Our school has a monthly book club for staff members. The list of books includes current adolescent and young adult literature, adult novels, and occasionally professional titles. This year a focus for our staff has been Rick Wormeli’s Fair Isn’t Always Equal. For those unfamiliar with Rick, he is a former middle school teacher, Disney English Teacher of the Year, phenomenal advocate for sensible, intelligent practice, and an all around good guy. He has written several books on middle grades education and assessment.
Fair Isn’t Always Equal is about standards based grading and fair assessment practices. One of the initial discussions that came out of the introduction of the book was the practice of replacing zeros in the gradebook with 60s. Many people imply that students are getting “something for doing nothing” with this practice. That’s exactly right, they’re getting a failing grade for doing nothing. It’s just that the failing grade doesn’t have the same negative impact on their overall performance. Quick example:
- A class is given 4 assignments, Student A completes 3 of the 4, earning 100s on all completed assignments. The fourth assignment is not completed and the teacher assigns a zero for that particular assignment. This makes the students average in the class a 75, or a D in most systems. Is this an accurate portrayal of what the student knows and is able to do?
- Situation B, the class is given the same 4 assignments, Student B completes 3 of 4, earns 100s on the completed assignments. The teacher now assigns a 60 (still failing) and the students average is a 90, or a B in most systems. Is this an accurate portrayal of what the student knows and is able to do?
Notice that both scenarios result in the same final question. Our task as educators, and ideally fair assessors, requires we know exactly what our students should know and be able to do. We must determine what the Essential and Enduring Knowledge is from our state mandated curriculum. From there, it becomes an issue of designing assessments that provide a variety of levels of mastery and paths to mastery. Our grading system should be one that fairly documents how each student stacks up to our pre-determined set of standards.
This is a difficult thing to do. Many teachers cling to their grading practices as the one constant in their classroom. When examined some of these practices are truly mind-boggling:
- Providing grades for effort
- Excessive weight for homework in final grades
- Focusing on formative assignments rather than summative assessments
- Harsh penalties for late work
There will be hours and hours of debate over these issues, but what it all boils down to is: What does an A in your class mean? What does ANY grade in your class mean? Grades are ridiculously subjective in the first place, so why make them moreso by clinging to unfair grading practices?
15 Fixes for Broken Grades – Ken O’Conner (overview available on page 7 of this PDF – Assessment FOR Learning)