Grades are communication, not compensation



It’s easy to get this backwards.

We get this backwards when we give a student an A for working hard regardless of content mastery.

We get this backwards when we pad a student’s grade with multiple assignments regardless of rigor and relevance.

We get this backwards when we assign and grade busywork.

We get this backwards when we rely on the gradebook to communicate with parents instead of taking the time to conference in person.

We get this backwards when we don’t post relevant grades in a timely manner.

We get this backwards when a student turns in an assignment late and points are deducted.

We get this backwards when a student doesn’t do an assignment and we assign a zero and move on.

We get this backwards when we don’t allow a student to make-up or redo an assignment.

We get this backwards when a student fails anything and we fail to remediate.

We get this backwards when we allow students to be more concerned about the grade than the learning.

We get this backwards when we count “did-you-do-it?” grades.

We get this backwards when we enter grades for the sake of entering grades.

We get this backwards when we give participation points.

We get this backwards when we give bonus points for bringing in classroom supplies.

We get this backwards when we use a student’s grade as leverage for compliance.

The bottoms line:  Grades should communicate content mastery— that’s it.

10 thoughts on “Grades are communication, not compensation

  1. I appreciate the point you are making. And I probably agree with what what Wormeli is saying, too, although that’s hard to know without seeing the quote in context. Unfortunately, the fact is that everything you mentioned is a part of traditional grading so it is backwards and really communicates nothing. What students and parents need is regular narrative feedback and ongoing dialogue about learning. Standards-based reports are better than the traditional A, B, C nonsense, but they still fall short. And yet, what teacher can manage today’s class sizes and provide that type of communication? I’m not sure what we should do to correct this, but grades as currently reported are malpractice. (Sorry, Jordan, this strikes a nerve. *sigh* )

    • I’m with you, Philip. We definitely have it backward often, but grades are still important. Personally, I want to be graded. I want to know how I’m doing, where I’m excelling, and where I need to improve. Without specific feedback, how can I grow? How can students grow? “Grading backwards” is like when someone says, “Thanks for all you do.” The lack of specificity makes the comment worthless. However, a specific comment or evaluation from an administrator or teacher works wonders for growth. For the most part, the grading system is broken, but it can be salvaged– and needs to be.

  2. Thanks, Jordan. I completely agree with wanting feedback. I need it. My colleagues need it. Students need it. The problem is that grades offer nothing specific. The system is broken beyond repair. I don’t want to be graded, and I don’t want to grade students because the grade means nothing. How do you interpret it? In my experience, grades just encourage most kids to develop the attitude of “what’s the least I must do to get a(n) —?”

    So why keep them? We keep them because they make it easy to rank and sort students. It’s easy to pick valedictorian and honor graduates. It’s easy for schools to decide who gets scholarships and acceptance letters. Personally, I don’t think we need to be making this easy for anyone.

    Yes, you can probably salvage grades at your school, but your students will continue to compete for scholarships and placements with students from systems where those letters and numbers are inflated or deflated. I’d prefer to opt out and tackle something completely different. I want to make people take a good look at my students when making those comparisons. I want the evaluators’ jobs to be incredibly hard. Nope. They wont have traditional grades like everyone else. But if I am developing real talent in my students–inspiring great thinkers and passionate, reflective learners by providing great feedback and inspiring deep inquiry, won’t other school WANT my kids? And if they don’t want those types of students, what does that say about them?

    What do you think? Am I totally wrong or naive? (By the way, I love this conversation, and I’m sure some of my passion about it has to do with the fact that my traditional grades are due in a week. HA!)

    • I’m liking this conversation because it’s forcing me to put my thoughts into words– not always easy to do.

      We’re on the same page. Opting out of traditional grades is a great idea; unfortunately, it’s the kids who take any risk with that and it will take a whole generation of students to take on the risk and disrupt the system. I don’t see that happening on a global scale, but I do see it happening in small increments as parents make those decisions (like opting out of state testing).

      Some type of narrative assessments could substitute for traditional grades, but that’s a tough one to get going for many reasons (one being it takes guts). Some teachers hide behind grades to avoid truly evaluating students.

      For the sake of all students, assessment needs to be changed. As for now, using grades correctly would be a step in the right direction.

  3. Thank you for so succinctly sharing many of the reasons traditional grading practices do not support student learning. I agree with Philip that standards-based reports are better. And I agree that the ideal ongoing feedback and support seems nearly impossible for teachers, especially as you move higher in grade level and teachers are responsible for giving this feedback to over a hundred students. I think the first step is awareness that the status quo is “backwards” as you say, and then individual teachers, schools, and districts…and most importantly, students…can start discussing what practices actually do support learning and start implementing those. Systematically, consistently, and with ongoing support. I enjoyed the post; thank you.

    • Thanks, Cara. It’s a tough thing to fix and certainly won’t happen overnight, but as you said, at least being aware is the first step.

  4. In the province of New Brunswick, in Eastern Canada, many of the things on this list are already clearly spelled out for teachers. We are to evaluate student performance, and not behaviours. While some schools have taken a moderate approach, ours has been quiote hard-line in its approach, and students do not receieve zero for assignments not handed in on time, nor are teachers permitted o refuse a request for a re-take. The philosophy of what you describe is vwery much in evidence, although it is an ongoing adjustment, and there are still times when we all cry for some sort of behavioural assessment that would encourage stuents to develop good work habits.

    Personally, I agree with Phillip. I think that letters and percentages give the sort of feedback that helps to rank and compare students, but does relatively little in the way of communicating what a student is actually capable of. Most video games give better feedback than the average report card, and to be honest, I think that the solution might lie down the same path; give students general feedback, which can then be broken down into smaller, more detailed components. It should be possible for a student, at a glance, to recognize a problem area, and then zero in on the precise aspects that need to be worked on. And of course, this assessment needs to be ongoing. Report cards serve as sign-posts along the path, but for students to adjust their performance along the way means that everyone involved needs regulkar feedback (teachers and parents included).

    I like the idea of Narratvie assessment, but I suspect that it may not always be what we need. Ideally, there would be a way of giving both the close-up and the big picture… an interactive assessment report… one that paints a more accurate portrait of student performance.

  5. In New Brunswick, Canada, where I am teaching these days, this conversation is ongoing, but there has already been a significant shift. We are not permitted to give zero for an assignment that was not handed in, nor can we deduct marks for days late. In fact, if the policy is being followed as strictly as it is in my school, there are no grades are strictly for academic performance. Anything that is regarded as behavioural (i.e. puntuality, class participation, effort, etc.) has no place in our formal evaluations. We have also seen a great deal of education, among students, teachers and parents, regarding formative versus sommative assessment. All of these things have helped, but I can’t help but feel that we are still a long way from the sort of evaluation and communication that our students really need.

    Letters and percentages, the traditional tools for communicating assessment, usually faill to deliver the big picture. Narrative assessment would do that, but coulkd present the opposite problem (though I suppose that would depend on how it was executed). My own impulse has been to look to video games, where I find game-designers offer immediate feedback, with a choice of how you choose to view your progress. A gamer can see his/her progress throughout an entire game, or a breakdown for each individual objective. If we could deliver on an assessment tool with that sort of flexibility, reporting on both overall progress and specific outcomes, we might have a suitable substitute. Of course, to begin that journey, we will have to have a serious conversation about the value of ranking and comparing students.

  6. Pingback: Miss Carson's Classroom » Blog Archive » Reflection #6

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