Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part III

walnutcove-grades

source: cse.buffalo.edu

What usually happens when a student fails an assessment?

Does he

a) come to see the teacher to find out what he did not understand

b) get reprimanded by his parents and try to do better next time on a different assessment

c) roll his eyes and forget it about it

In my experience, the answer is usually C. A and B do occur, occasionally. A, of course, is the best option and the one for which all good teachers hope. After all, grades should be about learning  and if a student fails an assessment that means he has not learned what he was supposed to learn.

Perhaps this failure to learn is the teacher’s fault. Perhaps it is the student’s fault. Perhaps it is nobody’s fault. But it happens. And what we hope is that a student can gain some helpful information from an assessment, such as: “Oh. I have not actually mastered Parallelism. I should go talk to Ms. Shea to find out what I did not understand for the sake of learning itself.”

Ha.

Under normal circumstances, and under most grading systems, option A rarely occurs because the student, the teacher – nay, the class itself – has already moved on to a new objective or concept. Why waste time laboring over an exam you failed when you have another one looming on the horizon? If a final exam is coming up, then perhaps you will ask the teacher to help you so that you do not make the same errors on the final exam. But this points-based motivation is hardly ideal.

What we really want is for kids to be intrinsically motivated. To care not about grades for grades’ sake, but to care about grades only insofar as they reflect learning.

This sort of virtuous motivation may be 90% grace, 5% parent-influence, 4% peer influence and only 1% teacher influence, but we must do what we can with that 1%.

Assessments can be a learning experience. And if the assessment says, “you did not master this concept,” then, ideally, the student should go back, try again, and then retake (an altered version of) the assessment so that we can measure whether or not he has mastered the concept the second time.

Therefore, I have decided to offer retakes this semester – something I NEVER thought I would do. I used to think that if a student had not mastered the objective by the time of the assessment, then his grade should reflect that. If I schedule the test for Februrary 19th and the student did not study, or studied incorrectly, or thought he paid attention in class but did not… then for any of the those reasons he deserves to earn a low grade.

This, as far as it goes, is true. But the real question is this: what happens after failure? Do we want our kids to fail (or perform poorly) and merely move onto the next topic, hoping for a better outcome next time? (Experience shows all teachers that the kids who fail one assessment are far more likely to fail the next one, even if it is on a completely different objective unrelated to the first.)

Or…

Do we want them to go back to that failed assessment, analyze it, think about it, talk to us about it, and learn from their mistakes? Of course we want the latter. Because grades should not be about punishment, they should be about what a student has learned. And if he can show us he has achieved the objective after all, even on a second (or third!) try, shouldn’t his grade reflect that learning and progress?

Yes? Are you with me?

So how do we make this happen? By allowing retakes for assessments.

This is my new retake policy in a letter I wrote to my kids:

Dear Sophomores, Based on the research we have been discussing in class and that has been presented by [Principal], I believe it is in your best interest to adjust our grading policy for second semester so that your grades will more accurately reflect your learning. However, I also believe it would be best to introduce a gradual change based upon some of the feedback I received in your grading proposals instead of the full assessment-only model. The changes are:

  1. Re-takes for assessments will be introduced

After certain major assessments, and at my discretion after looking at your performance, I will be offering re-takes on certain assessments so that you can learn from your mistakes and show me that you have met the learning objective. The retakes I offer will be available to all students, regardless of your original grade. If you chose to retake the assessment, I will not average your scores: the higher grade will go into the grade book to reflect your mastery.

  1. In order to retake an assessment, you must complete the following:
  • Two days of NHS study hall with me or with the student mentors to review concepts you missed on the assessment.
  • A full-page typed letter explaining how you prepared for the first assessment, the mistakes made on the previous assessment, how you prepared for this retake, what your plan of action is from this point to avoid making these mistakes again.

These requirements are in place to ensure that you try your best on all your assessments, and that you only retake an assessment to show me your growth in learning.

  1. Homework will make up a smaller percentage of your overall grade

You will still receive credit for homework, bell work, and other completion grades on a random basis. This will be worth 15% of your overall grade in this class. Late work will be accepted for a reduced grade (70%) until the end of the unit. After this time, late work will not be accepted. The goal in this adjusted policy is to ensure more clearly that your grades reflect your learning of the Archdiocesan standards and objectives. If you or your parents have any questions, please email me. I will be happy to meet with you to discuss the policy. Sincerely, Ms. Maura Shea [email]

Ideally, I would allow retakes on ALL assessments. But since I am still grading some non-assessment work (homework, bell work, class work, etc.) my principal suggested I take a partial approach. Basically, I am trying to offer retakes on as many assessments as I can. Keep in mind that this means creating NEW assessments and grading a LOT more of them. Ahem.

Later, I gave each student a simplified version they put in their binders for easy reference:

Retakes

  1. Sign up for two spots [on the schedule posted by the door] – one so that we can go over your previous assessment, and another so that you can retake a new assessment.
  1. Check in with me to make sure these times are okay.
  1. Prepare your typed letter.
  • How did you prepare for your first assessment?
  • What are the mistakes you made on the first assessment – why did they happen?
  • How did you prepare for this retake?
  • What is your plan of action to avoid making the same mistakes?
  1. Come see me on the scheduled days!

Thoughts? Suggestions? In my next post, I’ll explain how this new policy (implemented in January) has been working so far.

Read Part I here.

Read Part II here.

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4 Comments

Filed under Education, Teaching

4 responses to “Why I’m Changing my Mind About Grades – Part III

  1. Michael St. Thomas

    Maura-
    You’ve clearly put some thought into this grading policy change, which I applaud you for. Too many teachers, I think, have given up trying to weigh administrative suggestions against their own principles, and their classroom policies become rules simply to be followed, rather than guidelines that are best for the students. And of course the kids pick up on this. So kudos.

    The school where I teach (a Catholic high school) does not have a policy about retaking assessments. If a student wants to sit down with me and go over a quiz or test or paper that they failed, I’ll offer them a chance to make it up, but I won’t allow them to get a grade higher than a D, for the same reason that I won’t allow a student to turn in a late assignment and receive a better grade than a student who turned the assignment in on time: it doesn’t create an equal playing field.

    So I guess my question is this: why allow students to retake a quiz or test and give them whatever grade they get on the retake, but not accept late work (which I think was a policy you stated in an earlier post)? If grades are only about indicating student learning, shouldn’t a student be evaluated on how well he/she has written, say, a 3-page paper, whether that paper was turned in on-time or at the end of the quarter?

    For me, part of the high school experience is growth in preparedness and responsibility. This doesn’t mean kicking struggling students while they’re down, of course. Any student with a willingness to spend extra time with a teacher and an openness to learn shouldn’t wind up failing a course. But it does mean helping students understand that deadlines are important. What kind of preparation is it for college or “real life” if evaluations for student learning are not also tied to a set time period for preparation and performance? Again, I’m not saying that high schoolers should be expected to have the same kind of maturity in this regard as adults, but getting them ready for that kind of understanding that unpreparedness begets undesirable consequences is part of high school, I think.

    Sorry. ended up writing much more than I had intended. But I suppose that’s the mark of a thought-provoking post. Keep up the good work–we teachers need this kind of fodder for what we do.

  2. Pingback: Why I’m Changing My Mind About Grades – Part IV | Mysteries and Manners

  3. Pingback: End of the Year List | Mysteries and Manners

  4. Pingback: Retakes as Mercy | Mysteries and Manners

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