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Assessment Opinion

I’ve Changed How I Grade My Students. You Should, Too

By Miriam Plotinsky — February 18, 2020 4 min read
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It never fails to amaze me that when people are faced with broken systems, their response is often to continue trying to work within those systems rather than disrupt the status quo. Take diets, for instance. Research has repeatedly shown that the overwhelming majority of diets fail in the long term, yet people continue to try new diets in the hopes that a magic bullet will finally appear. Similarly, our educational processes increasingly neglect to yield upward trends, whether schools are looking at student attendance rates on the decline or lower rates of student achievement.

Most American adults working in education grew up under the same systems of extrinsic motivation. The formula seems fairly simple: Do the work as well as possible and attend class, and the resultant grade will get everyone another step closer to graduation, or whatever milestone is in sight. In my experience as a student, compliance was key to achievement, and like many of my middle-class peers, I did exactly what was expected of me. For my behavior, I was rewarded with degrees, fulfilling career paths, and a continuing sense of accomplishment.

When I became a teacher, I naturally assumed that the same process that served me so well would do the same for my students, so I reinforced the connection between achievement and reward in my classroom with all the confidence of someone who had no other perspective to offer. Year after year, as I watched students who didn’t respond to traditional motivators, I grew increasingly frustrated. In my mind, I was doing everything a teacher should do: being open and available, providing engaging lessons, and providing prompt feedback. What else could I do?

It wasn’t until I started doing some digging into the link between extrinsic motivators and culturally responsive practices that a far more enticing pathway to student success emerged. As Anaïs Nin puts it, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.” In other words, even if our pathways in life have not produced desired results, we will still try to replicate them. That explains why children who were abused can become abusers as adults, and once again, why people repeatedly go on diets despite obvious evidence of their ineffectiveness. As educators struggle to raise student achievement, why do we keep doing what we know doesn’t work?

Why do we keep doing what we know doesn’t work?”

My own theory is that, as is usually the case when not-great things are happening, fear is the root of the issue. Teachers do not necessarily think of grades as indicators of what students learn; rather, they function as rewards or punishments.

When I suggest providing feedback on an assignment without providing a grade, I often hear, “But then they won’t do it.” In other words, grades are a means to ensuring work production, and that is often why teachers spend endless hours grading student work and have grade books that contain far too many assignments. But what do those assignments reflect? Do they represent true student mastery of content objectives, or do they reflect time spent engaged in work that may or may not have been beneficial?

When I tell people both in and out of the education profession that my classroom practices eventually evolved to accepting all late student work, they react strongly. I’m asked about student character, responsibility, adherence to (and I hate this term) “real world” expectations.

Most people think that it is my job to teach students to be responsible, and while I understand that point of view, I no longer agree with it. My job is to teach students to master skills and standards across content areas with a focus on English (my certification area), so that when they move from class to class, or school to school, they will be equipped with necessary strategies to grow their learning. If a student demonstrates mastery of a concept three weeks after a due date, I do not penalize them for lateness. Why? Because that is punishing a behavior that has nothing to do with whether or not they’ve showed acquisition of the necessary skills to move forward.

With this philosophy comes a lot of questions, many of them practical. Some of them are about timeliness, and yes, we do run out of time. Clearly, I grade what I can for as long as I can, and when the quarter ends, it ends. In terms of equity, some argue that my methods are inequitable, but that’s where they completely misunderstand the purpose of responsiveness. I hold all students to high expectations, and true equity occurs when they reach mastery, regardless of how long it took. By respecting each student’s process of learning, we are helping them get to where they need to be in a way that is meaningful and responsive.

But why stop there? Grades, like diets, don’t work, mainly because practitioner abuse of the process is rampant. In its truest form, a grade functions as a data point to help teachers produce measurable outcomes to drive student achievement. That is what a grade is, and all it should be. If we’re using them intentionally and purposefully, then there is no problem. However, if we’re attaching a measure to everything we do in a classroom, that’s where we muddy the waters.

The beauty of teaching is that it is ever-changing in response to the very real people who sit in classrooms with us each year. If we don’t learn to shake things up and change our vision of what learning should look like, we will continue to embrace systems that disenfranchise students, more so with each passing year. The fear that stops us from breaking away from the status quo is hurting kids, hurting us, and hurting the communities we serve. The time for change is nigh. Let’s stop hanging onto what doesn’t work, and fully welcome new practices with open arms.

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