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Reflections on First Semester Grading Reform: 3 Successes

It’s approximately the half-way mark of the school year, and to me, this means a couple of especially important things. It means the first semester is finished and grades have become a permanent part of student transcripts. With the second semester comes the opportunity to reflect on the successes and challenges of the 14 grading practice and policy reforms that I’ve implemented this year and determine my next steps (see an overview of those reforms here).

Thus far, I’ve found the grading reform process that I’ve undertaken to be a largely positive one. While it hasn’t been without challenges (like anything worth doing), the steps I’ve been able to make toward creating more accurate and equitable grades that students can understand and embrace have far outweighed the handful of setbacks and frustrations that I’ve encountered. 

In an effort to refine my practice for the second semester and share my journey with others who may be taking a similar one, I’ve created a three-part blog post that documents my reflections on three successes, three challenges, and three next steps on my grading reforms.

3 Successes

I’ve begun with the successes because they’ve far outweighed the challenges thus far. Three policies or practices that have been particularly successful thus far are using a four-point scale, and avoiding the use of zeros, and creating grades based entirely on summative assessment.

1. By converting to a 4-point scale from a 100-point percentage scale, I’ve been able to increase the accuracy of my grades in a fairly easy way. Unlike many of the other reforms I’ve made, this change did not require intensive teaching about the grading philosophy behind the change because it’s pretty intuitive. This shift has allowed me to shrink the failure zone of my scale from 60 levels (0-59% in the 100-point percentage scale) to essentially one (0 in the 4-point scale). And although I avoid the use of zeros as much as possible, in the rare occasion that I feel there is no other option, the 4-point scale doesn’t overly punish students like the percentage scale. This change has also prevented me from having to irrationally convert rubric scores on assessments back into percentage scores to be reported in the gradebook. 

Here is a look at the four-point scale I use in my classroom:

4: Exceeds––A

3: Proficient––B

2: Developing––C

1: Beginning––D

0: No Learning––F

2. I’ve also been able to increase the accuracy of my grades by avoiding the use of zeros. I realize that many instances in which I previously used zeros were completely invalid. I often used them in the past when a student hadn’t submitted an assignment or hadn’t completed an assessment. However, it was rarely the case that the student learned absolutely zero; rather, it was just that I had zero evidence of learning. While I could rationalize assigning zeros by claiming I had no other option because of a student’s complete lack of effort, the hard truth was that there were always other options, but assigning zeros was just easier.

At times I told my students that the zero was “just a placeholder” or “motivation for them to take the test,” but I now realize that this was also a misuse of grades. If I truly want my grades to represent student learning, I now know that I can’t use them for any other purpose besides communicating student learning––no matter how difficult that may be.

So although it can sometimes be hard work, I now make it my priority to find evidence of learning even when students don’t readily provide it because I believe it’s my responsibility as a teacher to create grades that truly represent what students have learned.  (I’ve written more about avoiding zeros in a previous blog post)

3. By creating grades that are based entirely on summative assessment, I’ve been able to increase both the accuracy and equity of my grades. My grades are now more accurate because they are created from the best tool that I have to measure student learning: summative assessments. In other words, my grades come exclusively from student performance on assessments that are given at the end of a learning unit.

As an English teacher, my assessments are all open response––often in single paragraph or essay format. All assessments are scored with standards-aligned rubrics that describe four different performance levels. Because I realize creating grades in such a way puts even more pressure on students to perform well on tests, I allow unlimited test retakes until the end of the semester. And I use a strategic reassessment process to facilitate learning between the original assessment and the retake when needed (read about the process here).

Intentionally left out of the grade are things like homework and classwork, which may be better measures of effort or behavior than learning. I know that the way I perceive high and low effort or good and bad behavior is likely a product of my own background, and it would be unfair and inequitable for me to try to measure student effort and behavior in a way that would affect student grades. Further, I know my grades are meant to communicate student learning, and although effort and behavior are often correlated with learning, they are not the same thing. And even if homework was graded for correctness, why should I punish kids for making mistakes during practice? On the flip side, if the homework is completely correct, how do I know it’s the student’s ideas and not a parents? Or a friend’s?

These three grading reforms undoubtably helped to make my first semester report card grades more accurate and equitable. But perhaps more important to my professional growth is what I’ve learned from the challenges that I’ve faced along the way. Read about three challenges that I’ve experienced with my grading reforms and my next steps in reform in my upcoming posts.

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