“Please, sir, may I have a 90?”

For four years I taught in a charter school in Jersey City, NJ. It was a frustrating job; there was little accountability to be found anywhere–among my colleagues and among my students. I loved the kids there though. They were the best–just not at handing in their work. When my tenure there was up and I took a job in a suburban public school district, I was torn up with guilt about leaving them behind. I learned quickly, though, that although the setting was different, the students’ experiences and needs were often the same.

One particular thing that stands out as a difference between these two schools is the attitude toward grades. In the charter school, I would have kids begging me to raise their grade from a 65 to a 70 and the kids who were doing well wouldn’t ask me anything. In the suburban school, I have kids who beg me to raise their 89 to a 90, as if that extra point means they learned anything else.

I think we have an unhealthy obsession with grades. If you ask your students, “What do your grades tell you about how much you’ve learned?” what do you think they would say? When I was a child, I often felt that my grades were just proof that I was smart or proof that I was dumb (depending on the class). I never once thought of my grade as my progress in learning. I think you might be hard pressed to find students who do.

There’s also the issue that students take grades very personally. How many times have your students said, “You gave me a [fill in the blank]?!” Of course, you likely respond, “I didn’t give you that grade. You earned it.” Perhaps this is deflection–maturing, egocentric students need to blame someone other than themselves for their grades. Perhaps the idea that teachers “give” grades comes from somewhere in reality (I’m looking at you, teacher who gives a subjective grade for participation).

The Problem with Percentages

Percentages as grades just don’t make sense, and I don’t know why it took my 8th year of teaching to figure it out.

Say, for example, that a student completes 90% of an assignment correctly–should that be their grade? Does that actually mean that they have mastered or that they understand 90% of the material?

Is the problem more multi-faceted than I’m discussing though? I’m looking at this assignment independently. What if I looked at it in comparison to another similar assignment?

What if that same student earned a 45% on the first assignment and a 90% on the second. These grades typically would be graded with equal weight, averaging 67.5, but they shouldn’t be. Instead of averaging these two grades, we should be looking at the growth that occurred between them. To do this, we could diminish the weight of the first grade and augment the weight of the second one (e.g. the first assignment will be worth 0.3 of the pie and the second will be worth 0.7 of the pie). In my online gradebook (Genesis), this could be done pretty easily.

But that sounds like an SGO!

Every teacher who’s ever done an SGO.

Yes, yes it is. And as much as I hate SGO’s, this is a fairer, more informative way of grading work. As I’ve said in other posts, we’ve got to measure growth, not static moments with equal weight.

In my gradebook, I adjust the weight of each assignment to be counted as .25 more than the previous in the “Preparation” category, since this is where most of that growth occurs. Thus, assignments at the end of a unit weigh more than those in the beginning of a unit.

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