Let’s Talk About Grading Systems…

Somewhere along the way I picked up the story that I “wasn’t a math person.” I was more “Right Brain” and would enjoy reading and writing more than measuring and multiplying. Whoever was telling me that story was right. To this day I get anxious and sometimes struggle with basic number sense yet have no problem sharing my writing or public speaking. Or, at least whoever was telling me that story was right that the story would shape my identity. We create these stories in our heads when we are young yet they influence our choices and well-being as long as we continue to believe them. They are so ingrained in our thinking that it’s nearly impossible to identify when or why they started.

As public education leaders we perpetuate this storytelling. Our systems are designed to be judgemental and these judgements build the identity and personal story of each student. I’ve been writing lately about current systems or mental models that the COVID-19 pandemic may be preparing us to talk about as public education leaders. Throughout the last year, amidst the trauma, we have built momentum around changing/updating legacy systems. And as the health crisis is fading, there continues to be a window of opportunity to make some impactful and lasting improvements to these systems.

So let’s take this opportunity the pandemic is giving us to talk about course grades and report cards. The lack of standardized assessment results over the last year caused systems to search for other large-scale metrics for reporting. Some have decided to look at course grades. It makes sense, right? A student’s course grade accurately reflects her understanding of the concepts covered in that course, doesn’t it? Not always, or even often. The reality is in systems where report cards require a singular letter grade at the end of a marking period, that grade represents much more than understanding of concepts. It also represents compliance, completion of homework/classwork, timeliness, teacher bias, etc.

It doesn’t have to be that way. This is just the way many of us choose to do it.

Most public school students start getting singular course letter grades in the 3rd grade. Picture a third-grader who has always loved math. She still loves math in third grade but at her first marking period she has a B on her report card. She has that B because while she demonstrated mastery of every concept, she didn’t complete three homework assignments. Her identity as a student who loves math is starting to change. She is now a B student.

What if she and her parents received a report card with multiple grades for math? She would see an A for the Academic portion of the report card and a C for the Homework portion. How does that change her story? Her identity?

There is space to talk about grading systems and the outcomes they are producing post-COVID pandemic. Do we want to double down or do we want to evolve our systems? Are we satisfied with the identities our students are creating as learners? Are we going to continue to live with the lack of accuracy in our grading systems? Everything is a choice.

Want to learn more about a variety of grading systems? Two recent books from my favorite thinker on the topic, Dr. Tom Guskey are a great place to start. Be aware though, once you read them you will not look at grades, report cards, or transcripts the same way again.

On Your Mark

Get Set, Go!

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