written by Mr. Tony Winger, featured in Educational
Leadership November 2009 | Volume 67 | Number 3
Multiple Measures Pages 73-75
Grading What Matters
No matter how lofty our espoused education goals, our grading practices reveal what we truly value.
When I began analyzing my grading practices several years ago, I was embarrassed by what I found. Although I claimed I wanted my students to think more critically and engage with the world more fully, my grading practices communicated a different message. Students received so much credit for completing work, meeting deadlines, and following through with responsibilities that these factors could lift a student's semester grade to a B or an A, even as other indicators suggested that the student had learned little. My grading practices communicated clearly that, despite my claims to the contrary, students' willingness and ability to comply mattered most.
I've observed that other teachers approach grading similarly. Recently I heard from a parent who, after home-schooling for several years, had enrolled her son in a public school. After just three weeks, her son was failing his language arts class because he had failed to bring a book to read for the daily sustained silent reading time and to return a parent-signed course expectations sheet. The message? Compliance is the priority, and grades have little to do with learning.
An incident in my high school economics class confirms that students have internalized this message. A young man assigned to write an essay on health care turned in a neatly typed, but completely incoherent paper. The introduction supported universal health care, but the conclusion argued against it. I told this student that the paper must be redone. He was incredulous. He pleaded his case fervently, emphasizing that the paper was typed, edited, and completed on time. I explained that although punctuality, neatness, and grammar are important, it was his understanding that mattered most. Apparently 12 years of education had taught him otherwise.
Parent concerns are added proof that our unintended message has been delivered. Time after time, parent inquiry into student performance focuses on missing assignments. Parents want to know what missing work their child can turn in for credit, recognizing, quite accurately, that grades are primarily a reflection of effort rather than progress toward learning goals.
What Do We Measure?
As I reflected on this topic, I resolved to refocus myself and my students on learning. This, of course, required that I know what exactly I meant by student learning. Once more I took a look at my practice, and what I discovered was disturbing. I was not unlike the teacher I spoke with recently who hesitated to test her students after a three-day weekend because she feared they would perform poorly. If we avoid assessing our students after a long weekend, then obviously we are not expecting, nor attempting to assess, enduring understanding in students. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe (2005) agree that grades tend to measure students' short-term recall of information, rather than long-term, meaningful understanding.
If we focus predominately on measuring students' compliance and their ability to recall facts, our practices will interfere with our most significant purposes as educators. If we are to shift our focus to higher-level thinking, we must shift our grading practices.
Here's a case in point: imagine that a track coach is preparing his line-up for a district championship meet. He's looking at his sprinters and currently, he has a young woman running an 11.3 second 100 meter dash - a time that may win her a championship; however, there is a huge problem. Back in the start of the season, this same runner was clocked consistently in the 12-second range, often as high as 12.4. Imagine that same coach deciding that he cannot place this athlete in his line-up because while she is running at her personal best, he cannot discount the struggles she endured earlier, struggles that caused her overall season average to hover around 12.0 second mark, a time not likely to medal at districts. Such a decision would be preposterous!