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Teaching Opinion

Grades Should Be a ‘Feedback Tool’

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 03, 2019 11 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are your best recommendations for how to handle grading?

Ah, grading.

The task that many of us bring home to do on weekends and that many students and parents consider of prime importance. How valuable, though, is it really to learning, and are there ways we can make the grading response more helpful to everybody?

Today’s guests will share responses to that question.

Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez, Cathy Vatterott, Heather Wolpert-Gawron, and Cindy Garcia “kick off” this series today. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Al on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in previous posts about Assessment that have appeared here, as well as The Best Resources On Grading Practices.

Response from Alfonso (Al) Gonzalez

Al Gonzalez is a 6th grade science teacher working at Chimacum Middle School. He is an early-adolescent generalist national-board-certified teacher who has been teaching kids in grades 4 through 8 for the past 25 years:

In a word: gamify. Using gamification—the addition of gaming mechanics to a nongame situation (as opposed to game-based learning or GBL, which is the use of games to learn)—can make grading better for our students. In a traditional classroom, you start on day one with a 100 percent A. But here’s the catch, as you learn NEW things, any mistake you make, for example, you score 70 percent on your first assignment, and your overall grade drops! You have to do extra work to get back to that 100 percent A-plus. And often, that extra work may not even have anything to do with the original topic! Does that encourage risk-taking? Not if you want to get an A on a course that is new to you.

Now here’s what happens in a gamified classroom: You start the course with a ZERO. You have no Experience Points or XP because you haven’t done anything yet! As you learn and make mistakes in games, you still get the full XP once you figure out how that level works and master it. The application of that concept to grading is that once your students learn your content, give them the full XP! Why penalize them for learning along their way to mastery?? If you gamify your grading in this way, as your students progress through your course, they will NOT fear making mistakes because they know they will get full credit ONCE THEY SHOW THEY HAVE LEARNED the content! That is so much more decent and empowers learners instead of penalizing them for taking time to learn. This actually goes hand-in-hand with Standards-Based Grading (SBG) because scores are NOT averaged (or they shouldn’t be IMHO). If you were guaranteed full credit for a course on a topic that is new to you, wouldn’t you take more risks knowing that mistakes will NOT count against you?

Here’s how I would gamify my grading in a course where percentage grades are required:

  1. Assign points to all my assignments, activities, labs, quizzes, tests, etc.

  2. Add all those points up.

  3. Since not all assignments are essential or necessary, and formative assessments are more like practice anyway, determine either by unit or altogether, how much XP or total points students will need to fully pass the course. Students DO NOT need to get ALL the available XP to pass the course! This part is essential. I might even need to determine a total number of XP by quarter depending on how often I have to report progress on my students. (I’ll explain more on this in a bit.)

  4. I then make that total from step 3, my “winning condition.” Once students get that many XP, they have passed my course with an A. For kids who get more XP, I will have an A-plus if my reporting system allows that. Our Skyward online grading system doesn’t do A-plus (I don’t really know why) so I would give the student an A then in the comments state that she really got an A-plus.

  5. Then I will work my way down from that A to determine how much XP students need for an A-minus, a B-plus, a B, a B-minus, etc.

Hopefully, that makes sense. You will end up with students starting the year with zero XP, and the more work they do, no matter how many times they have to redo any piece of work, they can get the full XP and an A. That is important; students need to know that they can get the full XP for an assignment if they do and/or redo it.

So the only hiccup with this system, back to what I wrote on step 3, is that your students won’t have B’s or A’s until the end of the year for a full-year course! Parents won’t understand that! So if you have to have report cards once a quarter, like me, you will need to have an idea of how much XP will be an A, B, C, etc., each quarter! So instead of determining your “winning condition” for the whole year, you might want to do it by unit and/or by grading period.

Response From Cathy Vatterott

Cathy Vatterott is an educational consultant and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She is the author of Rethinking homework: Best practices that support diverse needs, 2nd edition (ASCD, 2018) and Rethinking grading: Meaningful assessment for standards-based learning (ASCD, 2015):

  1. Grade only what you get.

If a student is unable to finish an assignment or an assessment, base their grade only on the work they have completed. Organize items on assessments by learning target so if students run short on time, they will still have provided some evidence for each learning target.

Instead of giving a zero for missing assignments, use zeros only as placeholders until an assignment is received, forgiven, or until other evidence of the learning has been obtained.

  1. Weight homework 10 percent or less.

There is a growing consensus that homework is formative assessment and should not count in the grade but should receive feedback and should be reported separately as a work habit. Since we often aren’t sure who did the homework or with how much “help,” weighting homework too heavily can distort the true picture of student learning. If we must count homework in the grade, it is preferable to limit it to 10 percent or less. That will minimize its impact on the student’s final grade, and that grade will more accurately reflect the student’s level of mastery.

  1. If you feel you must penalize late work, take it cheap.

Again, our goal is for the grade to accurately reflect student achievement, not work habits. But equally important, our goal is to actually get the work. Late policies like only half credit or no work accepted more than one day late are so punitive students often say “why bother,” and then the teacher does not have the evidence needed to assess student learning.

  1. Allow second chances.

Give as much ungraded feedback as you can before assigning a grade. When possible, allow retakes on assessments but only after remediation. Then allow the most recent information to replace old information. Averaging the old grade with the new grade penalizes the student for a lack of mastery early in learning, even though mastery was achieved later.

  1. Eliminate extra credit.

Extra-credit assignments are often less rigorous than the original assignment and often do not address the original learning goal. The extra points then inflate the grade, give a false picture of student achievement, and often allow students to opt out of the regular curriculum. A better alternative is to ask students to submit additional evidence of learning that is tied directly to the original learning goal.

  1. Check to see if your final grades match your gut.

At the end of each marking period, take some time to reflect on the grades you assigned. As you examine individual students’ final grades, are they what you expected, or is the final average out of sync with your gut? If some final grades don’t seem right, look carefully at what you chose to grade and how you chose to weight assignments and assessments. Do your final grades for students accurately represent learning or have they been used to reward or punish behaviors? Do they represent mastery or the number of assignments students completed?

Response From Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Heather Wolpert-Gawron is an award-winning middle school teacher and PBL coach. She is the author of Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement (Corwin/AMLE), which shares the results of a nationwide survey of 6th-12th graders and what engages them as learners. She is also the author of DIY for Project Based Learning for ELA and History (Routledge) and DIY for Project Based Learning for Math and Science (Routledge). She is an 8th grade ELA teacher, a staff blogger for Edutopia, a proud member of the California Writing Project, and a National Faculty member for PBLWorks (formally the Buck Institute for Education). Follow Heather on Twitter:@tweenteacher:

As a language arts teacher, I have become a master in juggling the stack of essays. It’s important to note that, to me, grading is used as a feedback tool. If I’m not using it to give constructive and concrete feedback to my students, then the assignment isn’t worth grading at all. But here is a list of ways to help your own grade juggling:

  • stagger due dates by class period, by last name, by product, etc...
  • have students select a due date from a window of dates on Google Classroom
  • only grade for a particular standard, not all standards displayed in a single artifact
  • only grade a part of an assignment that students have chosen to be a representation of their best work
  • rotate whose work gets graded
  • create a screencast of feedback rather than provide a grade and notes
  • train students to grade peers using rubrics
  • vary the annotation you use for grading (A, +, star, emoji, etc...)

Response From Cindy Garcia

Cindy Garcia has been a bilingual educator for 14 years and is currently the district instructional specialist for PK-6 bilingual/ESL mathematics in the Pasadena Independent school district (Texas). She is active onTwitter @CindyGarciaTX and on her blog www.TeachingElementaryELs.weebly.com:

Develop rubrics for assignments or assessments that are not multiple choice. This will help you with grading because you will already prethought how you were going to grade and you are not trying to figure it when you have a stack of assignments or assessments in front of you. Students can also use these rubrics to grade their assignments before turning them in. Using a rubric, students might realize they need to make changes, and having less errors will make it easier for you to grade their assignments.

When possible, take the opportunity to conference with a student and grade together. Not only will the grading be done, but you also will have provided needed feedback to the student. Another, recommendation is to vary the type of assignments to include multiple choice, short response, essays etc. If the only type of assignment you provide is essays, then you will have a lot of time-consuming grading to do. Use technology tools to help you grade. Apps such as ZipGrade allow you to use your phone camera to scan multiple-choice assignments, and it grades them for you. You can create Google Form assignments with short open-ended responses that will grade student submissions. Students can submit their assignments digitally in a learning-management system such as Schoology or Google Classroom, and you will have all of their assignments in your spot for you to grade from any location.

Set a timer for yourself as you grade each assignment. This will help you stay focused on the task and not try to multitask in order to finish grading. It can be difficult to handle grading when you are at school because your fellow teachers or other faculty members will interrupt you. You can try getting to school a bit early or staying a bit later to have some grading time. However, one of the best suggestions I have heard is to place a sign on your closed door during your planning period that states “Please Do Not Interrupt! This door will open at ____” as a way of letting others know not that you are busy. If that message sounds a bit too severe, your sign can say “Conference Call in Session.”

Thanks to Al, Cathy, Heather, and Cindy for their contributions.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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