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My Grading Philosophy

March 27, 2014

We have been having a fantastic discussion on #slowchated this week about traditional grading, and it has forced me to think deeply about grading and my beliefs about it.

My grading system is designed to:

  • Give students feedback
  • Reflect the priorities of the class and the skills I am trying to teach
  • Help students feel proud of their accomplishments and strengths
  • Motivate and show them where they can improve
  • Reward effort
  • Provide as accurate an accounting as possible, without grade inflation, of how students are doing in class

To accomplish these goals within the traditional grading system, I use several subgrading categories:

  • Tests (End of unit assessments): 25%
  • Collaborative Projects:13 %
  • Individual Projects: 12%
  • Quizzes (Assessments during units) 10%
  • Writing 10%
  • Participation 10%
  • Homework: 10%
  • Organization 5%
  • Effort 5%

Rational

Ultimately, the goal of my grading system is to show how well students have mastered the material and the skills that they have learned in class.  In my opinion, grades, especially at the middle school level, should reflect more than how they scored on a test.  Instead, they should provide feedback to students and parents about the work they are doing in all facets of the class.  I teach more than just content and my grades should reflect that so I can let students know where they are strong and where they need to improve.

  • With the exception of tests, I always have at least 4 grades per category to try to minimize the weight of a poor grade.
  • I always drop the lowest grade in each category except tests.

Tests and Projects

  • Tests and projects show how well students have mastered the information as well as how strong they are in the skills that I am trying to develop.
  • For example, if I am teaching a unit on Egypt and I am also working to develop the students’ ability to write a paragraph, I construct tests to show me what they have learned in terms of content and give them the opportunity to answer questions in paragraph form to show me how their writing skills have developed during the unit.
  • Tests and Projects carry equal weight.  Both categories show mastery but by using two different categories, I can capture how well students do on traditional assessments (which are important because not only do they reflect students’ understanding of content, but they also indicate how well students are preparing for and taking the tests) and how they perform on projects that reflect different learning modalities.
  • Tests always include a variety of components to allow students to use their strengths to show me what they know.  My tests usually consist of multiple choice (to help students with retrieval issues), fill in the blanks (to assess how well students have learned the most important concepts (At the beginning of each unit, students are given a list of the most important concepts and all the answers to the fill in the blank questions come from this list.), short answer questions (to assess how well students can support their answers with factual evidence), paragraphs (to assess conceptual knowledge and show that they 1) can see connections, 2) write well by supporting a topic sentence with evidence and organize their thoughts), and a multiple intelligence section that is open ended (to allow students to show me all that they have learned using their strongest learning modality).
  • Because I don’t drop the lowest test grade, students can  earn points and sharpen their understanding by:
    • correcting their tests
    • Completing an independent project based upon the information they missed on the test.  Since getting students to learn the information is the most important aspect of class, this provides them the opportunity to do so.
  • I give project grades taking into account the different learning modalities because I believe in Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.  I want students to know and feel empowered to use their strengths to help them learn new content and to improve their weaknesses.
  • Projects are weighted so heavily and are equal to tests because 1) I want to encourage students to work together since students learn better when they work collaboratively 2) I want to minimize the negative impact that slow processing speed, undeveloped academic skills, and weak short-term memory have on assessment scores.  Projects provide students the opportunity to find ways around their learning deficiencies.
  • Projects are worth a quarter of a student’s grade, and I divide the points between group and independent work so students have a way of showing independent mastery.  One of the difficulties with group projects is that they are affected by the weaknesses that each student brings to the group.  If a student in a group falls short, I do everything in my power to help the group adapt.  I want to teach them the skills to get the best out of each other because these skills are so valuable in today’s world where few people work in a bubble.  But I also want to give students an untarnished opportunity to show me their skills and what they know by working independently.
  • During group projects, everyone has a job where they are in charge of a specific element of a project.  Perhaps they are “The Artist” of “The Writer”.  Not only does this hold students accountable bit it provides an additional opportunity for students to use their multiple intelligences to learn the material and contribute to the success of the group.  Also, each stage of the project earns an individual and a group project grade.

Quizzes

  • During the course of a unit, I will give students quizzes to assess their progress and provide them feedback about how well they are learning.
  • These short assessments are usually two to four questions in length.
    • Some are written, others I do orally individually or in small groups.
  • Students can retake a quiz because I want to do everything in my power to help them master the material.
  • I believe these spot checks are important because they help me teach the value of studying and reviewing the material each night (which aids retention and helps students avoid cramming prior to a test) while giving me the information I need to reteach material I may have taught poorly.

Writing

  • As a middle school teacher, one of my priorities is to develop my students’ writing skills so they can show teachers what they know in the future when much of their grades will depend on how well they are able to convey their understanding in writing.  Therefore, I give writing it’s own grading category to emphasize its importance and to provide specific feedback.
  • Since I am trying to develop their writing and because I want to teach them the skill of revision, students can redo any writing assignment during the course of a marking period for full credit.

Participation

  • My classes depend on students playing an active role because I believe that they are the best teachers.  I can say something ten times and it doesn’t have the same weight as if one of their peers says it once.  So, I make it one of my grading categories to motivate them to participate.
  • Another reason why I count participation as part of their grade is because it’s an additional way to show understanding.  Just like tests, writing assignments, or projects, I want to provide my students the opportunity to use their strengths to convey their understanding and this rewards students with strong expressive language skills,.  Let’s say someone with strong verbal skills struggles with recall on assessments or with writing, I encourage them to participate more frequently in class not only so they can gain a better grasp of the material but also so they can improve their grade by using a stronger modality.
    • I do this because I want to empower them by showing them where they are strongest so that in the future, they can find ways of using that strength to overcome adversity.
  • To overcome reluctance, give students an opportunity to learn the material, and to maximize participation, I provide opportunities for students to practice by using think pair shares and response groups.
  • I emphasize that wrong answers are opportunities to learn.  And I never take off for wrong answers when it comes to participation.

Homework

  • I count homework because I want to give students feedback on how well they understood the material and how well they developed the skills that I’m working on in class.
  • Since there are usually 10-15 homework grades per marking period, assignments where students do poorly are minimized by the weight of the other assignments.
  • One of the discussions we have been having on twitter is whether or not homework should count.  Some say it shouldn’t because it’s a formative assessment.  But I disagree.  The vast majority of the students I teach are motivated to learn because of the grade (which is not to say that I don’t emphasize a love for learning and having a passion for the material.  At heart – that is what I do best as an educator), and so, if a student does poorly on an assignment, I will meet with them to show them how they can improve on later assignments.  Students are rewarded by using that feedback because doing better on future assignments will improve their grade.
  • I love Rick Wormeli’s term for homework: “practice”.  I completely agree because homework is the time when students have the opportunity to practice those skills that I am teaching them in class.  I also like the term because it doesn’t carry the same negative connotations.  Plus, most kids see the word “practice” as having something to do with improvement and I am all about improvement.
  • To make homework seem less like “homework” I allow my students a lot of choice in how they complete homework assignments.  At the beginning of each term, I provide a list of activities they can do based upon their multiple intelligences.  Students can then choose which homework assignment to do to master the material.
  • I grade all my homework assignments on a ten point scale.  Do the assignment as I have assigned it and you will earn a 9 out of 10.  Students can earn the remaining point by exceeding expectations. I do this for two reasons.
    • I want to reward effective effort.  Life is about doing a little more than is required of you.
    • The extra effort leads to mastery and deeper understanding.
    • Since students have different modalities, I want to encourage the kids in my class to use them to their fullest extent when assignments connect to that strength.
    • I also give a 10 if a student has improved in an area where they have previously struggled
      • Let’s say a student earned a poor grade on a previous homework assignment because they had not used their textbook to provide factual details.  I will give a 10 on a homework assignment if I see improvement in that area to motivate and reward students to their improvement.
        • However, they need to write a sentence on the bottom of their paper telling me what they did to improve.
  • Finally, I put a lot of effort into differentiating my homework assignments.  Since I want students to learn and practice the skills we are working on in class, I want them to be able to do the work.  If students become frustrated, they will shut down, which stops the learning and hurt their self-esteem.  So, I make it my mission to try to check in with students at the end of class to make modifications to ensure success.  If a student come to class and says, Mr. Qua, I couldn’t do the assignment or I didn’t understand it, I apologize to take the shame out of the situation.”It’s my fault.”  But at the same time, I’m working with them on their advocacy skills: “Next time Connie, why don’t you ask me about it before you leave class.”
  • I understand that low grades tend to disempower learners and this is one of the way that I avoid the black hole of shame.

Organization

  • Since I am a middle school teacher, I teach executive functioning skills because I believe they are vital for academic success.
  • Students receive grades for the in class work we do, and I also do folder and locker checks.
  • In the future, I might change this subcategory and rename it “Executive Functioning” because that’s really what I am working on.  Additionally, a teacher on Twitter pointed out the problems with penalizing a student for late work by lowering the grade on an assignment.  By doing so, you are not just grading the assignment, but you are also adding the component of timeliness.  So to avoid this, I might include it in the subcategory which wouod minimalize its impact on the overall grade.

Effort/Advocacy

  • Effort for me is one of the most important things I teach my students.  In life, I want my students to respond well to challenges in their lives and to face them head on by trying hard and working in a more effectual way.  Grading homework allows me to do that because my message to the students is this, “OK, you struggled on this assignment and here is how you can improve.  Now put forth the effort and practice these skills or content in future assignments and overcome your adversity.  You can do it.”
  • I give grades for effort all the time.  When students go above and beyond, I reward them with verbal feedback (which to be honest is more powerful than the grade).
  • Ways students earn points for effort:
    • Coming in to see me for extra help
    • Advocating for themselves
      • “Mr. Qua, I have a huge test tomorrow in Spanish, plus my brother has scouts tonight and I won’t have as much time as I need to do well.  Could I have an extra day to work on this assignment.”

A Few Final Thoughts:

  • Some of the great discussion on twitter has been about whether we should change the way we approach grades.  Here are some of my thoughts:
    • I see the flaws in the traditional grades and believe feedback is more powerful and effective than giving letter grades.   I believe that learning for the sake of learning is more important than earning a grade.
    • However, I have worked in schools with traditional approaches to grading, and the grading system above is my attempt to rectify the challenges posed by traditional grading policies.
    • I don’t grade every assignment but I do believe it’s important to grade enough so that the final grade is reflective of a student’s work over the course of the marking period.  Someone asked me, “Is it possible that you’re doing students a disservice by giving as many grades as you possibly can?  My answer is, “I don’t believe so.”  Again, my grading system is based on the premise that I need to do my best to teach and grade in a way that 100% of the students learn 100% of the material.  My grading system is created to do just that.  Every time I give a grade, it provides me with the opportunity to give positive feedback and build up a students self-esteem which empowers them to actually achieve the goal of learning 100% of the material.
    • Where to go from here: I would love to explore standards based grading and even see what happens in schools that don’t have grades.

 

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