Confessions of a Reformed Grader

report card I’ve taught Grade 7 Math for ten years and I am embarrassed to admit that for most of that time I have used marks in ways that have had nothing to do with student learning.  Every year I have figured out a grading system that I figured was fair.  I gave careful thought to how much of my student’s final grade would come from tests and quizzes, how much from projects and how much from homework.  I tried to collect enough data that when I averaged it all out it would be a ‘fair’ reflection of how my students were doing.  Not to mention it always looked really impressive to be able to roll out a spreadsheet full of numbers.  I always figured that as long as I had lots of numbers collected that no-one could would call into question my professional judgement and the percent that I eventually gave each of my students.

The truth is that I always had lots of discomfort with grading but I was never brave enough or experienced enough to do something about it.  Most terms when I averaged my final grades there would be one or two students whose final average was lower than what I thought it should be.  They had usually done badly on a test or quiz early in the term and that ended up bringing their whole mark down; or for reasons that had nothing to do with their ability  they got a low mark on an assignment I had weighted quite highly.  So here is a confession: occasionally I would not include these lower marks so that my student’s grades were in ‘my professional judgement’ a more accurate reflection of their ability.

The opposite was also true.  Some student’s that really struggled would put in an enormous amount of effort and get quite a good final mark that didn’t really reflect their Math ability.  It was more of a reflection of their fantastic effort.  I always left these marks where they were as I figured these students really deserved to reap the reward for their effort.  But here is confession #2: I always felt a little guilty that their mark gave a bit of a false impression regarding their ability.  Often these students were the ones that could answer all the questions that looked like the ones I had given them previously, but would get stuck as soon as things started to look a little different.  I always made sure to write comments on report cards to this effect, but I am not convinced that these comments were taken very seriously as they were accompanied by an ‘A’ in the grade box

Confession #3: every Friday I would give my students the same quiz to check on their learning.  As these quizzes counted for part of their final grade I felt like I had to give every student in my class the same one and I had to grade them equally, otherwise it wouldn’t be fair.  To support my struggling students I would offer extra help at lunch and after school, re-tests etc, and these were successful to some degree, but in hindsight they were like band aids on a bigger problem; I was giving them all the same quiz.

This term I have finally had the nerve to change how I grade.  Mostly I don’t.  My students have portfolios with a list of the learning outcomes we need to cover over the course of the term.  Each class we identify the learning outcomes we are covering and my students know that they need to have evidence in their portfolios of their understanding of these outcomes.  When they put work in their portfolio they write a self-evaluation reflecting on whether their evidence shows they have a strong understanding of the concept, a basic understanding, or they need more practice.  I am still obligated by my school to give my students a grade so for this term I have made satisfying the learning requirements in this way worth 75% of the term’s mark, and the grade comes directly from the evidence and reflections in their portfolios.

This change in my grading practices has had a remarkable impact on my classroom.  To begin with my weekly quizzes are now weekly skills checks.  My students all know that these make great evidence for their portfolios so they work hard on them.  If there is a question that they can’t get I will give them an easier version of the question to try or possibly do a mini lesson and then more practice questions.  They don’t panic because they know that they will have other opportunities to show their understanding.  For my weaker students I can give them an entirely different skills check that meets their needs and not worry about whether this is ‘fair’ or not.  I rarely get questions like ‘is this for marks’ or ‘is this good enough’ any more.  And if I do my response is usually something like ‘does this work show that you really understand this concept?’

We are an IB MYP school so the other 25% of my assessment comes from the IB MYP rubrics.  There are four rubrics for Math:

Criterion A – Knowledge and Understanding, which measures the student’s ability to apply knowledge in new situations.

Criterion B –  Investigating Patterns, which measures the student’s ability to identify and generalise patterns and then use them to solve a problem.

Criterion C – Communication, which measures the student’s ability to communicate their thinking.

Criterion D – Reflection, which measures the student’s ability to explain whether his or her results make sense, justify the accuracy of the results and suggest improvements to the method.

The more detailed rubrics look something like this (note: the ones I give my students don’t have any numbers attached to the criteria)

To gather evidence for these criteria we have a Problem of the Week that they all try.  In the past there have always been a few students for whom the Problem of the Week is too hard, but as I had assigned some sort of grade to it (usually bonus marks) I didn’t feel I could give them an easier problem or help them too much.  Now we just have a conversation about how they aren’t quite ready yet to tackle problems that let them meet the top level of descriptors for a particular criteria and we agree that I will find them a simpler problem that they can submit to their portfolio to show that they have met a lower level of descriptor.  I love this.  I am meeting them where they are, building their confidence and helping them build skills that will hopefully let them start tackling the more difficult problems when they are ready.

Using a portfolio based assessment system and these criteria has also had a positive impact on my high achieving students.  In the past I used to get frustrated because they would just come up to me with a number and say ‘is it right?’ and I would tell them to go show me some evidence, which they would do reluctantly.  Now, before we even start a problem we discuss which criteria it might be good evidence for and if they hand something in without enough evidence of thinking I will just refer them to the criteria and ask them which descriptors best describe their work.

I think even more importantly my students used to stop thinking when they knew they have gotten the mark they wanted.  Now they seem to be more interested in refining their thinking, solving the problem in a different way etc.

Other evidence for the MYP criteria is gathered in the course of doing projects.  The one we are tackling right now is one of my favourites, we are trying to figure out whether Hockey Players play harder during Regular Season or the Playoffs.

Of course it’s not perfect, and I was actually planning on holding off writing this post until the end if the term when I had ironed out more of the kinks.  But I think any system will always be a work in progress and I have been sufficiently impressed with the shift in my classroom towards students taking ownership of their learning that I wanted to share my thoughts; and maybe get some feedback? 🙂

image by Phil Jern on Flickr

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