Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Grief, Not Grades!

I hate grades.  Even before my teaching career began, I had an aversion to grades.  When I applied to colleges, my first choice was Reed College in Portland, OR, a decision largely influenced by their practice of not distributing grades to students, but instead, a narrative of the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated regarding the expected learning of the course.  This type of personal feedback attracted me as a student; even though my grades had always been high (maybe because they had always been high), I felt that a single letter was not an accurate depiction of the level of my learning.

Now, on the other side of the red pen, I have even more difficulty reconciling the grading process.  For the last thirteen years, each grading cycle has produced anxiety in me.  Each time, I have wrestled with whether or not I am a fair grader, if the grade I assign to a student is the most honest evaluation, if there was any way I might be wrong and if so, how would that mistake impact the student's life.  Assigning each piece of paper a point value and then equating the amassing of points to a particular letter grade has never felt right to me.  It is simply how my grades had always been determined as a student and how I was expected to determine grades for my own students.  It was unquestioned, accepted, even made a certain type of sense, but what seemed to be missing was a real sense of what the student actually knew.

But this week, things have changed.  This week determining quarter grades has been a pleasure. In fact, it has been more than a pleasure.  The grading practice I am implementing allows me to have a conversation with my students about their growth toward the learning goals of the course.  In the course evaluations I had my students complete this week, one actually included the comment: "I would like even more opportunities to show my progress toward our course standards."  Doesn't that blow you away?  A students asking for more work  -- and not extra credit or to get more points, but to show how he is progressing as a learner in the class. 

This summer, I worked with many other teachers from my district on developing learning scales on the essential standards for our courses.  Our district school reform is being guided by Robert Marzano, both his research and his actual physical self.  I spent much of my poolside reading time annotating Marzano's books, rethinking my teaching and reorganizing my assessment practices.  Tossing out a points-based, percentage-producing grading system was liberating and exciting, but I still worried about how things would come together once grades had to be reported.

I won't go so far as to claim every student is ecstatic about this or that all of them even fully grasp how the new grading practices work, but honestly, the transition has been smoother than I ever could have imagined.  Now, the students' grades are based on what specific skills and knowledge they have demonstrated.  Points and percentages really have nothing to with it.  As each student conferenced with me, we agreed on their level of proficiency on eight standards for the quarter.  Then we determined an overall score for three categories (Reading, Writing and Academic Skills) and put those together to ascertain the level of proficiency in the course as a whole at this time. 

Basically, what I really feel this all comes down to is that I have finally found a way to evaluate my students that treats them with respect -- as if they are valuable and important regardless of what the grade they earn happens to be.  I hope as each of them sat with me and we talked about their progress, that they felt like they mattered.  Because they do.


Paul said...

Wow! A teacher that actually sits down and talks to her students. Great job Stephanie.

Isabel Kitchen said...

Hey Mrs. Elliott!
First I thought I should let you know that my dream school, The Art Institue, is also in Portland. I love it out there and this school is special to me because it offers a degree in business management for culinary. Well, back to your post. I love the way grades are determined in your class and I also appreciate it because I can see all of the hard work that goes into this process. My favorite thing about this style of grading is that I don't have to feel like the world is coming to an end when I don't do well on a certain assignment becuase I know I will get the chance to show progress on the same standard. Talking to you about my grades also helped me set new goals for the next quater, and it also cleared a lot about what the grading process is like.

Stephanie said...

I'm glad you like it -- makes the trouble of learning something new so worth it!

Have you been to Portland? I lived there when I was younger and spent many a summer vacation there with family. I love it!