Every year, I have an internal debate. Usually, to my spouse’s dismay, this becomes an external debate as well. I will happily argue in the streets with anyone who makes even the slightest eye contact. It becomes an obsession at times, a fascinating problem that I cannot let go of, and cannot solve.
The question at the center of the debate is, “What does a grade mean?”
I know – very provocative.
It also isn’t really the question.
For those of you who haven’t really considered the idea that grades are an objectively absurd and unwieldy method for quantifying what a student is capable of, it’s worth pointing out that grades literally mean whatever you want them to. Even if everyone agrees that every score above 93% means the student gets an A, and even if everyone agrees what the qualities of an “A student” are, there is still the inevitable question of every other letter grade means, and how exactly you can justify a difference between a C (which counts for credit in a college course) and a C- (which does not). Even more mind-blowing is this question: if 93% is an A… 93% of WHAT?
That isn’t really part of my internal debate. I’m sure someone will find the perfect system, it will be universally recognized as such, and it will be easily implemented and understood by the general community. Perhaps it is the grading system you are currently imagining.
However, much like the names of characters in textbook word problems, I don’t care about that. (I also don’t care about whatever generic and abbreviated problem they have that math will miraculously solve in an integer fashion.) My debate is how to shoehorn a perfectly decent concept like assessing students for mastery into Skyward, my district’s online and terribly persnickety system.
You see, the grading database assumes that all students will be assessed at the same time, in the same way. It presumes that I will hand out a document, students will answer a certain amount correctly, and then they will receive a grade precisely the same as the amount they answered correctly. I can weight categories of documents in different ways, because evidently a test provides a stronger indication of a students’ mastery than their day to day use of the concept. Or vice versa.
It’s so nice to be able to choose between red and blue and green sports drinks, but what I really want is ice cream.
If you thought you would read this far and find some useful insight or miracle method of grading, sorry. I have some Excel spreadsheets that convert individual questions or clusters of questions into a usable percentage (15*x+40, where x is a 1-4 standard grade based on a rubric). I actually modified the calculation to unfairly punish 1’s, but every score can be replaced (not averaged) once students show mastery.
The debate is always, “How can I reconcile grading my students fairly with informing them of the percentages without taking too long?” I run simulations, trying to decide what scores will result in reasonable traditional grades. I fret about whether or not to use a 0 to indicate “no data”, even though it has no motivational quality on most students. I struggle with how to involve students in grading themselves, so that they can internalize the feedback provided and work to improve, rather than accept whatever paltry points I deign to permit them. And I always give in at the end, because I cannot change the administration’s grading system, because they cannot change the college grading system, because tradition.