The problem with diminishing grades

As we’ve just finished our end of year reporting process, I’ve been reflecting on giving students zero if they hand a task in late. Whether it’s a straight zero for being a day late or whether it’s losing 20% per day, it doesn’t make sense. What a policy like this says is that a student who hands in their project a day late (or 5 days late) has learned nothing when in reality, the project that they’ve completed could have communicated the most extensive understanding of the topic they were learning about. Is this fair? Does the lateness say more about their disorganisation than the development of their understanding? In NSW we are required to use Course Performance Descriptors to allocate a grade at the end of the school year for Year 10 (and now Year 11) students. Even if a student handed in all their assessment tasks late and received zero, we should still be able to give them an “A” if their projects showed an extensive understanding. I wonder how many students will have received a lower grade than they deserve because they handed a task in late?

Consider this scenario. A student is working on a project that they have become totally immersed in and is wanting to learn more and add more to their final project because they are continuing to learn more. As the due date looms, the student asks for a request to have an extension, not because they are sick, just because they don’t want to hand in something that’s not as well done as they feel they can do. It’s worth noting that I’ve never encountered this scenario myself, but I wonder what I would do if I wasn’t bound by school policy and have to do what it dictates?

A diminishing grade system, whether it be a zero policy or 20% per day, is no more than a big stick to help with management of students to complete their work in an orderly fashion I’m sure because it doesn’t seem to be there as a tool to help accurately demonstrate what students’ have learned.

Some other things to consider:

  • What effect does the zero have on the student’s motivation to learn? Joe Bower has given some thought to this both here and here
  • Why give a mark or grade anyway? Does it give an accurate reflection on what they know?
  • The board of studies in NSW doesn’t require us to give a grade at all until the end of Year 10 if we don’t believe it’s suitable which means a zero policy could be redundant anyway (although we do need to report a 5 point scale twice per year) but so many of us do anyway. Is that just historical?

I’m planning that in 2013 I will be giving away the grades and working with students to enjoy learning without the fear of judgement. I’ll be focused on giving quality feedback and allowing students the opportunity to improve what they’ve done rather than seeing a grade as an endpoint to their learning.

Assessment – the real start to your child’s academic growth!?

My wife picked up a parenting magazine today as we entered our local swimming pool as we took our son to his regular swimming lesson. As she flicked through it, the advertisement in the picture above, caught my eye. As a PE teacher, it was the picture that initially drew my attention and so I looked closely to see that it was an advertisement for an externally administered, standardised testing program. The tests typically take the form of a ‘bubble’ test that requires student’s to circle the bubble that corresponds to the correct answer. After they’re marked, students get a certificate that tells them whether they got a credit, distinction or high distinction. (I’m not sure whether the students who get in the bottom 10 percent get certificates, but maybe they’ve decided that that would be detrimental to a student’s well-being?).

The claim on the advertisement is “Assessment: The real start to your child’s academic growth”. Just stop and think about that for a moment. What’s it saying exactly? That until students’ are properly assessed they can’t achieve substantial academic growth until they are assessed. And, that that assessment is best done by a once per year multiple choice bubble test that is marked by computer?
It also claims that their tests help you (the parent) identify strengths, weaknesses and progress to support academic success. For this to occur, parents need to be given feedback saying what the student got correct, what they got wrong, where they can improve on. However, in a subject that requires particular skills to answer the question, how can a test that doesn’t require a student to show how they solved the problem give accurate feedback?
It makes me think, if parents need to rely on the information gathered from a once per year, standardised (mostly) multiple choice test to find out what their child’s strengths and weaknesses are then our school’s information gathering about student understanding and reporting on it is not doing it’s job.
On the other hand, are we (teachers) using these because it’s ‘good’ for the students to see how they compare to other students, then we need to consider whether learning is a competition in which we need to compare ourselves to one another and whether that is good for the well being of the students.
In his article “The case against grading“, Alfie Kohn sets out clearly how research has shown how detrimental grading is to learning – that it decrease the learners interest in whatever they’re learning, that they create a preference for the easiest possible task, that they reduce the quality of student’s thinking.
More and more I feel our number one priority must be to encourage students to become individuals with a desire to learn more, who enjoy learning and have the skills to do so. Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to get rid of grades or marks completely from our schools because we often have to collect information or prepare our students for their final leaving exams. Here in New South Wales, where I teach, that is the Higher School Certificate. However, we can take steps to minimise the number of grades that our students get and endeavour to give more helpful feedback to students that doesn’t provide judgement on their work but shows them what they’ve done well and what they can improve and what direction they can move in next.
In my classes, I’ve started using feedback forms that outline the areas of their work that they’ve shown they’ve shown they understand what they are doing and a section that sets out areas that they can still develop. Maybe this isn’t perfect but I’m trying to keep my feedback free from judgment. I also give students opportunities to re-submit (even on tests when we still have them) so that they have the opportunity to show what they actually know rather than using it to test their performance at that one moment in time.
Does anyone else keep portfolios of learning and give feedback rather than grades? I’d love to hear how you do it and what format you use, and what the advantages and disadvantages are as I seek to do it better.
Also, if you haven’t read any of Alfie Kohn’s work on grading, motivation and extrinsic rewards I strongly recommed you take a look. You can find a lot of his articles here.
Reference: Alfie Kohn (2011) “The Case Against Grading”