The Year of the Grade Grubber
I was fed up. It was the Year of the Grade-Grubber, AY 2014-15, and an influx of young minds bent on achieving a letter invaded my classroom. They were there to earn a stamp, unconcerned with becoming better writers, much less changing their world. It was the grade they wanted, nothing more. From the student who refused to write poetry because the grade was too subjective, to the "high fliers" who calculated the level of exertion it would take to get the 'A', and to the parent conferences where improvement and skills took a backseat to the letter on the transcript - hardly anyone cared about what mattered: learning. Sickened by it all, I decided to take a risk, pull the rug from beneath everyone, and bring back the love of learning that had been sorely missed in my classroom.
I decided to throw the old grading system out.
I swore to that class of juniors who took my AP Language and Composition course that I would never give grades again. They'd worn me out. Something had to change. That summer I worked on developing a new system. I researched assessment and skill development, and I landed on a hybrid form of mastery-based learning. I came up with 14 skills I wanted to assess in the course. Some of them came straight from the College Board, like "Student can demonstrate understanding and mastery of standard written English as well as stylistic maturity in their writing." But some of them were my own: "Student is enthusiastic about the craft of writing." I gave students suggestions for how to compile evidence for each skill. You think you "contribute meaningfully to class discussion"? Tell me about the time you held your tongue when you vehemently disagreed with your peer or me about an issue. Explain how you listened before you spoke. How did you recognize the complexity - all of the angles - of the situation?
I took our school's mission statement and used it to divide these skills into specific categories. This list is on a document students keep on their computer desktop. Each couple of days they must add hard evidence or reflection beneath each skill.
A. Man of Good Character
1. ___ does not violate the “Tree of Trust” (essentially, students respect one another)
2. ___ speaks to teacher directly whenever there is a concern about teaching methods,
assignment instructions, relational misunderstandings, or questionable peer behavior.
B. Scholastic Preparedness
3. ___ can analyze and interpret samples of good writing, identifying and explaining an author’s use
of rhetorical strategies and techniques.
4. ___ can apply effective strategies and techniques to your own writing.
5. ___ can demonstrate understanding and mastery of standard written English as well as stylistic
maturity in their own writings.
6. ___ consistently follows the stages of the writing process: inquiry and research, drafting, revising,
editing, and review (peer and teacher).
7. ___ produces effective blog posts and shares them with an intended audience.
8. ___ can analyze image/video as text.
C. Productive Citizenship
9. ___ completed all summer work.
10. ___ contributes meaningfully to class discussions: asks poignant questions, cites evidence from
text and his own experience, stays on topic, and listens before speaking.
11. ___ is consistently on time to class, is prepared for the day’s lesson/requirement, and “made
his bed” that morning (i.e. read the poem of the day from "Writer's Almanac" and the word of the day from Merriam Webster).
12. ___ demonstrates academic independence (i.e. does not require constant reminders from the
teacher, seeks extra help when necessary, reads and considers teacher’s feedback.)
13. ___ is enthusiastic about the craft of writing, and participates in the writing community.
D. Digital Portfolio
14. ___ creates a clean, user-friendly digital portfolio.
My new grading system asks for as much reflection (metacognition) as it does for hard evidence. And though students could "BS" those reflections, in my experience, they take them seriously. For example, they write pages about their writing process and how it works for them. I spend time questioning that process and, if I observe the quality of their writing is not improving, I will suggest ways to improve their process.
They score each category 1-10 and divide that number by the total points (140) to receive a ballpark grade. Then we schedule individual meetings where we review the list and they argue for the grade they think they deserve. Now, in a perfect world, I would throw out the grade and solely focus on skills, but I am required to provide students a grade, which was an easy compromise on my part. In general, my administration has been very supportive of my efforts to rethink assessment and grading. And I rarely disagree with a student's assessment of the grade s/he deserves
This approach, mastery-based learning, is getting the recognition it deserves. The NY Times article in August shows that whole states are mandating this type of assessment in their schools. Here are the benefits I have observed:
1. Students have to be more thorough and intentional about their work. They must show their process, reflect on their approach, and be intentional about how they will improve moving forward.
2. The conversation between teacher and student and teacher and parent shifts from a discussion about a letter grade to a discussion about how to improve skills.
3. Those "high-fliers," especially AP students, have to push themselves. They can easily get their 'A', but the only way to show progress is to progress. That means they have to go beyond their comfort level and move forward.
4. In my system, the grade is fluid, so if by the midterm check-in, a student realizes he has a lot of work to do, s/he can make the necessary adjustments and get to where s/he needs to be before the semester ends. No one is ever out of the game.
5. The classroom is about learning not earning.