Grading Grading

I just had a lovely lunch with someone in the local school district. They aren't associated with CRISS at all, just a nice lunch. We were talking about Rick Wormelli, author of numerous books including Fair Isn't Always Equal. He's coming to our little Montana valley to give a presentation and this educator and I were pretty excited about it. I explained how he changed the way I thought about grading.

At first, I graded things in a pretty traditional way: Tests worth X%, classwork Y%, maybe participation, etc. My first shift in grading was realizing that weighing different categories of grades made it much harder for students to understand what impact a test or assignment might have on their final score. That's not good, of course, so I moved to better transparency by making it clear: Tests 100pts, each homework assignment 10pts, etc. (or however I brok it up).

Then, I read Wormelli. I absolutely agreed with the premise that homework is practice. I wanted students to do classwork and homework knowing that they can try and fail as long as they try again and, eventually, succeed at the summative assessment.

So first, I basically dropped homework grades. Maybe - MAYBE - they were 2 pts each just so my record book would have a good indicator of effort for when I talked to parents. 0pts: No evidence of work. 1pt: Some work. 2pts: Clear attempt made. I also incorporated re-dos for quizzes and tests. Students who didn't pass, got a call home from me where I assured the parents that the grade in the online gradebook wasn't permanent and we'd set a re-take time. If the student failed again, I called again but this time we set two times: Once for me to meet with the student to study and once for the test.

This became quite a bit of work! I didn't want a million versions of each test, of course. So then I had to re-think my exams. I took a nice, long look at my objectives and realized that in most cases my objectives could be my test. If I wanted students to be able to Use a model to illustrate the role of cellular division (mitosis) and differentiation in producing and maintaining complex organisms." then why not make that a question? And why not tell my students at the start of the unit that the objectives would be the actual test? And of course that led to more differentiation: What sort of model? Well, I don't care. Pictures would be the quickest but could a student perhaps create a model in in a different way on their own, outside of class, to bring in for the test? Sure. And this is a BIG idea - what makes a "right" answer? I guess I need to ensure students have a rubric. What goes on that rubric? Hmmm... Appropriate use of critical vocabulary. One example, if not more. Reference to one of our labs/activities? That'd be nice. Definitely need to connect to one or more of the disciplinary core ideas.

Now that my assessments and objectives were getting so clear and I had this lovely rubric, I realized that As, Bs, Cs and non-passing grades didn't have the same meaning. I re-framed my rubrics: What was the essential information for passing? What did 100% of students need to learn 100% of?

Wormelli helped me realize that my job was helping all my students learn to certain standards. (That's why, of course, they are standards - don't ask me why I didn't have this realization on my own.) The A/B students had a more sophisticated understanding of those standards; maybe they could apply the knowledge more flexibly. Anyway, this led me to have more focused lessons - what mattered? - but also more flexible lessons - what interests you? what will help you understand? - and it allowed me to focus on all my students. Then those that wanted the enrichment and to pursue A/B grades could demonstrate they hit the standard and then move on. This was GREAT because those students now could be given general tasks "To get an A, you need to evaluate how ABC could impact DEF. Here are a few options for getting started..." I could guide them, but more loosely, while I supported those who were struggling.

My failures plummeted. No longer were students comparing themselves to the A students and thinking, "Gosh, I don't know all this..." but they were more focused on the purpose for learning and hiting that benchmark. They knew they had my full support and attention. They knew to keep trying. Then when they hit it, they had the option to pursure more. And what happened for those kids who said, "Eh... I'm done."? Well, it depends. For the most part, I'd talk to the kiddo about why they were fine and then I told them I'd talk with their guardians. I'd call home and let parents know that the kiddo hit the benchmark, he'd get a 75% for sure on the unit but he had 2 or 3 days more to pursue a higher grade. He was electing not to because (they were behind/struggling in a different class, wanted to work on a project for art, wanted to finish a book, etc.). Sometimes the parents and I were cool with that, often they were not and we'd come up with a compromise. But it was team effort and the student felt respected and the parents felt in the loop.

This was quite a process that started with just a few small changes. Can you find a way to help students focus on learning vs. doing? What does homework mean to you? When you plan, what is the relationship between objectives and grades? Every class and certainly every student is different. Reflect on and grade your grading. Are you happy?

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