We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part II

And now for the dramatic conclusion.

So you don’t grade you say?

Well, I do but not in the typical fashion. Lets begin with AP courses and summer homework. I’m still not sold on the overall value of these but I agree to it primarily because I know many of my peers teaching AP World History across the nation (especially those with high passing rates) have two years and/or see their students every day. Being on a block schedule, I have about 60 days to get my students ready for a competitive test where the competition has had double or more of the time to prepare.

So what I assign for the summer is material that will help bring them up to speed on content, like an online condensed world history textbook. I also assign a writing sample, just to see where they are at, and I assign a geography assignment so they can become familiar with this world. However, I grade none of this. The first assignment is for their own good and it’s value or completion will be evident throughout the year when they either struggle with the amount of knowledge they are learning or if some of the text is familiar from the reading. I do not grade the essay because how can I grade them on an assignment I never taught them how to complete. Either they did it or they didn’t. 100% or nothing. Simple. The last assignment I give a timed quiz on but I never tell them that it will never enter the grade book as an assignment. I just want them to become familiar with the stress of a timed, high pressure test. Again, what do I grade by handing out failing grades from the beginning?

As for first quarter. Still no “grading”. Either they did the assignment or they didn’t. For instance, my students take notes and make note cards (both AP and Honors). As for their notes, I never read the actual work. Why would I? The notes have to be useful to the student, not myself so as long as they can read and understand it, I’m happy. I only grade them on if they have questions (I teach them Cornell), do they use the right formats and editing, are they attempting abbreviations, did they put summaries and are the notes selective and paraphrased. Otherwise, I could care less about them. When they do begin to turn them in, I never mark them down for being done incorrectly, I just tell them what they need to focus and improve on.

However, as we move through the material, my bar begins to raise and the level of acceptability goes up. If something falls below it, I just make it unacceptable and have them fix it. Soon, the work load alone is motivation for them to get better. My goal though, is to get them to take risks, try things and attempt everything without the fear that going outside of the box is somehow going to hurt them in their grade. I try to remove the pressure of the grade from the goals of my classroom. I don’t want them to just follow a recipe. They need to think for themselves.

The same with essays. I have always tried to give out full credit for completed essays at the start of the year. I would also just focus on grading one aspect of the essays like thesis or structure. I would have them fix the mistakes from the one part to focus their efforts. The idea was to not overwhelm them with a multitude of errors which could cause them to become deflated and defeated. While in the beginning I wouldn’t ask for a rewrite. I was more concerned with quantity because I feel that writing is a process that needs to be completed repeatedly to get better. However, by the middle of the year I felt they had written enough to now begin improving on their abilities.

Recently I was introduced to a new way of grading essays which has begun to replace the previous system. I still give full credit during the first quarter for attempt but now I only give full credit during the second quarter if they fix the errors, otherwise I give them a 75%. By third quarter it will be to the scale. The scale though is set up on a 25 point system (easily changed to 100 points by simple multiplication). It gives 16 points just for a good faith effort (64%) and the other 9 follow the AP World History rubric for their essays. While the rigor is lowered for honors, I still use it.

What this does though is it gives a C to getting just 3 points (16+3=19=76% or a C as each point is worth 4%). The average paper I get had between 3-5 points so the average grade is 76% to 84%. A paper that does all that is required gets 7 points or a 92%. The final 2 points are reserved for those papers that go above and beyond on some or all of the basic 7, just like the AP Test. However, that is my end of the year goal so how can I grade them in November for something I expect mastery on in May? Until that time, I have decided that I will begin with full credit for trying and over the course of the year, slowly raise the bar.

So the issue then is how am I getting them to think outside the box when I am building them towards fitting into the box by May and their grade is reflective of that? Well, my answer are that there are some limits to everything but it is also that essays aren’t my only grades. An essay needs some structure for clarity and organization but there are still great opportunities for creative thinking and I take those into account if my students can defend their reasoning for the risk. Also for just attempting these they still get a D and when factored in to a grading system where I categorize and essays are only 20% of the grade, a D only moves a grade 6% overall.

Same with tests. I have begun to ban multiple choice tests. When I do give them, I just let them collaborate on them. I find the chaos that ensues to be hilarious as they form into camps over question 6’s answer being either C or D. But even my written, short answer, inquiry or any other kind of test is done to a different scale. I am not a fan of the idea that a kid gets an 92% on one test and then a 12% on the next so their grade averages out to a 52%. Is that truly reflective? Where as if the grade was a 92% and a 50% then it would average out to a 71%. If the child consistently scores low, it will show regardless but by not placing a floor on the grade at 50, it seems to only hurt those who score a C or above.

In the end, my tests and quizzes only count for 30% of their grade so even getting all 50% on tests only changes their grade by 15%, still in the B range.

In the end I have to ask myself, what is my end goal, what am I trying to accomplish. I have pushed back further and further on this idea that school is somehow a punishment and we need to reprimand students for making mistakes. I want them to take the chances and when it doesn’t work out, come and see me to find a solution. I want them to know that they always have a safety net to catch them when they take risks or have a bad day. I want them to challenge the system without feeling like that challenge will cost them the year.

Maybe I am on the wrong track but for me it just fits.

Until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

We don’t need no stinkin’ grades. Part I

I guess I should start by saying that I do not grade.

What is the purpose of grades? I find myself questioning them more and more. At their heart they are supposed to show ability levels of above average to below average, with the majority of grades for an assignment being around a C. This makes our coveted bell curve that we are taught is ideal.

But what is average? Average compared to what? To just the other kids in their class? To all my students? All students in the school in similar classes? Or are we talking compared to state or nationally? In the end, what is the point in the larger context?

I am torn in far too many directions on this issue. I hear and understand the arguments of grades reflecting the ability level of students when compared to a rubric, especially a widely used one like an essay writing rubric. However, isn’t the goal of education to bring all students to mastery level? If so, why are we using a scale that claims average is a C. We argue this idea of mastery and approaching standards, while grading them on a system that argues average vs. above average.

I read an argument on this from Penn State where they had changed the definition of grades from the “average” scale to the “achievement” scale. In the view of the authors, it was still acceptable to receive a grade of C and students should still be considered for masters programs for a 2.00 as they had fulfilled the objectives of the previous courses to an acceptable level. Their goal was to limit the number of high achieving students who were making it onto deans lists due to watered down grading policies. The exclusivity of these lists was diminishing.

This argument reminded me of a class I had last year. In one of my AP World History classes, my sophomores were going through credit checks and one of the many excellent students I was blessed to have, came walking back in cheering how she was Ranked #1 for her class. It helps to know some about this student as she is usually never very openly confident in her abilities, even if everyone around her knows she is an excellent student and tries to remind her.

However, when she came in singing her joy of her accomplishment, another student in the class, a friend of hers and a very blunt child that I love, announced to her and the class, without hesitation, that she was in a class of #1s and they were all tied for #1 so she wasn’t special. While this scene was hilarious, as the laughing response from the now deflated child was to let her have her 5 minutes of happiness, it did speak to a larger issue of what exclusivity was there to rankings or honors distinctions.

Looking into this, I found that many school districts have begun the process of eliminating the valedictorian and salutatorian distinctions and replacing them with the cum laude system. Reading many of these articles, the common theme was that it allowed for more students to achieve some type of top honors to help them in their collegiate pursuits and the competitive nature of the former system placed too much pressure on students. Is the goal then just to get all students into college or to inflate the abilities of students, making them feel smarter or more prepared for the future than they really are? As a colleague once said to me, we are no longer educators, we are now graduators. It seems that the end goal of education is to not only get the kids through the hoops to get a diploma but to get them all through with higher honors and GPAs, even if the ability level isn’t there.

Proof of this can be found in remediation rates of students entering into college.

Before I get into this, I want to make it clear. I DO NOT think it is the goal of primary and secondary schools to get students into college. College is not for everyone in my opinion and many successful, wealthy people either never went to or dropped out of college. I will get into this more at some other time though.

However, what the results show is that remediation in college is increasing. In 2001, the average percent of high school graduates that attended college who needed remediation was around a 33%. By 2010, the number has grown to about 50%. Two important places where remediation has skyrocketed are New York and Florida. Under the guidance of Gov. Jeb Bush and Joel Klein‘s data driven accountability education model, remediation rates rose to upwards of +70% (I wonder where DC schools will be once the dust settles from Michelle Rhee).

So what does this all mean? For me it means that grades are less and less important or even irrelevant. What do they really say? One view of this is the College Boards use of the AP test scores. The AP Board is very active in explaining that their scores and pass rates are not indications of standards assessments. They also adjust their results year to year as the tests themselves are not designed from one textbook or state curriculum. There just isn’t enough time to teach all the facts of world history in one year. It is not a test of facts and details. It is a test of critical thinking and analysis. It is a competition with fellow students and the AP Board strives to balance the successes of students on the exam while still keeping it difficult to promote exclusivity and rigor. The AP Board knows that if everyone who took the test and ended up passing the test, then colleges would devalue it more and stop accepting it.

In the end, this is only a fraction of the national debate over grades. Universities have been in deep discussions over these issues and others, such as grade inflation or course rigor from discipline to discipline. There are other issues of community, culture, necessity, political motives of leaders both inside of and outside of education and countless others factors adding to the complexity of this issue. From a simple A-F system of 50 years ago, we have created a monster where the image of a student or a school trumps the integrity of the assessment and the true ability levels of our children.

Next post I will further discuss this issue and explain how I have begun to approach this Goliath in my own classroom. Until then, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. Also, send any topic ideas to me as well as i am always looking for things to spark a conversation about. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.

House Rules

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A couple weeks back while talking with a colleague about Sir Ken Robinson and his views on creativity and education, we found ourselves discussing the creative projects we had while in school. For me, one came up that I hadn’t thought of since high school. I remember never really caring for the teacher much so it wasn’t surprising that I had blocked out the memories of that class.

Unfortunately this has caused me to miss some great lesson ideas for my own class. The project in question was simple really. The teacher came in with about 6 different board games (one was more of a card game) that most of us had never seen before. They might have been long discontinued games, lost to history, or as some of us also believed, a Frankenstein collection of many games tossed together; the board of this game, the game pieces from another, the cards from a third. We were then put into small groups and told to come up with the name of the game, the background on the concept, create the rule book and demonstrate to the class how it would be played. This was a high school English class and we were making up games as if we were 6 again.

What I didn’t realize at the time, but have come to appreciate as a teacher now, was how deeply thought out this assignment was. We had to work as a team, present to a class, be creative, think outside of the box, and write out a story and rule book, testing our language skills. There were so many elements and layers to the assignment, especially for something that I think only took up three classes, or just under three hours.

What this memory really did for me was to get me to question many of my memories from my own education, I thought back to all those teachers I deemed “bad” teachers and forced myself to think of specifically what made them so bad. The surprising thing I discovered was that few actually exhibited any traits, outside of personality differences, that I would label as poor teaching qualities. Sure, some were controversial, but it was that controversy that drove the classes I was in to rise up, primarily because as a class we hated them so much that we wanted to shove it back in their face. In the end, the joke was on us because we would end up learning the most in those classes.

So to my current stint as a teacher and the national rhetoric over failing classrooms. Everyday I hear of this teacher or that teacher being a “bad” teacher. In my first two years, I made it a point to seek these teachers out to discover for myself if they were weak teachers. More often than not, they weren’t. They were just controversial or many times just socially awkward which gave the impression to other teachers that they were somehow flawed. This isn’t to argue that we don’t have weak teachers in schools. We do but I argue that many that we think are failing, might somehow be a quiet genius.

This came up as I began to question the running list in my head of teachers I knew that had been labeled as weak. Three shot to the top of the list so I began to do my own investigating. I would look at data, because that’s were we all turn to first, but I also asked current and former students their impressions, pressing them to see if they had learned anything, as well as taking into account the subject, grade and specific students they had, especially in relation to the data.

What I have begun to see is that while none of them, nor I for that matter, are great teachers, we are all good teachers. One of the general trends of them all is that they are all controversial, both in and out of the classroom. They will take unpopular sides of arguments to spur deep debate. When I would first ask the students if they were good teachers, one of the three was always a no and very unpopular but once I dug deeper, causing the student to evaluate what, if anything, they had learned, they all seemed to find out that they now knew both sides of the topic deeply.

While I am still not sold on the greater effectiveness of their methods or my own, I am reminded of a few platitudes, such as never judging a book by it’s cover and remembering that the rules and guides of teaching are are not written into stone. Sometimes we need to make our own house rules to fit our own personalities, classroom cultures and teaching styles. There is no one method to teaching. There is no golden playbook to mastery.

Well, until next time, if you like the blog, please subscribe on the right and share it with your friends and family. Please comment and share your thoughts, questions, ideas and feelings on this or any post. As always, this is Joshua Murphy and I am out.