Discussing Fair Grading

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?

Further Reading:

The Case Against the Zero – Douglas Reeve, Phi Delta Kappan

Assessment Manifesto – Rick Stiggins

15 Fixes for Broken Grades – Ken O’Conner (overview available on page 7 of this PDF – Assessment FOR Learning)


6 Responses

  1. I guess I need to move this up on my reading list. What is fair grading? Why do we need grading at all? There were many articles regarding this in Alfie Kohn’s book, and it’s a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit lately. Will add more when I’ve had a chance to read along with you. By the way, I love the idea of a book study. I’ve done QBQ: The Question Behind the Question and Fish!. Both were excellent books in educational setting.

  2. Fair grading practices are those that focus on only the summative assessment of essential and enduring knowledge in a standards based environment. This means we should remove anything that is actually a behavior from grading (ex timeliness, effort). Many also consider 69 points worth of failure to be unfair grading practice. Some schools are going as far as designing assessments which demonstrate understanding for every standard students are expected to meet. The report card is a checklist that documents their success on each standard. A separate reporting sheet is attached that documents the students effort, punctuality, attendance, etc. It’s a real shift in thinking, beyond those of technology, largely because of the fact parents have to understand the change as well.

  3. My sister’s school in Moore County is going to Marzano’s 4 point grading scale. I don’t know a lot about it yet, but I’m curious as to how this relates. Is your school just studying now, or are you actively looking to make some changes?

  4. In our school, we don’t give grades. If your child gets a B in math for the quarter, what does that mean? Does he know everything that was taught in that quarter or just the heavily assessed material? Did he turn in all homework but bomb quizzes? The letter is meaningless without context. Our school requires us to do narrative reports for each child on every subject. This outlines each child’s strengths and gives suggestions for improvement. It’s a lot of work, but it has made me a better teacher. It makes me pay attention to what the kids say and do during class, not just what they do or don’t turn in.

  5. My school district is working on its 3rd year of implementing an initiative to improve student assessment through such topics as “Assessment for Learning”. Overall, I think it has been a very productive process as teachers have had to improve the communication of the goals and outcomes and ensuring activities meet these outcomes. One of the biggest roadblocks has been those teachers that teach in the grades that have standardized tests (grade 3, 6, 9 and 12). Those teachers feel tremendous pressure to teach to the exam and not for learning.

    As well, troubling in this process, is that this topic is filled with education jargon that is full of semantic traps that make it difficult to explain effectively to parents and students why everything they do no longer has a grade. Just trying to explain the difference between ‘assessment for learning’ and ‘assessment of learning’ to parents who only want to know their child’s standing in class makes me shake my head.

    • John, I totally understand that last part. Parents and students are so used to a comparison model where one student comes out on “top” and the rest “just have to work harder”. While I agree that in the long run in society some will come out “on top” I’m not sure that’s the model that needs to be forced down the throats of our students. Just as we teach students what a balanced diet is in hope that they make proper decisions later in life, we teach them how to go about discovering information, using technology as a tool, etc in hope that they make proper decisions later in life. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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