Grading reform has been an often-contentious topic of conversation in the United States for nearly as long as education has been standard in our society. Prominent educators dating back more than a century and continuing to the present have argued against traditional grading scales, percentages, and letter grades. The most common faults of a traditional system are that a student grades are no more than a collection of points over a period of time, making the idea of mastery a moot point; that an instructor’s implicit biases often affect a student’s grade, and therefore, do not reflect what a student actually knows, or can do; and perhaps most damning, that grades aren’t tied to standards, or learning objectives at all, making the question of what students learned in a course murky, at best. The standards movement of the 1990s brought education a collection of criterion-referenced standards that educators could lean on to base their learning objectives, and ultimately, an aiming point for their gradebooks. Unfortunately, systemic change happens slowly.
The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 in the spring of 2020 exposed the susceptibility of traditional grading, and laid bare the inconsistencies, subjectiveness, and biases of traditional gradebooks. In education, we don’t really know what a grade means when we look at a gradebook. To discern what it means, we have to speak to the individual instructor and attempt to understand their philosophy of grading, what they consider important enough to put in the gradebook, and how they settled upon the score the student received. In this way, teachers are independent contractors, teaching similar, or the same courses as their colleagues, all in different ways, and with different systems of scoring. When our community expects that our system of education will produce contributing members of society once they have graduated, as our board goals indicate, we realize rather suddenly that these inconsistencies cannot possibly attain that goal. Ironically, the system of grading and reporting in our community, and across the country, cannot receive a mark higher than an “F” if we continue to do the same things for the same reasons we have always done them. As we preach to our learners, we must adapt, overcome, and deliver on our promises. Speaking in platitudes isn’t enough to get the job done, however. Action is necessary. So, what now?
To deliver on our promise, we intend to assert the following methods at Fort Madison High School:
- We will consider practice an important part of the process while empowering a culture of learning. As Tom Schimmer states in his continuing work on standards-based grading: “the relationship between practice and games, or rehearsal and performance is self-evident, and the same relationship should exist between the formative and summative purposes of assessment.” Formative assessment is practice, and informs learning, while summative assessment verifies learning, and is final. The score in the gradebook, therefore, should be no different than the score on the scoreboard at the end of an athletic competition.
- We intend to communicate mastery learning rather than a collection of tasks completed over the course of time. Based on our agreed-upon course outcomes, our instructors will communicate what a student knows and is able to do in a crystal clear fashion. Rather than teachers, students, and parents asking how many points an assignment is worth, we will be asking what mastery (proficiency on the standard) looks like. And when we have identified that a student isn’t proficient, we will immediately help them become proficient. The focus must shift from points to learning!
- We will adopt a philosophy of mastery over time. Rather than emphasizing whether a student learns, we will instead emphasize when they learn. The fact is that any grading system that disadvantages students who don’t learn fast enough, or at the same speed as their peers, is unfair, and inequitable. Education is not a race. It is not a comparison of one student to another. It absolutely must be about meeting students where they are and making them better than they were the day before.
- We intend to implement grading guidelines that will accentuate accuracy over coercion. A hallmark of traditional grading is to compel students into behavioral compliance with promises of arbitrary extra credit, or penalties for misbehavior or turning in late assignments. If we are to be accurate about what a student knows and is able to do, we must separate how a student learns (responsibility, work ethic, effort, attitude, etc.) with what they’ve learned. Non-achievement factors do matter. Achievement grades are the reason students get into college. Their habits of learning are the reason they will get through college. We will report habits of learning, just separately from achievement.
- We will emphasize quality. The standards and learning targets we are working with are sophisticated and intellectual. They call for students to think and learn at complex levels. Grading policies that rely on counting over quality are obsolete. They are certainly easier to understand, but they are nonetheless, unjustified. Therefore, FMHS plans to apply a scale of novice (1), approaching (2), proficient (3), and sophisticated to our gradebooks. These levels will be far more distinguishable than a 0-100 scale, and will allow teachers, students, and parents to track the progress of quality in students’ work.
This process will certainly take time. It will not be without its ups and downs, and will hopefully lead to meaningful conversation and growth. Together, we can make a better world for our children by giving them better opportunities, and that starts with the promises we make them.