Grading is one of the most hotly debated topics in education. Many schools have followed the same 100 point or 4 point scale for decades without ever thinking twice about the messages these grading systems are sending to students. As a backlash against grading, some schools have completely abandoned the practice altogether, a practice which can have equally detrimental effects on the students.
One point I think we can all agree on is that students need feedback. They need to know how they are doing in the course, progress they are making, and what they can do to continue to improve. Feedback should be timely, specific, and thought-provoking. While traditional grading gives a quick view into how you are performing in the course, they give little insight into what has been learned and what still needs to be learned. After all, what good is completing a course where you learned half of what you needed to learn?
As educator’s we have the responsibility to clearly define what it means to demonstrate mastery of the content. But, mastery can be complicated. Ask any three people and you are likely to get different responses. We know mastery when we see it,
Tim was so learned, that he could name a horse in nine languages; so ignorant, that he bought a cow to ride on.”
– Ben Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac
To begin down the road to defining mastery for your students, Wormeli suggests asking the following questions at your next department or grade level meeting:
- Mastery is…
- Understanding is shown when…
- My students are literate in my subject area when they…
To hold students accountable to achieving mastery we have to start being a lot more specific in our criteria for success.
Questioning the scale
The next piece to consider in setting a grading policy in your classroom is whether or not the policy is setting the students up for success or whether your policy allows students to dig a hole so deep there is no possible way to recover once the moment of inspiration strikes.
The controversy here is the perception of rewarding students with points they did not earn when they opted to not submit an assignment. We’re talking about setting your minimum possible score in the grade book at 50% assignment completed or not. Gasp!
The horror! How could you possibly do this you might be asking? Consider a moment the power of zero. All other levels of your grade book have a 10 point range: A (100 – 90), B (90 – 80), etc. Why is it that once we get to an F, we have a 50 point swing? This can have a serious effect on students that miss an assignment or two and may not let them ever recover. Are these one or two assignments reflective of an entire semester or year of work, or are they just one portion of the content that needs to be mastered? This is where grading gets complicated and we enter a lot of uncharted waters.
If we want students to demonstrate mastery, we need to begin to question and reimagine our grading policies. Most of our legacy practices have a detrimental impact on the mindsets of our students and are keeping them from putting in the hard work necessary to get back on track. If you don’t believe us, just ask one of your struggling students.