Sunday, February 11, 2007

Fair Isn't Always Equal by Rick Wormeli - Grading

The final section of the book focuses on grading. In recent years I have come to view grading and assessment as two very different things and two that are often confused or misunderstood. Wormeli addresses some of my concerns.
One of the first questions addressed is that off adapting/adjusting grades based on students. Does a student with a learning disability or one learning English earn a different grade for the same sort of work than a GT student? It fascinates me to see this questioned because it seems like common sense to me. We must hold students accountable, but we must also understand their limitations. It is important to stretch students and push them forward, but if our expectations are unreasonable these students will give up and we will lose them. As I grade (something I do almost solely because it is required of me) I consider the individual student. The grade is based upon their abilities, not those of their classmates or other grade level peers. A student working above grade level will not automatically earn an A or B simply because they have met, or exceeded, our objectives. If the work is average for that student they will earn a C. I believe they need to measure themselves against themselves, not against an arbitrary standard or against their peers.

Wormeli also addresses the issues of effort, attendance, and behavior as they impact grades. I feel lucky to teach elementary school in a district that has a separate grade for effort. This allows me to address that issue without it impacting the academic grade. However, it is an important question as students move on to middle and high school where there is no separate grade. I believe it tells students and parents a lot to see the effort grade alongside the academic grade. If a student has earned a B but has an S (satisfactory - versus good or outstanding) for effort, it should be a sign that they could be doing a lot better if they were willing to work at it. I think the difficulty in addressing attendance, behavior, etc. in grades is a sign of the problems we face with grades. A letter grade for a subject for an entire marking period tells so little. A student may have studied the five kingdoms of living things, animal cells, plant cells, and microscopes in science during one marking period. If they receive a B on their report card in science, what does that tell them or their parents about their understanding of those various concepts? Practically nothing. And if they were frequently absent or misbehaved often and this resulted in a C or D, they know even less about what they learned. A simple letter grade is too vague to mean much to anyone.

I have many issues with the ideas of grading and with the way we currently grade. However, currently it is the status quo and something that I must do. As a result, Wormeli's chapter on 10 approaches to avoid in grading was interesting. Some of his 10 approaches seemed obvious to me: avoid incorporating nonacademic factors into the final grade, avoid grading practice (homework), avoid withholding assistance, avoid group grades, and avoid grading on a curve. These were not things I needed to be told. It may have taken me time as a teacher to learn some of them (especially the one about homework), but I came to these conclusions before reading this book.
However, other approaches he mentions have given me good food for thought. "Avoid penalizing students' multiple attempts at mastery." Wormeli's argument is that if our goal is mastery and learning, then allow students as many opportunities as necessary to learn! If we don't offer those opportunities or if we penalize students for using them, we are not focused on their learning.
"Avoid assessing students in ways that do not accurately indicate their mastery." At face value this seems obvious. However, when I really stop to think about the ways I assess students I know I am guilty of inaccuracy at times. In the attempt to be creative and to allow students a variety of ways to show their mastery, there are times when the assessment is out of line. Having students do a lot of writing or use art can be fantastic assessments, but sometimes those options don't match the learning. This approach is one I need to keep in mind.
"Avoid allowing extra credit and bonus points." This is the opposite of the last one, in that my initial response is, "Why not?" Wormeli explains, "Anything that has enough points attached to it to alter a grade's accuracy in terms of what students have mastered should be avoided." His point is that many of our extra credit or bonus options have little or nothing to do with the objectives we are studying. He suggests ways in which extra credit is useful - to push students to attend a lecture or other outside academic activity for example. However, he suggests that it makes more sense to give students the opportunity to prove their mastery on another test, project, or in another way rather than simply do something extra.
On this topic of redoing work or retaking tests, Wormeli has a short chapter about how best to handle this. He makes the point that this is only done at the teacher's discretion, that parents should have to sign the original work to ensure that they are aware of it, that it is important to work with students to set a timeline for the work (or else we may be setting them up for failure again), and that students must attach the original work to the new work. The fact that this is written by a classroom teacher who understands the realities we face is shown in one of his points in this chapter: "Do not allow any work to be redone during the last week of the grading period." He understands how busy teachers are at that time and believes that for our own sanity we should stop work being redone before this point.

Grading scales are not something I have spent a lot of time thinking about as an elementary school teacher. However, Wormeli's chapter on them is interesting. He discusses the difference between a 100 point scale (with the traditional percentages) and a 4.0 scale (as used for GPAs). He also mentions that various school districts, schools, and even teachers often define letter grades differently on the 100 point scale. For example, one might consider 90-100 to be an A, another 80-100 an A, and another 94-100 an A. This makes students' grades even more vague. Another important issue he addresses is the idea of using rubrics. He suggests that when using rubrics with 4 levels we set them up for students and parents to see each level as a letter grade. We would be better served to use rubrics with 3, 5, or 6 levels so that the focus is on the objectives and descriptors rather than considering how they equate to letter grades.

How we record these grades is not something I had thought very carefully about before. I tend to record grades simply, quickly, and with a minimum of fuss. Wormeli recommends that our gradebooks should reflect our thinking about teaching, grading, and assessing. One suggestion of his that I am considering is having grade books be organized by objective or standard rather than by medium (test, homework, etc.). This will allow the gradebook to reflect not just students' grades, but also achievement levels for standards which will drive instruction. Currently, I keep separate checklists by standard to serve the latter purpose. Combining those with my gradebook makes a lot of sense. One point that stands out is that this may require recording one assignment in multiple places (with a grade for ordering decimals, a grade for adding decimals, and a grade for converting decimals to fractions, for example).

One last point about gradebooks and calculating grades is to consider using medians or modes rather than means. Finding the mean allows one really bad day to significantly impact a student's grade. Using the median or mode may give a more accurate picture of the student's learning over time.

Wormeli also writes about report card formats. I can't control this, but I found his chapter to be very validating. He addresses the issue of grading students against a standard versus against their own progress. I believe that students need to see how they personally are progressing regardless of how this balances against their grade level objectives. However, I also understand the importance of informing parents of that progress as well. Wormeli recommends recording a letter and number grade. The letter grade would reflect achievement in relation to the objective and the number, from 1-3, would reflect personal growth throughout the grading period. My team spent time last summer creating a "progress report" that allows us similar freedoms. Our traditional school district report card remains the same - and I use it to grade personal growth for each student. In addition to it, we send home a list of the fifth grade objectives in each subject that were studied for that grading period. For each objective a student earns a number from 1-4 showing their progress in relation to that standard. In this way, parents and students can see personal progress and grade level standards.

1 comment:

Jon Saxton said...

Jenny,
Thanks for your review of Wormeli's Book. I've been driving around with this book in my car for over a year and have recently been embroiled in a debate with our community and staff over effective grading practices. We are trying to eliminate the use of the "0" and I am amazed at how entrenched people are in the thought of using zeroes to teach responsibility. Our grading practices in my district are truly archaic and I appreciate your work as an individual elementary teacher to become more enlightened in your practice. I plan to use your blog post as some reference material if you don't mind!