All of my educational life, everything I did was based on grades. I remember being so worried about bringing home a paper with its bright red “C” on it, always in large letters that stood out like a bloody nose (and probably hurt my feelings as bad as a bloody nose). I was so worried about it, that on the walk home, I would find a trash can to put them in (sorry mom). Even though I worked very hard and made good grades, usually those good grades did not bring the same amount of good emotion as the poor grades brought on bad emotion. I can remember in Jr. High, my mom warned me and warned me that if I didn’t make good grades, I wouldn’t be in the honor society or I wouldn’t be in BETA club (an academic club). In high school, it became that if I didn’t make good grades, I wouldn’t get into college. If I made outstanding grades, I could maybe get a scholarship. Grades, grades, grades, grades.
Once I began teaching, it was my turn to put those grades on students’ papers. It was me that determined pass or fail for others. I saw that the students who actually cared about their grades, were the students who were going to make good grades anyway. I also saw that students who didn’t care about their grades, really didn’t care if they got another zero on a paper. They just continued to rack up zeros, without any care.
About four years ago I heard a speaker who talked about grades. He talked about how unfair it is to give a student a zero on a paper. He explained how hard it is for a student to come back up from a zero. He also did an activity in which each teacher in the room gave a grade on the same paper, and then we discussed the differences in our grades for that same paper. Some gave the student an “A”, some a “B”, and some gave it a “C”. Right then, I became aware of how different we, as teachers, grade papers.
I became even more aware of the differences in grading styles when my daughter got into third grade, when the focus of their progress is based on a letter grade and no longer by whether the skill is mastered or not. I was able to look at her grades on-line and saw that she was not making the grades that I would have liked, however when I looked closer she only had four grades in a nine-week span. I have also seen it within my own circle of teachers. Some grade harder than others. What I have realized, is that a student’s grades may reflect the student’s ability to please that particular teacher, but it doesn’t accurately reflect that student’s competency of the skills being taught. I have had numerous students who knew the content forwards and backwards, but rarely turned their assignments in. I began to rethink my role as a teacher. Am I here to make sure these students understand the skills I am teaching, or am I here to assign a letter grade that defines a child not by their abilities in my subject, but by conformity?
After these revelations, I decided to try a different grading policy. It has been a little controversial at times, but I feel it has been extremely successful. I now give “completion” grades. If I give an assignment, students are required to do the work, show their work, and bring it back to class. We grade the assignments together in class, always. This has also freed up my time as a teacher. No longer am I looking at stacks of papers to grade, often not getting them turned back to the student for a week or more. I spend that time developing activities and games that enhance their learning. The students grade their papers. They check the problems they get wrong, they place the number of problems they got incorrect on the top of the page, not for a grade, but so that I can easily see how well they understood the concept. If the students have completed the assignment, shown all of their work, and turned it in on time; they will receive ten points out of ten. If they do not turn it in, it goes in the grade book as a zero. They are given the quarter to turn in the assignment for seven out of ten points. I stress to the students that the emphasis is not placed on how many you get right or wrong, it’s the fact that you realize that you made a mistake, and that now you understand what you did wrong. When students take the stress out of making “perfect” grades, and place the emphasis on understanding the concept, there is a much deeper understanding, and not a hatred towards the subject itself. Homework is a very small part of my class grades. We do multiple hands-on activities and reinforcement games. Those are all participation grades. Daily grades are always out of ten points, and I rarely ever deduct points for those activities or games. When we do the hands-on activities and games, everyone participates including those unmotivated students who rarely do homework assignments. Giving them grades for their participation in the activity allows them to be successful in the things that they are willing to do. Students work in pairs or groups, so there is always math conversations and cooperative learning taking place. Whether they realize it or not, they are learning.
I do however, take a full one hundred point grade on unit tests. What I have learned, is that without students having that fear of failure during the “work” part of class and with this new feeling of success, most students will score higher than normal on those tests.
It does take a little time for students and parents to adjust to this grading policy. During parent/teacher conferences, I explain my policy and then my theory behind it. My hope is that some day, we will stop giving students letter grades, but rather focus on whether they’ve mastered the skills that we are teaching them. It works in pre-K through second grade, so why do we stop there?