As the economy goes, so goes grades for students….Please hit the reset button!

On the subject of grading, you can ask five teachers their opinion, get 12 answers and if you ask the same group of teachers the same question two weeks later, get seven answers that may/may not have similarity to the original 12 answers given.

Teachers are forever discussing how to grade well, how to improve grading and how to be fair in grading – a process which is mind numbing when you consider that aside from math and ideas involving math (quantitative values which are measureable), there can be a variety of correct answers.  Although teachers (and apparently college profs based on the link above) strive to take qualitative values and put them into quantitative context (the “rubric”), there is no one right answer and, amazingly, teachers may use a variety of grading methodologies over the course of the year due the  specific nature of an assignment.

One area of clarity, which almost everyone (except parents and students and, with a high degree of regularity, principals) agrees is that grades should be a reflection of the scholarly work by the student.   Ex: Having done lab experiments on photosynthetic process, students should be able to describe elodea “absorbing” carbon dioxide, processing it with water all the while using energy from sunlight to split apart and reorganize the molecules appropriately to form a simple sugar and oxygen gas.  If I wanted more specificity, I could ask for the C6H12O6 model….I could, for high school students specify the volume of CO2 going in….Grading the aforementioned concepts is altogether a different story.  Since photosynthesis is the single most important chemical reaction, one might say that 80-90% of the grade for the assignment be based on the ability to describe the process and 10-20% for the accuracy of specific calculations.   Should the teacher be presented with a Larry Gonick style cartoon expressing photosynthesis, all the better, but how to account for creativity? What is the bottom line that I am measuring the student knows….. Well, on a base model – carbon dioxide goes in with water and you get simple sugar and oxygen; on a synthesis level I would want to know that this is the self same process which makes a plant grow, tree rings form and leaves, flowers, fruits form; on an application model, I may want the student to identify that when looking at a tree cookie, one could infer that the more thin/slender tree ring was a result of something (highly probable water) was in drought/missing during a particular growing season, number of years so there was ‘less’ tree growth – what would we know about the climate in that region?

Bottom line (going back to the base model): Be able to let me know you understand photosynthesis is a process which involves substances called carbon dioxide (gas) and water (liquid/gas vapor) and the energy of sunlight for processing to sugar and oxygen. This key piece of info is really the 75-90% of the grade.  Not being able to articulate in a meaningful manner this idea would not warrant a grade above a D. It may approximate a C if there is some implication the student is aware of disorganized information and can logically, in a round about manner explain the process and results. In order to achieve a grade of  B or above, the explanation needs to be clear, concise, instructive (I now am clear the student “gets it”). For an A, the student needs to graphically represent the process.  This grading style may seem, on the outside puzzling, however, let me digress further into what I was thinking:  I am checking to see that my students can explain photosynthesis (generally Gr 6 and 7) and, on AVERAGE (grade C), I expect all my students to get it.  I then know I have a portion of shining stars who take learning seriously and will have studied and give more detail/clarity to the answer so that is a B or an A. Just “accomplishing” the task – which is the minimal amount I expect from everyone, is not above average work.

When students, parents and the occassional administrator scoffs at my reasoning, I am willing to have a discussion – I am generally not willing  to change the grade more than say 5-10% so a C becomes a C+ (rarely a B-). My thought is that in a rational world, the base line is can you just basically regurgitate a process, no different from explaining the making of a PBJ sandwich.  Where I get torqued is the idea that a students self esteem is at risk by being honest with the grading. 

In the same exact manner of high fliers on Wall St. (Merrill Lynch is a perfect example here in), banking (USB), real estate brokers/lenders (take your pick) believe they DESERVE/are ENTITLED to a bigger cut of the pie, we have children and parents who support and believe in grade inflation since the child deserves and is entitled to a better grade merely based on the student showing up to school, maybe doing a halfway decent jobon the lab and write up, not really studying for more than 15 minutes the morning of the test and putting the name, date, period on the paper in the correct place.

Apparently collegiate professors expect more (amazingly, so do employers – just showing up does not obtain a pay check unless you are B. Madoff) and so should parents. 

I encourage any parent worth their salt to think about what the ‘experience’ is you want the student(your child) to obtain from the grade process: more attention/note taking in class? rewritting notes? more, but shorter, study times? group study? teacher after school help? Start thinking about what the student needs to do to accomplish more than hit the baseline (which is what the teacher, and apparently professors) model.

Schools have spent so much time figuring out ways to connive grades that make students and parents ‘feel good’ we forgot to mention that grades are but only one tool in measuring anyones ability.  Did I mention that EVERYONE has the CAPACITY to always do better? 

Updated on 4/29/2009