Grades can determine so much of a child’s future – the ability to get into college, qualify for scholarships and lessen student debt, land a higher paying job that will lead to a better quality of life and accelerate social mobility. At the start of the pandemic, several school districts switched to pass/fail models, but that period of grace disappeared by fall 2020. Subsequently, students this year saw a spike in Fs and Ds as they struggled with distance learning, financial and physical security at home, mental health, work and more.
This reignited some of the debates about equitable grading, putting into question what teachers grade and the accuracy of their methods.
“If I don’t grade it, the student won’t do it.”
It’s a common phrase used by teachers to extrinsically motivate students to do homework, turn in assignments, show up for class and test students on their knowledge. Teachers’ ability to grade everything became even more pronounced in the 1990s due to ed tech and digital grading programs that average scores based on a 100-point scale. Some outcomes of the 100-point scale meant that getting a zero on an assignment could derail a student’s average. Also, failure is over represented on a 100-point scale, making up nearly 60 percent of the possible grades.
Claim: An F, or fear of getting an F, will motivate a student to work harder. FALSE
Joe Feldman: There's no research that F’s motivate students to do better except for a tiny slice of students. The only research that supports that F’s motivate, or that low grades motivate, is for the students who have gotten A’s historically. And when they start to get a B or a C, they scramble like mad because they don't want to get anything lower because it implicates all aspects of the fixed mindset they have about themselves.
But for everyone else, in all other circumstances, there is no research to support that Fs motivate. In fact, there's research that Fs demotivate students because they know that they don't know something.
And in the way that we historically average performance over time, that F now is a hole that students have to dig themselves out of. And they know the math. They know that if they get a couple of F's early, forget having high grades at the end of the term. And so what's the point? They might as well use their energy elsewhere.
What we've got to do instead is help students understand that even if they fail early, if they get low grades early, miss things early, they can always keep learning, they can always redeem themselves with our help and support, and success is never out of reach for them.
CLAIM: Giving some students more time – without any penalties – is unfair to those who do turn it in on time. FALSE
Feldman: So I think there's a couple of things underneath that. One is that if something is unfair, that suggests that there's a competition. And I think we've come a long way in disabusing ourselves of the idea that grades should be a competition. Because if I'm trying to teach a class, I really shouldn't care if I have a whole lot of kids who are successful.
You know, we don't want students to feel like they're competing against each other because we know that only adds stress and demotivates students and lowers performance. And learning is not a race. Just because someone is able to learn something quicker, that doesn't have any value in whether or not a student learned. A grade should only reflect the level of understanding a student has of the content, not the speed at which they learned.
Claim: Students can learn without being graded on their behavior. TRUE
Feldman: We want students to learn how to manage their time and we want students to know how to work diligently and to take notes and to be a good citizen of the classroom. We can have ways of giving feedback to students and even consequences that can help them understand how to learn effectively and to learn the skills – the soft skills they'll need for success in the professional world. But that doesn't mean that it has to be included in the grade. We, as teachers, want students to self regulate. We want them to understand that if I didn't take very good notes one time, I can connect not taking very good notes to having lower performance on that quiz or assessment. So now I will learn that I have to take good notes so I do well on the next test. And that's what we want to get kids to do.
Claim: If I don't grade it, the student won't do it. FALSE
Feldman: So that is a commonly held belief based on extrinsic motivation – that the only way a student will do it is if the value that I invest in it is through the points that I use to grade it.
I was just talking to a teacher yesterday who said, ‘I used to grade every single homework assignment because I thought that if I didn't grade it, the students wouldn't do it. And then I stopped including homework in the grade and I was shocked that the students kept doing it. And in fact, some students did more than before. And then when the students handed it in, I knew it was actually their work rather than copying because so many students copy each other's homework because otherwise they lose points.’
(Note: There are plenty of students who don’t do the homework even when it counts towards their grades.)
CLAIM: Giving points for extra credit helps those who fell behind during the year. TRUE, BUT
Feldman: Oh, well, that is a “true, but.” It certainly can help them get the points that they missed out so I guess it does mathematically help them in their grade. But the problem is it renders the grade inaccurate.
For example, I didn't know the political causes of Reconstruction, but I brought in cake. So points are just fungible, I guess. And if I didn't learn something there, I can just get the points over here. It doesn't matter whether I actually learned the thing.
So it teaches students that all you have to do is get points. You don't actually have to learn, you just have to get points.
It perpetuates institutional biases because the students who can do the extra credit usually require additional resources, whether that be time or money or transportation.
So When a Teacher Reimagines Grading, What Happens to Students?
The disruptions caused by the pandemic gave teachers, students and families deep insights into some of the inequities in learning. The spike in Ds and Fs in school districts across the country, especially for high school students, has a lot of people thinking about what’s important to learning. Experts at the start of the pandemic called for cutting down curriculum clutter and focusing on relationships. But these practices shouldn’t be just a reaction to a pandemic.
English teacher Monte Syrie had been troubled by inequitable grading practices for many years before the pandemic. He felt the way he had been grading his students didn’t accurately reflect what they learned. Like so many teachers, he graded students on everything – participation, assignments, homework, tests. But the points for behavior overshadowed content knowledge in his grade book; and averaging scores, especially on a 100-point scale, didn’t capture the progress students would make over time.
In order to better assess his students, Syrie changed how he graded. Instead of being the sole distributor of points, he asked students to self-assess their work and tell him what grade they deserved. And if their grades were unsatisfactory, students could revise their work, demonstrate what they learned and improve their grade. But for Syrie, this also meant changing how he teaches because teaching and grading go hand in hand.
“I no longer have the power to motivate kids with points,” said Syrie, who teaches at Cheney High School in Spokane County, Washington.
He had to create meaningful learning tasks that would help students on assessments. These tasks weren’t graded, but students would have to find the value in doing the work in order to feel better prepared for the assessments. He said transitioning to this model had its challenges because some students wouldn’t see the value of the tasks until after stumbling on the first assessment. “And then they started to realize, like, wait a minute, [this learning task] is putting things in place for us so by the time we get to the assessment, we're prepared for the assessment,” he said.
This model of learning and grading was a major adjustment for students who were used to programming all their efforts on the expectations of a teacher. Instead, students had to reflect more upon their own efforts and abilities.
“We had a full conversation about our grades and why we believed we deserved the one we chose, and that was something I literally never experienced before,” said Lauren Hinrichs, who was Syrie’s student three years ago when he started to implement these changes. “I think we always saw the teacher-student relationship as a parent-child relationship. Or, as a student, I always viewed the teachers as someone above me, never as a fellow human, always kind of that other more significant figure,” she said. The new system allowed her to see her teacher and herself differently. “Instead, it's kind of a human-to-human [relationship], eye-to-eye.”
Not being graded on everything meant feeling more open to learning and engaging more deeply with peers as a community, even for students like Lauren who take high-pressure courses. “It allowed me to ‘chill out’ in the best way possible. And you know what? That motivated me even more to get my schoolwork done.”
The feedback process was an important part of Syrie's class – for grades, assignments, revisions – and opinions were not exclusive to the teacher; students were active participants, too. Throughout the year, students gave feedback to one another on class presentations, which helped build camaraderie among students.
During the first five minutes of each class, students did check-ins sharing things that made them smile (like having a great snack) or frown (a personal setback). Hinrichs said getting to know each other this way helped build greater community among her classmates, but also, helped understand inequities in the classroom. Just because teens show up in the same space every day doesn't mean they know about each others’ joys and struggles outside of school. But getting to know each other through smiles and frowns created the space to do that.
“There are 15-year-olds out there working night shifts or working right after school to provide for their family. And they don't have time to do three hours of homework for a project,” she said. These check-ins helped students who were not in each other’s worlds connect in ways they wouldn’t in a typical classroom. She said the sense of community helped the students learn in ways she hadn’t in any other class.
“I’ve never been able to take five minutes to engage with my fellow students. It was constantly work, work, work, work, work,” she said. Getting to know other students helped her see how inequitable school can be and she felt fortunate to have the time after school to do homework in other classes. But the smiles and frowns activity helped her see what her classmates were going through no matter what their peer groups were.
“We were all so close. And to be honest, I would have never gotten to know some of those kids the way I did in Syrie’s class had it not been for the few minutes he took every day to spend with us and spend to connect one another,” Hinrichs said.
You can read more about Monte Syrie’s journey with grading on his Project180 site.