hope that they can improve and not be weighted down but earlier, less successful attempts at new skills.

I'm always eager to learn more about how teachers grade, how they communicate learning to students and parents, and how they use grades to inform their teaching.  Please leave me a comment and share your ideas!  

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