“A grade represents a clear and accurate indicator of what a student knows and is able to do – mastery. With grades, we document the progress of students and our teaching, we provide feedback to students and their parents, and we make instructional decisions regarding the students.”
-Rick Wormeli (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 103)
I attended a two-day conference with Rick Wormeli this week. When I have an amazing growth opportunity, all by myself – it can be really annoying for my peers who are not on the same vibration. So instead of driving them crazy I rushed home on Friday night to try to make sense of it all through writing… Why do I grade?
It’s easy right – I grade because that’s what I am paid to do – it’s in the teacher job description. However, I’m thinking deeper than that, looking at what I hope to accomplish with my grades, and from the perspective of my students determining if am I successful.
At the conference Wormeli identified six things teachers try to accomplish with grades, which he then separated into two categories (Fair Isn’t Always Equal, 102):
- To document student and teacher progress
- To provide feedback to the student and family, and
- To inform instructional decisions
- To motivate students
- To punish students
- To sort students
He suggests that the top three are useful, but the bottom three are questionable. I totally agree—after all this was my second Wormeli conference and honestly I drank the Kool-Aid the first time. However, I don’t think I always get it right, so I decided to ask my 8th grade students a few questions to find out how I am doing.
In an impromptu Friday afternoon discussion they easily identified documenting progress and providing feedback as reasons to grade. However, the majority pointed to “motivating students” as being the third most significant reason that teacher’s grade.
After thinking on this I began questioning… Do I want students to have intrinsic motivation or extrinsic motivation? Our mission says “life long learning…” Research says the will to learn (or lifelong learning) is an intrinsic motive, one that finds both its source and its rewards in its own exercises. Grades are by definition – if used to motivate – extrinsic motivation. Am I meeting my personal and / or school mission as a teacher if I’m motivating through my grade book?
Okay – it was time to dig a little deeper. I threw together a survey and collected some quick very non-scientific data (wow – those iPad are cool!) Here’s what I found out –
- 100% of my students understood that if I marked grades down because they are late I am miss-reporting their approximation to mastery.
- They were split half and half when if asked if the purpose of school is either
- to determine who is smart enough to go to college, or
- to ensure that all students learn at high levels no matter what it takes.
- The majority of students supported the idea that everyone who met the standard should receive credit for doing so. They were not hung up on how long it takes individuals or how many re-dos it would take.
- When I asked if grades motivated them to want to learn the split was nearly 50 / 50, however after we talked about many students sited that the grades pushed them to do the work in class – they were not actually excited to learn the content.
- Just for fun I asked them how long it would take them to learn to play the bagpipes. Again the majority answered that there was no way to know how long it would take. Within our discussion they were able to connect that with the idea that there was no way to know how long it would take them to learn how to do anything.
- The last question was the one that broke my heart as a teacher. After seeing Wormeli the first time I continued to put in zeros but used a four-point scale. Thinking about motivation, I asked how they felt when they saw a zero in the grade book. Here is a list of their words:
Sick * Panicked * Upset * Ashamed * Bad * Stressed * “Shit” * Discouraged * Dumb * “Like I’m not going anywhere” * Discouraged * Depressed * Angry * Disappointed * Scared * Don’t Care * Worried * Exhausted * Grounded for life Frustrated * Like Quitting * Embarrassed * Desperate to get the grade up
Clearly I get a response, however I’m left wondering if it’s worth the cost. The words above hardly sound like that zero is inspiring passionate learning. Instead I can see how much it is actually manipulating the emotions of my students to get their work handed in. Typically a zero is in the grade book because of missing work – almost never because they really are showing no evidence toward mastery. If that was the case I would be quick to go back to my own teaching an figure out what I did wrong, or I would meet with them to set up a re-do before I published the grade.
Again, I go back to the goal of grading, the mission of my school, and my own personal mission as a teacher. I want my students to be passionate, inspired, life-long learners. I’m not willing to settle for anything less than that. If my grading practices promote the opposite feelings than it’s on me to make some changes. No blaming the students.
So where do I go from here? How do I get the data I need without the push of a zero? Thanks to Wormeli I’m on the path to figuring that out, but for now I’m so glad to have students who are patient with me while I continue to learn along side them.