Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Limitations of Letter Grades

 I am currently participating in the MOOC "Learning Beyond Letter Grades" and have completed my first reading assignments. To earn a badge (love the concept!), I am going to analyze the "grading system" that I used less than two years ago. I abandoned it feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the concept of grading in general. As a novice teacher, grades seemed to be something that gave me control and leverage. They were the tangible output of what students were learning from me. Or so I thought. After years of assigning grades without questioning their worth, I have outgrown this way of giving performance feedback to students and parents and think we need to consider the limitations of our and tried grading system.

My previous grading system for my middle school (grades 6-8) German classes
In accordance with Middle School World Language Department policy, trimester grades for middle school students in Novice, Novice-High and Intermediate-Low world language courses will be assigned based on the following categories:
  • Test (tests, project) 35%
  • Quiz (quizzes, role play, mini-project) 25%
  • Practice (homework, class work, participation) 40%
This system demonstrates that letter grades were used as a form of coercing students to do what was deemed necessary. While all parts of this grading structure address important elements of language learning, the final grade will not necessarily provide any insight into students' language proficiency, or how it can be improved. Rather, if the grade is high, it will tell us that the student was compliant with the teacher's demands. At the same time, a non-compliant student might find her own way of learning and excel in proficiency while failing to do assigned work or participate in class and end up with a grade that does not at all reflect her proficiency. In fact, another student in the same class who cannot do much with the language, but studies for quizzes, turns in all assignments, participates, and puts effort into projects may end up having the same grade. I often ended up with significantly inflated or deflated grades with this system. Students who have learned how to and accepted to "do" school, do well, those resisting, struggle. 
The bottom line is then that the final grade really does not tell much. Let's dig a little deeper.
What grade could a student earn without really mastering any of the content I taught?
Let's look at this scenario. Student A has received the following grades in my class:
  • Test - 60
  • Project - 70 (Average 65)  
  • Quiz 1 - 60 
  • Quiz 2 - 60
  • Mini-project - 70 
  • Quiz 3 - 60
  • Role-play - 70  (Average 64)
  • Homework - 100 - completion only
  • Classowork - 100 - completion only
  • Participation - 100 - participates all the time, though contributions are generally of low quality (Average 100)
The average would be:  22.75 (tests) + 16 (quizzes) + 40 (practice) = 78.75. Not a great grade, but well above passing whereas all performance based grades were below.

What grade could a student earn if she performs at the top on all assignments, but does not complete or turn in homework, classwork, and never participates?
Let's do another calculation. Student B has received the following grades in my class:
  • Test - 100
  • Project - 100 (Average 100)  
  • Quiz 1 - 100 
  • Quiz 2 - 100
  • Mini-project - 100 
  • Quiz 3 - 100
  • Role-play - 100  (Average 100)
  • Homework - 50 - completion only
  • Classowork - 50 - completion only
  • Participation - 50 - participates all the time, though contributions are generally of low quality (Average 50)
Now the average would be:  35 (tests) + 25 (quizzes) + 20 (practice) = 80. This is a student that shows proficiency (mastery, or whatever the grade measures), but without complying with my way of "practice", she is not receiving a much better grade than the student who was not able to pass any of my tests, quizzes, etc.

What do I learn from this?
If a grade is meant to give feedback about a student's level of performance, only teacher assessed assignments that take the level of performance into account should be included in the grade. However, I still argue that consistent performance in quizzes and tests may not always coincide with language proficiency. It is much more important to assess what we are hoping students will be able to do at the end of our class. At the same time, I believe the letter grade still falls short of being valuable feedback for students or parents. Standards-based grading and anecdotal feedback on the other hand could provide specific feedback on which discipline standards have been mastered and how a student can improve.  
Adjusting my grading system
While I am not able to get rid of grades all together, I can do the following to eliminate some of the pitfalls of grades:

    • Tests/quizzes are returned to students without a grade, but only anecdotal feedback. Students are asked to look at my feedback, reflect on their performance, and correct their mistakes. While grades will still be posted, they will be based on a rubric rather than an error scale.
    • No grade is ever final. Students have multiple opportunities to achieve mastery.
    • Homework, practice, and participation never count towards a grade. They are recorded with a 0% weight to encourage consistency and show a possible correlation between work habits and achievement.
Finally, making a few adjustments to my old grading system is not nearly enough going forward, but to restructure what has been for many years, will take a different approach in teaching as well (how exciting!). If I am going forward with standard-based grading and maybe badges (love!), I will have to take a deeper look at what and how I teach. It will be a journey, but I am ready.