Grading: What Is It For?

As the school year winds down, teachers are spending a lot of their time putting together final grades, those terminal evaluations of a student before they move on to the Next Thing. Final grades are the be-all and end-all, right?

In my experience, they’re what give students more anxiety and make them go out of their way to grovel and find ways to charm themselves into your good graces enough that you might raise that B+ to an A- (or, more tragically, that F to a D-).

But have you stopped lately to think about why we grade? Why we give report cards? Why students have so much anxiety about them?

I know that when I first started teaching, I didn’t question grading at all. I just graded my students the way I’d always been graded - with points.

Every time I gave students something to work on, I would assign a point value to it. I did some vague mental calculus in deciding how many points this assignment was worth versus that assignment, with the only metric being that stuff that was more important should surely be worth more points.

When students handed their work in, I gave them points, based on… I don’t know… how good a job I thought they did? How much effort they put in? A combination of both? This part was always time-consuming and ultimately maddening.

When you’re going through a stack of 150 papers, it’s really hard to keep up continuous decision-making effort into what the difference between an 8/10 and a 9/10 is.

But I continued to grade in exactly this way, for a long, long time.

When my school district in Oregon formed a grading task force, I joined, because I was one of those new teachers who will join any committee, just to get a free professional development book and learn something new.

This was the beginning of a mindshift for me - away from traditional grading methods and towards a more purposeful, feedback-driven approach.

It began with reading Ken O’Connor’s excellent book How to Grade for Learning, and really, this is what inspired the title of this post.

What is grading for?

If it isn’t for learning, then why in God’s name would we do it?

But on the other hand, how many of our traditional grading practices result in learning?

Have you ever felt pangs of discomfort when assigning grades? Have you ever felt like the student’s grade in the gradebook just wasn’t reflective of their actual knowledge or skills?

I used to feel those things constantly.

On the one hand, I’d have students who diligently completed all their work, earning 10/10s that resulted in a final grade of A, who wrote in a mediocre fashion at best and hadn’t challenged themselves in their reading all year.

On the other hand, I’d have students who would spend 20 minutes after school discussing the latest classic novel they’d read, but who were failing my class because they’d accumulated too many zeros to dig themselves out of the Point Deficit Hole. Where did those zeros come from? It wasn’t lack of knowledge or skills in my subject area - it was not having the time or space at home to do homework, or a parent who couldn’t help them, or just… ADHD, getting the better of their executive function skills.

After reading Ken O’Connor’s book, grading in my classroom went through several evolutions aimed at getting me away from that nagging feeling that the way I was grading wasn’t working.

I’d like to encourage you to assess your grading practices and see if there’s room for improvement there. As the school year winds down, summer can be a great time to do a little professional reading, when you have the time and space to think about the next version of your classroom.

If this intrigues you, here are some other resources to explore:

As the summer goes on, I plan to delve further into some of the practices I have specifically changed in my classroom, explaining why and how I made these changes.

For now, do a little Googling. Do a little Twittering. Order some books. Open your mind.

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Enjoy these last few days (or weeks) with your students this year.

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Erin DickeyComment