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Grading Dilemmas in a K-8 Setting

By LeaderTalk Contributor — October 13, 2010 4 min read

As an administrator of a K-8 school, one of many responsibilities is to measure and report student progress to the larger community and particularly to the parents. I am not referring here to high stakes testing but to the individual learning taking place with individual students. Seeking answers to the following question form a central part of my work each day. “How are students learning? What are students learning? How do we know that they are learning?”

Over the last two or three years, the question of assessments and grades has been a critical piece of my personal reflection and an important part of our faculty discussions. Marzano’s book Classroom Assessment and Grading that Works is a highly persuasive look at standards based assessment that focuses on student mastery. While I always push the envelope to assure we embrace best practices for teaching and learning, I am also a pragmatist. To institute Marzano’s suggestions calls for a systemic change. It is a worthy goal but not a current reality.

Recognizing the current prevailing practices regarding grades, what can we do now, as curriculum leaders, to ensure that the grades we put on student report cards communicate something of real value for the parents and students?

It is fairly well accepted that the current practice of averaging grades is not usually a good measure of student learning, but it is also the most prevalent means of figuring letter grades.

We also know that the use of “zero” grades dramatically impacts a student’s average. If you have not considered this, you might want to read the resources listed at the end of this post, but here is the idea in a nutshell: Using a zero grade for missed assignments skews a student’s average very heavily making it all most impossible for a student to recover. For example: A student who has three grades of 100% (or A) and one zero grade would receive a low C, which certainly is not a true measure of that student’s ability or progress.

Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, states:

Certainly students need to know that there are consequences for what they do and do not do in school. Malingering should be penalized. But should the penalty be so severe that students have no chance of restitution or recovery regarding their grade? In a percentage grading system, a zero is the most extreme score a teacher can assign. To move from a B to an A in most schools, for example, requires an improvement of only 10% at most, say from 80% to 90%. But to move from a zero to a minimum passing grade requires six or seven times that improvement, usually from zero to 60% or 70%”

Doing away with the “zero” grade is a relatively easy change, but the heart of the grading dilemma is more complicated. Today many schools use some kind of grade book software which includes categories and weights in determining grades, but often those categories and weights are determined by the individual teacher. That makes it very hard to compare grades classroom to classroom or grade to grade in a K-8 school. Higher education classes generally have syllabi with assessments spelled out in advance for the course; this is not the case in most elementary schools (nor is it practical). There is a wide disparity in grading practices in the K-8 environment concerning categories and weighting which is exacerbated by the fact that very little is written on this subject. It also is not a major part of most teacher credentialing programs. So where do administrators and teachers turn to develop meaningful grading policies with regard to using weighted categories within these software programs?

Discussing assessment and grading can be difficult because the terms are not easily defined. What is the difference between a quiz and a test? If you ask 10 teachers, you are likely to get 10 different answers. The same holds true for defining projects, graded work, and any other category of assignment you can think up. Then there is the homework debate . Is it practice and therefore only a formative assessment? Should it be considered in a final grade?

But even if you agree on a set of definitions, the other more difficult problem of weighting assignments, especially in a K-8 environment, must be addressed. What weight should each category have in determining the final grade? I have appealed to my personal learning network on Twitter, and I have searched the Internet for guidelines, examples and explanations of best practice for weighting categories of assessment in a K-8 environment and have found nothing. There is plenty written on weighted grade point averages or on how programs calculate weights but almost nothing on how to determine what weights to assign for the K-8 environment. The result, in my experience, is that often this decision is arbitrary and can vary from room to room.

While an individual administrator can take the lead and discuss the definitions of various assignment categories and establish a schoolwide weighting policy, the challenge is to begin a conversation about those discussions. Can we start a conversation which includes all of you, including the scholars, educators and mathematicians among us, to tackle these questions and best practices. There is no definitive one-size-fits-all answer, but there should be a body of work that recognizes the current reality and gives guidance and examples for the K-8 grading dilemma of defining assignment types/categories and assigning weights for these categories in a meaningful and accurate way.

A few resource on the discussion of zero grading:
How Classroom Assessments Improve Learning
Zero Grading
The Devastating Effect of Zero Grades

Barbara Barreda

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The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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