Changing Grading May Change Failure Rates

I mentioned yesterday in my post about the system that grading can help students be more successful. Now, I’m not talking about lowering standards or making grading less stringent; I’m saying we can help kids by not dooming them with our grading practices.

Here are a few things to consider:

1. What does a grade represent?

I’ve heard teachers say “I never accept late work” or “I only give half-credit for late work” and I think to myself that I’ve never seen timeliness as one of our benchmarks or grading standards. When points are deducted for lateness, the grade no longer represents student achievement. Standards cannot be arbitrary and must be linked to what we decide a grade means.

I at one point had decided to award an ‘A’ grade if a student turned in every assignment on time, if I deemed the student did his/her best on every assignment, and if the student participated fully in every activity. The Science Goddess made me rethink this policy when she discussed how the grade would no longer represent student achievement with this change. She’s right.

Every grade I give must be linked to student achievement, not arbitrary or personal standards.

2. Paperwork should not doom a student’s grade.

If a student does not complete two of five practices but gets a ‘B’ on the culminating quiz, do the two practices count against him? I would excuse the two assignments because the student did not need them to show competency/mastery of the skill or knowledge.

A single zero requires nine perfect scores just to get a grade back to an A-. How can that be viewed as an equal representation of a student’s achievement? Sometimes I think a teacher’s pride may get in the way when grading, wanting a student to do everything he/she assigns, necessary or not.

3. Deals can be made.

If a student finishes a semester having only failed to pass a single course requirement, whether it be a mastery test or a major paper, does this mean the student should spend 18 more weeks taking the same course? Maybe we can make a deal which saves the student time and still allows the student to show mastery.

Working with the student one on one for a short period of time and helping the student master that one skill or gain the required knowledge would help. I can sit with a student during independent time in class, or I can make time before or after school to help. Then I can simply put in a grade change later. This saves the student 18 weeks of work.

I could also make a different deal. If a student is with me the next semester after missing a passing grade by just one or two skills or a small amount of content knowledge, I could change a grade later if the student shows me those skills or knowledge in the next semester. Maybe another assignment or two uses the same skills, so the student can finish up first semester work in the second semester. Again, a late grade change can help the student.

4. A zero may be an unfair grade anyway.

I alluded to my point about the unfairness of the zero above, but I decided to include this anyway. The idea of a zero may be wholly unfair when looked at mathematically or statistically (see case_against_zero for an in-depth explanation). Basically, the article shows how a zero may be unfair to a student because of the way it destroys a student’s average and how difficult it is for a student to recover.

Missing assignments, according to the linked statistical analysis, reveals that a 50% for a missing assignment may be more fair to a student. I changed the value of a missing assignment from 0% to 50% after I had finished grades in June, and—because I weight grades—only one grade actually changed (from a C- to a C). For me, making this change in a missing assignment value has a minimal effect, but for others this could have a drastic effect. In any case, eliminating the zero could be more fair to students and help them excel.

5. Report grade meanings may need to be changed.

At my school the report grade lists an ‘A’ grade as exceptional, a ‘B’ grade as above average, a ‘C’ grade as average, a ‘D’ grade as below average, and an ‘F’ grade as a failure. This seems to imply that our grades are an old way of measuring student achievement in a competitive way. This would require teachers to assess students by measuring them against one another. I don’t view education as a means of competition but of collaboration.

I think that it’s time to reassess what our grades mean.

6. If more kids pass classes, teachers are helped.

Imagine having more classes without students repeating the course with you. Could this mean smaller class sizes? It’s quite possible.

Fewer students requiring extra attention while moving towards graduation could also mean fewer extra programs and specially hired positions, which in turn could mean more resources directed towards the classroom.

How often have you seen discipline problems being the result of students taking classes without hope? They know their success or failure in the classroom means little when looking at their futures. We may be able to help students be successful because we have not taken away their hope and their dreams.

I looked at the number of failures in my department and discovered that 1.4 positions in English are needed each year because of students who fail classes. Potentially, we could use that FTE to lower class size for other students.

Overall, changing grading practices could help the student and teacher alike.

10 thoughts on “Changing Grading May Change Failure Rates

  1. Jim Van Pelt

    Hi, Doc! Would you mind if I cut and pasted this into our district’s blog (properly attributed, of course). I’m one of the two moderators of the blog, and I think this would generate a lot of useful conversation.


  2. Fred Ravan

    Let me preface this by saying that I am a Spanish teacher. The skills in a modern language class are scaffolded much like those in a math class. We start off with the basics and build from there. Every lesson could begin with, ” last week we learned this skill, this week we are going to take it one step further.” The issue for me has been that students learn at different paces. So chapter one skills are easy for some and mind boggling for others. Chapter two skills can confound another group. The short of it is by the the third week of school, kids are all over the place as far as understanding the material/concepts. When I used to follow the traditional grading practices, kids would be doomed to failure by the end of the fourth week. By the end of the first quarter, failure would be their only result. Imagine the fun of being in a class for 55 minutes a day every day, knowing that you were going to fail the class anyway. Last year, I changed things–I moved to a proficiency based classroom, where students could practice the skills, and “re-take” the sections of the test they failed. Although there are still some bugs to work out, it has made my life easier—the kids are more relaxed, the parents are more hands-off and, most importantly, kids are learning Spanish. I am anxious to see if the my Spanish 2 colleagues notice any improvement.
    I would love to hear more.

  3. Ms. NC

    Interesting post. I am grappling with zeros and late work right now, trying to figure out what my policies are really getting out of students. A small part of me feels they need to learn how to time manage and do things on a time line, but a bigger part of me wonders if that’s really teaching them anything important that they’ll really take away from this year. This continues to push me towards a more lenient approach to some of the rules I just accepted as the way things were. As a professor of mine mentioned, we should question everything we do and policy we make–asking ourselves if it is the best thing for the students.

  4. drpezz Post author

    I truly believe most students do not see academics as their “job” because they are not paid in cash. You can’t spend grades.

    Grades are not a motivator for many kids but sure can be a de-motivator. Grades, to me, seem like a primarily punitive system if they are not purely based on student achievement. As most educators know: a system based on rewards and privilege succeed much more often than one based on punishment. I hear teachers too often threaten students with grades, and I think the teachers don’t know what motivates those kids.

    I guess what I’m saying is this: how do we make grades a system of reward? At a minimum I would hope my ideas on grading eliminate the idea of punishment as its crux.

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  6. The Science Goddess

    The research in this area says a couple of things. First of all, most teachers are unwilling to let go of zeros, points off for late work, etc. because the behaviors associated with learning too important (and it’s too hard to separate the kid from the learning). I think that better reporting tools would change this. If, as a teacher, I can report a grade based solely on achievement AND I have an area where I can provide an evaluation of the student’s “efforts” (e.g. does all the work, work is completed on time…), then that would be a better alternative.

    Secondly, the reward/punishment aspect of grading does not change student behaviors. Sure, teachers think if they take points off an assignment this time that the kid will learn a lesson and get the work done on time next time so as to avoid the punishment. And yet there is not a single study in the research literature that supports this. We have to be very careful about what we think is best practice vs. what really is shown to be best practice.

    Kudos to you for changing your thinking. Your students will greatly benefit!

  7. Fred Ravan

    The Science Goddess makes an interesting point. I agree what she says about punitive zeros not being a deterrent to late work. I have students who have gotten points deducted for late work yet turn in the next assignment late. One of the reasons in the past that I have had point deduction for late work was to get it all turned in the same date. I like to grade projects etc all at the same time so I am still in the same frame of mind.

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