Chapter 16 – Grades

Photo Credit: reviewerlive.com

Photo Credit: reviewerlive.com

Before you set up a grading system, get a copy of the report card you’ll have to use. Also get a copy of the card for grade before and the grade after yours. Report cards vary hugely by district and probably bear no resemblance to the ones you received even ten years ago. Ours underwent a major rewrite six years ago and just went through another.

Is the card standards-based, subject-based or mixed? Standards-based report cards list skills like “Counts from 1 to 30” or “Reads text fluently.” The grade is usually a number rating, but can be a letter like O (Outstanding), S (Satisfactory), N (Needs Improvement) or even symbols. Subject-based report cards simply name the class like “Reading” or “Science.” The grade is usually a letter, A, B, C, D, or F, but can also be a number or a different letter system. And some report cards are mixed.

Whatever it is, you’ll have to make your grading system match it from the start. There is no point in giving students A’s on their math homework if you have to somehow translate that into a number on a six-point scale that matches a skill. Even at a tiny one assignment per week, you will have signed yourself up for a lot of hurt. Once you know what you need to do, set up a universal grading system for yourself. Mine is that every basic assignment is worth ten points, no matter how much work is on the page. Minus one is 9 points (A), minus two is 8 points (B), minus three is 7 points (C), four is 6 (D), more is an F. Students get 5 points, or half credit, for trying. I use this no matter how many problems are on a page. The only time I count actual points is on tests. This way, I never have to count how many points are possible, which often turns out to be complicated, nor do any math to convert problems to points and a percentage correct. This saves even more time when students turn in work a week late. I don’t have to reconstruct the math I used two weeks ago, assignment by assignment. Any child who doesn’t like their grade can fix their mistakes and turn it back in.

Finally, prepare a lesson for both the parents and the students on how you will grade, what it means, and how it connects to the report card. If you have parents from other countries, this step is essential. Check Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_(education) and click on any country name. They list over 50 completely different systems of grading around the world. Teach the parents at Meet the Teacher or Back to School night. Teach your students the first week of school, and keep extra handouts for new students.

Now examine the report card for the grade below yours. Is it significantly different? I have spent the bulk of my teaching years sitting on the seam where standards-based change to subject-based report cards. I still remember Kaden’s mother in tears at a 6th grade parent conference. 6th grade was the first year students got letter grades. Before that, they received lengthy, skills-based report cards. Kaden was a bright child, but his midterm progress report showed mostly D’s and F’s. His mother brought in his 5th grade report card. Not one single skill was lacking. He was at grade level or above in all ratings. She could not understand why he was failing. We could. It happened too often. Kaden was bright enough to exploit the weakness of skills-based evaluations. He could perform every one of the skills listed on that extensive report card with little effort. And he made little effort. Subject-based grades required that he complete his work which he often didn’t. Too much of it was missing or incomplete. School had been easy for so many years that he didn’t know what to do when the rules suddenly changed. This is why you check the report card before yours, so you can warn the Kadens of the world how hard they will have to work in your class.

Now examine the report card for the grade after yours. Is it significantly different? Will you have to prepare your students for a change? Some of the best 5th grade teachers give their students both skill and letter grades so they know what to expect in middle school. As a new teacher, you may already feel like you are drowning in numbers, but you might be able to do this in the 4th quarter or for the last month of the year, whatever you can manage to help prepare your students for a big transition.

Once you recognize the fact that your students can produce work much faster than you can grade it, you need some coping mechanisms. One of my favorites I borrowed from that terrific art teacher. If the assignment is something that only requires completion, or something you can scan fast, leave the papers in student hands and say, “1-2-3, stick it on your forehead!” Then quickly walk around the room with your clipboard, checking for completeness and quietly telling a student if you are giving a lower mark. Don’t worry; those who didn’t finish know it and won’t argue.

You can also accomplish some grading in class like math review sheets, cursive workbooks, or spelling activities. As you walk around to check work, take your pen and put stars next to correct answers. If the whole page is correct, put a star at the top. I used to circle incorrect answers, but my students hated circles so much that they asked me for dots instead. The one ground rule is that no one can chase you down or call you back for a star; you’ll get there when you are ready. This way, you can assess your class immediately, reteach if you need to, and when you finally go through those pages to grade them, you will be pleasantly surprised at how much is already done.

Some teachers check homework by having students put it on a corner of their desks. They walk around and check it while the students do deskwork. This works better in upper grades. In lower grades, I find that too many students interrupt me because they need help with the deskwork. Another middle school math teacher I know doesn’t check the homework. Instead on Friday, she gives a homework quiz containing questions copied from the homework. Students are encouraged to copy their answers from their week’s homework. Of course, students who didn’t do the work, or who can’t find it, actually have to work the problems in a hurry. They finish by stapling their homework to the quiz and turning the packet in.

If you have workbooks to grade, speed through pages by grading the same page or two for the entire stack. You will memorize the answers quickly and be able to fly through the pile. Also, if you decide to change how you score the page, it’s easy to go backwards. There is no hunting involved. After all the pages are graded, you can go through each child’s book and enter grades into your gradebook. This method gives me the most speed with the fewest errors.

One warning about electronic gradebooks. Don’t make a list of grades and then put that list into your grade book. First, it’s double the work, but worse, it’s double the error rate. Standard error rates for data entry are somewhere around 3-5% which means that for every 100 grades you enter, 3 to 5 will be wrong.  If you make a list, 3 to 5 will be wrong on the list. When you enter them into your computer, 3 to 5 more will be wrong. Now, you have 6 to 10 errors. Even if you are extra careful, whatever your error rate is, it will still double. I speak from experience.

Given how many grades you will enter and how complex grading programs are, it can be worth explaining the error rate to parents. Some expect perfection and get grumpy when you make a mistake on their child’s grades. I explain it at Back to School night. Between nightly reading logs, daily math work, and everything else we do, I enter about 500 grades a week. I am careful, but even at the low end, I will make about 15 mistakes. Parents can see grades online, and I send home printed grades for parents without internet. For every incorrect grade, or “Prove Me Wrong,” the child gets a free bathroom pass or prize box ticket plus bragging rights because I make a big deal about it. The current record is eleven errors. The grading software went through an unstable period and trashed entries. It was expensive, but worth it.

You will still have to thoughtfully grade major assignments, and best practices say that you should have given the students a rubric. Do try to create, beg, or borrow them. Generic rubrics on the web aren’t a bad place to start. But having been truly overwhelmed, particularly by social studies tests with half a dozen open-ended answers, here is a shortcut you can take when desperate. Turn every test to the same page. Choose the question. Decide how many points it is worth. Read the first answer. How many points is it worth? 4? Start the 4 stack, but don’t write the point value yet. Read the next. Worth 2 points? Put it in the 2 stack. Keep reading and stacking. Skim back through each pile. Are all of the answers similar? If not, move the outliers to the correct stack. Now write the points on each answer.

This helps you speed up. For starters, you gain confidence and don’t go back through the pile several times changing your mind. Also, you grade essentially blind unless someone has outrageously bad, and therefore recognizable, handwriting. You will be sorely tempted to check for names as you grade especially if you can’t decide between two numbers. Don’t. It’s not fair to your students. If you want to think deeply about your students, ask yourself this question while the tests are still in piles. What can you do to help the students who got 4’s? 3’s? 2’s? 1’s?

For projects that the students want to share with the class, don’t have each child come up one at a time. You will quickly find that while every child wants to talk, no one wants to listen and poor behavior will popcorn across the room. You have a couple of choices. Teaching children how to present will buy you some time as will lessons on how to listen. Limiting each presentation to 30 or 60 seconds finished by vigorous applause also helps. But do the math. Thirty children times 60 seconds plus transition time eats up the better part of an hour. Is it worth it? Are presentation skills part of the assignment? Will the children really learn an hour’s worth from each other?

Gallery walks, also borrowed from that terrific art teacher, are usually a better option. Have each child put the project on their desk along with a blank comment sheet. Choose one project and demonstrate how to write a positive, thoughtful comment. Sign it. Then have the students walk the room, sit at any empty desk, examine the project, write a positive, thoughtful comment, sign it, and move to another empty seat. You may put a time limit on this or continue as long as students are engaged. While this is going on, you can also write comments or walk the room with your clipboard checking a rubric. When finished, students have feedback from a wider audience than the teacher, have something to discuss, and you don’t have to write long comments on this assignment.

Group work can also be difficult to grade. Having worked in industry and played sports for so many years, I have seen first-hand what it takes to create a team that performs far beyond its abilities. Most teachers think that asking each child to do their job is the apex of good group work. They aim too low. To help my students understand how to be great, I adapted work from some other great thinkers.

I start with a graphic of Tuckman’s Team Development Model, showing with directional arrows teams that are forming, storming, norming and performing.

Forming forming

Storming storming

Norming norming

Performing performing

My point is that arguing is normal, quitting is not allowed, and they have to work through that storming stage. I will help them if it gets bad. I may also point out that a norming team can still get their work done, but it would be awesome if they get to performing. This gives us a common language to discuss group dynamics during the project, and gives me a graphic to refer to when there are difficulties.

Then I share a group work rubric that I modified from Interact’s Empires by Brad Hulman & Jim Sandoval (2002). I read it at aloud stopping to explain the words in italics. It looks like this.

4 – Exceeds the standard – Exemplary

The student consistently and actively helps his or her group achieve its goals by communicating well with other group members, by encouraging the group to work together, and by willingly accepting and completing the necessary work. The entire group works better because this person is there.

3 – Meets the standard with quality – Expected

The student usually helps the group achieve its goals by communicating with other group members, by encouraging their group to work together, and by accepting and completing the necessary work. This person gets their share done on time.

2 – Inconsistently meets the standard – Nearly There

The student makes some effort to help his or her group achieve its goals. This person sometimes interferes with the group work, may refuse to do some tasks, or may not get their work done on time.

1 – Has not met standard – Incomplete

The student makes little or no effort to help his or her group achieve its goals. This person messed around, distracted other people, refused to work, lost work, or interfered so badly that the group got a lower grade.

Every child gives themselves and each group member a rating at the end of the project. We may also use a middle checkpoint if the project is long. Then, using names, they privately write down the best thing a group member did and the worst thing a group member did. I use all this information to come up with a grade for group work on that project and put it in my gradebook. Depending on the results, I have brief student conferences. I keep the ratings for a few weeks. I have had parents call and ask why a grade was so low and was able to say why.

If students want to work at home on projects, I send a similar form home for the parents to complete and sign. You need to know who is really doing all of the work. One form came back with, “Leon didn’t do much work, but he did keep asking if we had anything else that was good to eat.” Another said, “I am so proud of my son. During this entire project, his partner has been sending threatening texts saying that if my son didn’t do all the work, he would beat the c*** out of him. I thought my son handled it really well.” I needed to handle that one, not her son.

Finally, if you have control over your grade book, create a subject called “Paperwork.” Make all of the assignments Pass/No Pass. Over the course of the year, you and your school will send home dozens of pages from permission slips to medical forms for parents to complete and sign. Enter every one as a separate assignment. Mark it “pass” when it gets returned. When you send home a grade summary, send home this page as a separate list of grades as well. You’ll be amazed at how much it improves your paperwork return percentage. You’ll also be amazed at how many crumpled pages appear out of backpacks.

You will likely change your grading system several times throughout your career, but the key is to have something to help you keep track of all of the paper, and more important, prove that the student deserved the grades that you put on their report card. By keeping your grading system as transparent and up-to-date as possible, you maintain vital trust with your students and their parents.

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