What's in a grade?

Starting the Conversation: What’s in a Grade?

Perhaps your team is working to minimize the percentage of students earning a D or F in your mathematics course or grade level.  Upon analyzing the data, it suddenly becomes clear that teachers on the collaborative team are not all calculating the student grades the same way, or even scoring assessments consistently.  Suddenly, proficiency and intervention are all in flux until this issue can be resolved.  Students proficient in one class would not be identified as such in another and it becomes clear that expectations differ by teacher, even when teaching the same course or grade level.

The issue of grading is a tricky one.  What does a C mean for a student in Math 8, in grade 3 math, or in geometry?  What does an A mean? An F? What does an S mean or a 3 or 4 if that is what your school system uses for reporting purposes? To earn a grade of C, does this mean the student earned a D on assessments but turned in all homework and classwork and even completed some extra credit to boost the grade?  Does this mean the student earned a B on common assessments and did not do homework or classwork and the overall grade averaged to a C?  Could it mean both of these depending on the teacher in Math 8 asked? What do we want the grade to represent?

Grading can be like an onion with additional layers revealing themselves as consistency is pursued. Consider the following:

  • Is the grade representing what students have learned, or what they have earned?
  • Is the grade a reflection of learning demonstrated on multiple assessments or is it given as compensation for effort and ingenuity?
  • Did the grade result from common assessments scored using common rubrics and are the teachers calibrated in their grading practices?
  • How do students, parents, and colleagues interpret the grade on the report card?
  • How can the grade be used to determine next steps for the student?

Ideally, a grade of C will tell the student and all stakeholders that the student has learned the concepts of Math 8 covered to date at a C level – not reflect the behavior of the student related to classwork or homework, etc.  For many, this smacks in the face of teaching responsibility, so it is helpful if there can be a behavior/citizenship grade on the report card or comments to that effect on the report card.  However, upon further analysis, giving a student a zero for a missing assignment or lack of effort also does not teach responsibility – making the student complete the assignment or try better teaches the responsibility sought.

As teams begin to further define what a letter grade representing learning means, they ask questions like, “How proficient is the student toward meeting the standards addressed?  What must be in the student work?” Grades begin to be calculated using a standards-based proficiency model, though often a report card still mandates a letter grade, especially at the secondary level.

When working with a middle school recently, the mathematics teams had been told by the principal that every grade level must calculate grades as 70% summative and 30% formative.  This is difficult since formative assignments and assessments are typically designed as learning opportunities with feedback.  As such, when analyzing grades, it quickly became apparent that the teachers were interpreting these categories differently.  Consider the following:

 

Teacher A Teacher B
Summative

·         Common end-of unit assessments

·         Common mid-unit quizzes

·         1 Performance Task/unit

·         Final exam

Formative

·         Exit slips

·         Homework

·         Classwork

·         Class Participation

·         Problems of the Week (extra credit)

Summative

·         Common end-of unit assessments

·         Final exam

Formative

·         Common mid-unit quizzes

·         2 Performance Tasks/unit

·         Homework

·         Classwork

·         Class Participation

·         No tardies = 40 points

·         Khan Academy practice

·         Signed parent letter at start of semester

In addition to the discrepancies in each list, we learned the items in the list were not always common, nor the grading of assessments calibrated.  Now…what does a grade mean for a student in Math 8?  Suddenly it is not so clear.  But the students in Teacher A’s class and Teacher B’s class both have a report card the high school will reference that says “Math 8” not “Teacher A Math” or “Teacher B Math.”  As such, having collective agreements on scoring and grading are critical conversations to have as a collaborative team.

I have shared some questions to begin asking yourself as a team as you work to calibrate the meaning and interpretation of a student grade in a mathematics course.  These will not be easy conversations to have so I encourage you to reference the work of Schimmer, Guskey, O’Connor, Reeves, Wormelli, and Marzano, among others, as you dive deeper into the meaning of a mathematics grade.

What is your grading vision?  How does it include understanding the meaning of a grade you give or read from a report card? How does it include students and parents gaining meaning about learning having seen it on a report card?   How does it include trust that, regardless of teacher, each student in the course has learning evaluated with equity?  The quest may seem daunting, but the victory will be one shared by teachers and students alike.

What does a C mean?  Time for your team to decide…

Want to learn more about best practices of schools on effective scoring, grading, and reporting? Check out Elements of Grading or this course on evaluating and improving your grading system.

 

Sarah Schuhl

Sarah Schuhl is a consultant specializing in professional learning communities, assessment, school improvement, and mathematics. She has been a secondary mathematics teacher, high school instructional coach, and K–12 mathematics specialist.

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