What do Grades Measure?

As the sun sets on my ninth year of teaching high school seniors, I still find myself simultaneously surprised and nonplussed when class ranks are published. Some of my students who are the most well-rounded, analytical and creative, and who truly show mastery of content are lower on the GPA-ranked list than I would have imagined, while others who have not exhibited these traits as much but who consistently turn in work on time are ranked higher. Of course, following directions, completing assignments thoroughly and accurately, and meeting deadlines are important skills that they’ll need throughout their lives. However, I spend a lot of time thinking about those skills despite their absence in our TEKS (Texas’ standards).

Grades have become an increasingly poor indicator of a student’s actual understanding due to a host of factors – all of which have been influenced by Covid-19. At some point, we must ask ourselves: are we grading according to a scale of mastery, or are we grading a set of behaviors?

When students practice skills, it makes sense to collect their work and assess their progress in order to inform instruction. It also makes sense to offer summative assessments at a specific point when students should be ready to show mastery of those skills. However, at some point along the way, the focus shifted from informal and formal assessment of growth and teaching efficacy to grades. Of course, even those teachers who would go gradeless if they could are often held to a district standard of grading. Most districts require a set number of formative and summative assessment grades. Like it or not, colleges still look at those GPAs to assess student performance, so the grades matter here, too. However, this has led to grade inflation and kids focusing on their grades much more than on the feedback they receive, their growth, or their opportunities for improvement. Many look at that grade number, and then they’re done.

In high school, it is not uncommon the hear teachers say that we need to prepare students for the deadlines they’ll face “in the real world.” Thus, late work is either not accepted, or it incurs a penalty up to as much as 40 points for the first day. While it’s true that we have a responsibility to prepare students for life after school, we must rethink what that looks like and ask ourselves if our old patterns of behavior still work. For example, we know when our grades are due, but teachers have some freedom before those deadlines. We can enter our grades days before they’re due, or we can enter them just before the deadline. So while, yes, deadlines matter, we need to think about which deadlines can be shifted. We know that students learn at different paces. I know that many of my virtual students work full-time and/or take care of younger siblings. Do I really need to make assignments due on a specific day of the week and penalize anyone who completes it a bit later? It’s just something to think about.

This year, I have tried being more flexible with due dates, and I have deducted many fewer points for late-work. I reiterate to my students that I am far more concerned with their learning than with the grades, and I want them to retain what they learn from my course rather than rush through assignments and lessons or skip them altogether. Is this realistic for the adult workforce? Perhaps not entirely. But I am confident that I have supported them as they learn those skills in the TEKS and that they completed far more of the learning than they would have done if I stuck to my previous, more rigid grading policy.

I would love to hear from you. What are your thoughts on grading? What are your thoughts on late work?

a small section of my current gradebook

Amber Counts is writing again after a Covid-induced dry spell. She never understood ennui until this year. She mourned the loss of working with her students in-person but has adapted, like humans (and especially teachers) do, and has learned some cool new strategies that she’ll use even when her students are in her classroom once again.

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