Grading in the time of data-driven drivel

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As the data monster savagely eats its way through the educational jungle, one victim has been grading. Grading used to be an individual affair. Some teachers were easy graders, others much more demanding. Some weighted homework heavily. Others discounted homework. Decades went by with this loosely-coordinated grading system and I honestly don’t know that America’s students were any the worse for the lack of systematization. Teachers were better off. They got to pick the system that worked best for their personal beliefs and style. Students seemed to manage fine.

I suspect students benefited from learning to adapt to different teachers, in itself useful preparation for the work world. Learning to manage a micro-manager and then being able to adapt to his or her big-picture-just-get-it-done alternative down the hallway helps people get ahead in life. Teachers gave older students a syllabus that laid out rules and expectations, while younger students received a set of repeated explanations. We assumed students were bright enough to work effectively under different systems. More importantly, our students made the same assumption.

When I listen to administrators explain that all teachers need to use identical grading systems because otherwise students will become confused, I mostly just mutter expletives under my breath. Do these administrators believe what they are saying? Do they understand what they are saying? If we really need that level of consistency so that students will be able to figure out class expectations, we might as well forget about deepening the rigor of our curricula, given that our students apparently can’t even manage to figure out what to do with a well-written syllabus.

Should homework be 5%, 10%, or 25%? Should participation be 5%, 10%, or 25%? Should participation count at all? Where do projects, quizzes and tests fit in? Among other considerations, I believe subject material has to be part of any percentages selected. Projects ought to be more heavily weighted in science than in math, for example.

Many ideas have been floated around to solve grading problems. I’d like to share one of the latest bright ideas. Some schools are currently considering systems where classwork and homework count for nothing, while “standards” count for a full 100%, a system called standards-based grading (SBE). Many school systems are currently moving towards SBE. In SBE, grades measure a student’s progress against established standards — mostly based now in the Common Core — without regard to the performance of other classmates or sometimes even performance on participation, classwork and homework. Tests, quizzes and assignments are graded according to how well a student demonstrates understanding or mastery of the standards. Grades may be derived entirely from tests.

SBE sounds fine on paper. What do you do, though, when the standards are pitched years above a student’s actual academic operating level? SBE may be a functional system for students who are in sync with the standards. It has the potential to be hellishly difficult for that student who cannot master the standards, however. Students are usually allowed to take and retake tests until they meet the standard and some students will eventually get over the bar. Others will likely be given a secret pass, like the one I was given in college when I took football for my PE credit. To get my grade, I was required to kick the football through the goalposts. I kept running at that damn thing until a frustrated teaching assistant quietly sent me on and gave me the check mark I needed.

Will SBE work? In addition to inappropriate tests, I see other problems, one being the management of all the tests and test retakes required while also teaching.

Eduhonesty: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” in the words of an old saw. Was grading broken? If so, where is the proof? We need to ask why we should standardize grading in a time when our student bodies are becoming more differentiated. We continue to replace techniques that worked with new ideas that sound good in theory. These ideas have no track record. Is this desirable? Is this smart?

I don’t think so.

Addendum: Some discerning readers may have enough background to realize that one frequently given rationale for SBE has been that all teachers are put on the same grading track, making it easier to compare teachers’ performance. Again, in our data-driven time, this newfound comparability sounds good in theory. However, we are giving multiple standardized tests throughout the year. My own class will take four this year, the MAP, EXPLORE, ISAT and ACCESS. Can’t we use those four tests to create comparisons? If we can’t create the data we require with all that testing, I wish we would free up more time for actual instruction. Those tests suck a great deal of time out of the school year.