Grading: A Duct-Taped System In Need of an Overhaul?

by Mrs. Crowley

Note: My students have recently published their arguments regarding our class discussions on the role of violence in our society and safety. As I facilitated their writing process from brainstorming through revision, I decided to write with them. I shared my own pre-writing organizer and discussed aspects that had stumped me. I also shared my first draft with them, and allowed them to analyze my argument for strengths and weaknesses. Their questions and feedback inevitably made this first post stronger. In fact, the discussion we had in class about my draft prompted me to go so much deeper in my reflection. I credit my students for being co-collaborators. We learned together, and now we invite you to continue our learning by commenting on our posts.

This post is the first in a series of reflections on our current grading system where I try to tackle these questions: Is the current system fair and relevant? What is the relationship between grading and learning? What alternatives to the 100 point system do educators have?

My journey begins with a conversation within my own department this past January.

The Gaming of Grading

Our high school English department was discussing whether to change the basement grade from a 50% to a 40%. Was it fair for students to even have a 40% in the grade book if they turned in 0% of their assignments? What about the students who would intentionally game the system by slacking off in the first half of the year only to kick it in high gear in the second half and pass?

GradingThen someone clarified the basement grade’s original intent: to keep a student from “giving up altogether” after a disastrous first marking period grade. But my view? We are kidding ourselves to think this discussion is about student motivation. Also, I’m starting to feel that basement grades are just one way to duct-tape an outdated grading system.

What we are actually discussing in this meeting are the counter-moves in an elaborate game called the 100 point grading scale. By playing this game, an “us vs. them” mentality overshadows this discussion: us, the teachers vs. them, the students. Us, the teachers trying to promote learning; them, the students trying to game the system.

But who created that system in the first place? Certainly not the students. They are merely responding to the rules, looking for the loopholes, and working for the carrots. We, the teachers are trying to close the loopholes, work within the rules, still emphasize learning through it all.

Couldn’t we just reject the “Us vs. Them” system?

In the current debate between 40% or 50% for a basement grade, I don’t feel we are scratching the surface of fairness or equity. If a student was so disengaged that he/she didn’t complete any assignments in nine weeks, than receiving a 40% charity bump will NOT address the real issues of that student’s learning success. We need to have the more challenging discussion of how we–the teachers and the system–should be reaching this student.
Yet, my department was asked by our administration and colleagues to have a basement grade discussion; so we did. We discussed our preference of 40% or 50%, found consensus, and then moved onto the next agenda item.
But I was left unsettled.

Who else feels the grading system is broken?

The very next day, an article by anti-grade revolutionary Mark Barnes caught my eye: How Eliminating Grades Changed Everything in my Classroom. Barnes writes: “Grades are just a math game…If you know how to work the numbers, you can get a good grade.” He goes on to detail how he felt by the end of that year: “I wasn’t teaching students anything, except failure or, worse, how to manipulate traditional grades enough to build report cards that would be acceptable at home.”
So he decided to eliminate the traditional grading system in his classroom. In its place, Barnes provided his students with ungraded feedback as well as challenging questions. He asked students to self-assess and take ownership over their own learning journey.
Upon reading this short post, my feelings of being unsettled distilled into a restlessness for action. I too felt that our current grading system was broken, but what was I going to do about it? I started asking myself tough questions like: what did I believe was the purpose of grades? Could I help my students by taking a risk to try a different system of accountability and assessment?
I shared Barnes’ post on my Facebook feed. Almost immediately teachers and parents in my network began responding. A few wanted to get rid of grading altogether while others admitted that this issue was also a “struggle” for them in their classrooms. We all seemed to sense that something was deeply wrong about our current grading system, but also weren’t sure the alternatives. So many teachers seemed eager for this conversation. And so many have already begun to challenge the status quo.
A comment I wrote on Barnes’ original post was shared by an Education Week Teacher editor on Twitter. You can see how many times it was retweeted. Not Lady Gaga numbers, but for an educational tweet, still indicative that this idea strikes a nerve with educators and parents.

Restlessness to Action

Our grading system seems up for review. Teachers care about learning and about students meeting their potential; teachers are worried about the lack of joy and the proliferation of stress in our schools today. These teachers are ready to have a conversation beyond duct-tape options. We are ready to reexamine the system, look at the research, and have that bigger discussion of fairness and equity.
In my next post, I’ll share with you both the research I found as well as the responses from my students when I asked them about their relationship with the grading system. Until then, I invite you to share your own perspective on our current system. Does it seem to be working for the students in your classroom? Do you feel that it is a fair assessment of student learning? What have you done to manipulate the system to create fairness?

This a version of this post is also published on Red Pen Reflections blog at The Center for Teaching Quality