Flexible Grading: Bending, Not Breaking, in a World Obsessed with Grades

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  #5 Blog of 2018

Bonus: If you’re interested in exploring this topic more, sign up for free to watch Amber Chandler’s webinar: Isn’t It About Time for Flexible Grading?


If you’ve ever watched a student crumple up a paper or leave a quiz you’ve just returned on the floor, you know how irritating students’ seeming indifference can be. If a group of students has swarmed your desk like killer bees to point out that you miscalculated a grade, you’ve felt the sting of grade obsession over knowledge acquisition. If these anecdotal pieces of evidence aren’t enough, there is plenty of research that denounces grading. I particularly like Alfie Kohn’s “The Case Against Grades.”

Because of my personal experiences and professional research, I would love it if I could be one of the many educators who are able to be a part of Mark Barnes’ Teachers Throwing Out Grades and Hack Learning movement. The problem is that I can’t. Like many of you, I work in a building where “to grade or not to grade” isn’t even a question. Each quarter, I am required to give several tests and/or essays that will count as 60 percent of a student’s grade, quizzes that count as 20 percent, and another 20 percent for homework. We are not allowed to give extra credit, nor are we allowed to retest students. Those are the facts. However, I’ve become an expert at creating educationally sound “bends” to these rules that allow me to meet the needs of my students without a break in my integrity or the rules themselves.

First, let me begin by saying that everything you are going to read for the rest of this blog is a matter of semantics. Eye rolling might ensue. I don’t blame you, and I get it. However, I’m willing to accept that for now I need to bend the rules, not break them, and if an elaborate explanation for the “bends” I make is the only way to do what I do, I’m OK with that too. I am a firm believer that most educators and administrators aren’t against change per se, but there are so many layers of repercussions that it is sometimes easier to sway in the winds of change than to make a hard break from accepted cultural expectations. If my administrators are choosing to bend with me, I’ll take it! (Read this Buffalo News article about a local district that is phasing out class rank, and you’ll quickly see the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” problem.) I may not have the influence to change the entire school’s approach to grading (yet), but here are three attitudes I’m able to share with my students, parents and administrators about grading that makes it less punitive and more valuable for everyone:

Everything counts

Because I am required to give grades, I am careful to include everything that I think makes a student successful as a part of that grade. For example, when students do presentations, the audience gets a grade. If everyone gets a 10/10 because they followed the expectations for being a good audience, then I am comfortable with that. It is not grade inflation if the skill being assessed is deemed valuable enough to measure, and certainly being quiet, respectful, and attentive are worthy pursuits. If I need to pull someone aside and say, “Today, you were really not appropriate during presentations because you were fidgeting and not paying attention. Right now I feel that you are earning about a 6/10, but we are a work in progress. Tomorrow, I’ll keep an eye on you again, and I think I’ll be able to change that. What are you going to do differently this time?”

Do I necessarily want to stick a grade on everything? No. However, if I must grade, I’m going to give students grades for things they have control of themselves—things that are beyond just their ability to take tests. This includes “class participation” grades for workdays. I’m careful to be clear about the criteria for success, but if a student didn’t earn 10/10, I pull that child aside and offer an opportunity to meet the criteria for a successful day. For example, if the Daily Learning Goal is: “Read your paper out loud to a partner, noting any spots that require edits. Then, make the changes in your draft,” yet I never see the child make the edits, I ask her to come in during a study hall or after school to complete what was required. I can pinpoint the student’s problem--was she just off task talking about any of the million socially important topics of the day or confused about how to make the edits? Either way, there is a lesson to be learned about group interaction. I can offer suggestions in a non-threatening kind of way while finding out what is going on with that child.  Though this is actually more grading, it is also formative and provides feedback on areas that are normally not measured by a grade, but have also been shown to dramatically impact future success.

I want my students to know that I am paying attention, and their bosses will be too. Learning to manage situations such as this is crucial for today’s students. I love what Stedman Graham says in “Preparing for the 21st Century: Soft Skills Matter”: “Many of us aren’t getting enough experience with personal feedback and group interactions, the building blocks of basic soft skills. At the same time, we are constantly challenged to master the new soft skills involved with the ever-changing methods of communication.” In my mind, everything counts, and it is fair to assess some of the soft skills that all students need, rather than grade for simple academic mastery. Of course, that is, if I have to give a grade.

Remediation

It is true, my school does not allow retesting. However, I think it is practically educational malpractice to say, “Sorry. You got a 60 on commas. Good luck with that,” which is the message we convey when we provide one-and-done grades. I do not retest. I remediate. Then, I provide the opportunity to update a student’s grade based on that remediation. You might be rolling your eyes here, as some of my colleagues do. Yep, this is semantics. However, retesting is allowing a student to take the same test. I don’t do that.

Instead, with the amazing resources of the internet and the ease of creating review materials, I offer my students re-teaching, but what I’ve found is that most of them just need more practice. Recently, a number of students did not do well on a grammar/writing assessment. It parallels portions of our final exam, so not only is it prudent for students to learn for their own needs, but it is also important to learn for the course itself. Here’s the link to preview the quiz that zeros in on some grammar and writing mechanics that proved troublesome in student essays. (Note, you'll need to log in or create a account to see the preview, but it's an amazing, free self-grading resource!) Here’s the link to the additional practice on Quizlet where my students must sign in, and I can monitor how many minutes they review; I also require them to create practice tests and print out their results for me. Then, I allow them to take another test—not the same one, but a different version. In allowing for these remedial steps, I’m in essence teaching them how to study. Not to mention, who among us would want to deny a child the opportunity to learn?

The biggest detractors of this method of remediation and new testing are actually parents. Some say it isn’t “fair.” If their child gets a 100 the first time, how can it be “fair” that another child can earn a 100 by doing more work? I patiently explain that I’d always allow their child to work to learn and improve, and though their child is successful in this topic, I’d most certainly hope they’d want their child to have the opportunity to learn at a different pace if needed. It doesn’t make everyone happy, but I am comfortable defending my job as teacher to educate, no matter what it takes.

Whatever it takes . . .

At the end of writing The Flexible ELA Classroom, I came to the conclusion that differentiation is really a matter of “whatever it takes” to give the students in my room the opportunity to be successful on that particular day. Grading, of course, is a deeply entrenched cultural phenomenon, and I believe that if I’m honest with my students, parents and administrators about my attitudes regarding grades, then it is possible to bend to the requirements of my job without losing my integrity. I tell students, parents and administrators alike that I do believe that everything counts; I do believe that multiple meaningful opportunities to learn (including revision and remediation) are more than fair; and I’ve found that if I am doing whatever it takes for every child in my room, then grades no longer have the power, relationships do.