Do you have questions about how your child’s teacher comes up with his or her grades?

Overall, most teachers at my daughters’ school do AN AMAZING JOB of reaching out to communicate with families about learning expectations and student progress. That said, last year my daughters received NO feedback on reading proficiency (as they had already tested out of the assessment currently given to students at our school). And, even though they did SOME AMAZING writing they did not receive ANY teacher feedback on either rough or final drafts on any of their writing projects. :/

Their previous teacher (who is no longer at the school) declined to meet with me when I requested this information directly, (?!!) so I had to ask the District Humanities Department for the writing rubrics myself. At times like these, I am thankful to have “connections” at the district. Nonetheless, this is hardly to be expected of your average parent.

Our school has a Reading/Writing focus, I feel this could a big area for improvement, even if it’s just occurring in some classes. And, based on recent conversations with other parents who’ve expressed similar concerns, it turns out I am not alone in wondering how teachers at my school assess student progress.

Just how do teachers grade/assess students?

The reality is… even though grading is one of the MOST ESSENTIAL teacher responsibilities, it’s amazing how little support they get in doing it in truly meaningful ways.

Rick Wormeli has written a lot about grades. He says: “Grades should not be compensation, but communication.”

Over the years, there has been a lot of discussion in the education field about the purpose of grades in communicating student progress in mastering learning expectations. This is much too rich of a discussion to boil down to one simple post, but at a basic level educators are moving away from a “compensation” model (e.g. you “earn” your grade by completing assignments, kind of like a job) in favor of a model in which grades serve to communicate what students know and have yet to learn.

(If you’d like to learn more about Rick Wormeli’s views on grading, check out this great post titled: The Grading System We Need to Have in EdWeek put together by Larry Ferlazzo, one of my favorite educator/bloggers!)

Most education researchers agree that “punishing” kids with low grades is at best an inaccurate means of communicating what students need to work on to improve. More often, it actually harms student motivation to try harder.

Rethinking the teacher’s role in grading students

If our goal as educators is truly focused on learning, students should get clear and ongoing feedback on their learning progress and should ultimately feel the way they are graded is fair and transparent.

When I taught at the high school level, I accomplished this by telling my students they could come up with their own grade. (!)

Yes, you can imagine when I first said this, I had every student’s undivided attention. Then, I handed out a list of all their assignments in a given units and explained to them would have to total up not only their grade, but provide a rationale for why they deserved it. (Talk about “authentic” assessment… learning how to write a write a self-evaluation of your work and argue your case is a REAL WORLD SKILL!)

This proved not only a boon to me (I seriously HATE grading season!!!), it also taught students that they were ultimately responsible for their grades. Time freed up from data entry was now available for conferencing with students about their work. If students were motivated, I even allowed them to resubmit work, if they felt they could do a better job.

“Sounds cool, but it could be a cop-out,” you may be thinking. “Isn’t this just passing off an important job on my students?”

You wouldn’t believe how many students finally “got” the revision process when they could “do-over” an big essay or project. And in the end, what’s the most important thing? Measuring student ability to submit paperwork on time? or measuring their ability to demonstrate what they have learned?

And once I made the switch to this model, I can’t tell you how many meaningful conversations I had with students about the work-habits, content and quality of their work.

It also required me to be more intentional about my expected learning outcomes at the beginning of instruction. I had to be CLEAR and EXPLICIT about them… no mind-reading here. Once I started doing this, I actually came to realize that coming up with grading criteria “after-the-fact” is sloppy instruction. How can you expect students to meet learning expectations you’ve never even defined for yourself?

Families Have a Right to Ask Questions about Grades

Despite all the positive changes going on in education today, the grading process still remains a mystery for most students and families. One opportunity families have to clarify questions is during parent-teacher conferences. As we approach the middle of the first semester and parent conference week (November 16-20, 2015), this is a great opportunity for families and parent leaders to ask teachers, administrators and other school staff how grading and communication around students learning at their schools.

This helpful resource from the Harvard Family Research Project (available in English and Spanish) is full of tips to support educators and families in conducting productive, successful parent-teacher conferences. It doesn’t contain any information that you’ve never heard before. Nonetheless, as it comes from the Harvard (pronounce “Haaaar-vehd”), and is research-based, it serves as a useful framework for families to start conversations with staff about establishing clear and transparent grading practices in their schools.

Questions I’m Asking

I shared these tips with my daughters’ principal and have started asking about grading and assessment practices at my daughters’ school:

  • What is going well as at our school and in individual classrooms? What are areas for growth?
  • Which practices should be classroom to classroom and which do we believe should be school-wide?
  • What are our school expectations for communication with students and families when students fail to meet learning/behavioral/social expectations? (e.g. How do teachers communicate with families when kids fail to turn in important assignments or when they are failing?)
  • How can the school help teachers communicate with families about individual students? What about for families that lack technology access (e.g. SchoolLoop? WhatsApp? Remind?)

Obviously this is an ongoing conversation, the bulk of which is best had among staff. It is the teachers responsibility to assess student learning and it is ultimately their right to determine the best means to do this within the context of their instruction. Nonetheless, this job is a very important part of the education process, and parents have every right to understand how teachers come up with grades and weigh in when they have questions.

And it’s also worth noting… It’s in the California Ed Code.

California Education Code 51101

Except as provided in subdivision (d), the parents and guardians of pupils enrolled in public schools have the right and should have the opportunity, as mutually supportive and respectful partners in the education of their children within the public schools, to be informed by the school, and to participate in the education of their children…

and specifically…

…To be informed of their child’s progress in school and of the appropriate school personnel whom they should contact if problems arise with their child.

If you’d like to learn more about “good” grading practices…

Several Kinds Of Grading Systems

In Part 1 of this EdWeek series on grading, Larry Ferlazzo, a prolific and widely recognized teacher/blogger, shares his response to the question: “Should we continue to assign students grades in the traditional manner (percentages & letters), or should we move towards a system based on levels of mastery?” He also includes responses from other education experts, including Thomas R. Guskey, Susan M. Brookhart, and Bill Ivey.

The Grading System We Need to Have

This is Part 2 of the EdWeek grading discussion put together by Larry Ferlazzo where he highlights responses by Rick Wormeli, mentioned above.

Best Resources on Grading Practices

For all you education nerds out there Larry has done a great deal of work assembling link lists on grading. There is SO MUCH here I can’t even describe it. Just take a look!

Does any of this make sense to you? What do you think? Does your child’s teacher grade in FAIR and TRANSPARENT ways? Do you have any resources to share? Please post your ideas in the comments below.

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About alimcollins

Ali Collins is an educator, community organizer and mom. She lives with her husband and twin girls in San Francisco, CA.

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