A principal gives us pause with some analytical thoughts on grading
by Erik Ormberg
On May 9th I sat in on a Sociology class as middle school principal Nat Vaughn presented on Standards Based Reporting. I had heard about SBR in passing, but my knowledge remains limited. The only way I see SBR in action, in my mind, is when I look at my 9 year old’s 3rd grade report card.
Mr. Vaughn started off by asking the class “What’s the goal? What are you here for?”
He asked the students about how easy it is for them to pick out the “easy” teachers and the “hard” teachers. Most of those opinions are created by the traditional A-F grading scale. Simple formula….the teacher who gives the most As is “easy” and the teacher who doesn’t is “hard.” There was general agreement about these statements.
Mr. Vaughn then went off on the arbitrary nature of letter grades (the D+ always fascinated me….”you are doing excellently poor work”) and the even more inane “Comment Section”. The canned two-comment component has long been established as protocol on report cards at both the high school and middle school. Report cards are littered with the non-academically pointed “pleasure to have in class,” or hard-hitting, “missing work has impacted grade” or the telling, “conduct good.”
One student pushed back by saying that their parents only cared about the comments and that the grades didn’t matter. A telling sidebar as to what some people really want to see on a report card: honest feedback that goes well beyond a random collection of quiz grades, test grades, homework grades, lab grades combined with extra credit, re-dos, book reports, test corrections, group projects, presentations, attendance and alternate assessments.
The main area of focus, as described by Mr. Vaughn, revolved around offering “an equitable experience for kids.” Grading lacks consistency across disciplines and, oftentimes within disciplines.
Mr. Vaughn shared a GRADE DISTRIBUTION REPORT showing three teachers who teach the same subject in the same grade. In terms of “As” one teacher gave 19%, another 71% and another 54%. After seeing this deviation a decade ago, Mr. Vaughn started asking some questions about that lack of consistency.
After consulting with members of the math department Mr. Vaughn asked about “acceptable variations” on grade reports. His findings concluded that 10% would be the acceptable variation. Given how far off the variation was he started to look at reasons why:
- Is it different expectations?
- Different types of assignments?
- Teaching style?
- How teachers weigh each grade?
- Bonus questions/Extra Credit?
- Partial credit?
- Quiz/Test corrections?
- Homework passes?
- Drop the lowest grade?
Many of us in education...teachers/students/parents enjoy the perks of the homework pass or the policy of dropping the lowest grade. We seem to like it when it benefits us. But when we start looking at averages and the deviations that exist all of sudden our public school mandate that states all kids should be given a FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education) is called into question.
Mr. Vaughn then started to look at those “averages”. Can students with the same grade be completely different students? One student is a “grinder,” does all the homework and in-class assignments, but just doesn’t test well. Another student, with the same grade, does half the homework assigned, pays little to no attention in class, but aces the tests. If the student and parents see the same grade what might be more important is what is “behind the grade”: work ethic, group participation, willingness to push the conversation in class, effort and self-advocacy.
There were two slides in the powerpoint that captured my attention. The first was a slide showed how most of the New England region is embracing SBR. Massachusetts remains the one state not embracing SBR. The other interesting slide showed what traits people in the business world are looking for in a quality job applicant.
Top three: Bottom three:
Problem Solving Numeracy
Team work Emotional Intelligence
Do grades allow us to provide any feedback on these and other life skills and learning skills? Are we accurately assessing students on CONTENT STANDARDS and LEARNING SKILLS when we give them grades?
In thinking about how much technology has impacted the education of Medfield students in just the past five years I can think of other skill sets that are applied each day and graded and commented on through a system that seems far more draconian than cutting edge.
Mr. Vaughn stated that he likes “push back” from students and staff and today was not the day for that. My question wasn’t WHY?.....but WHEN? Who will be first to rip down the old grading scale and integrate what we know are more telling descriptors of student learning.
As a high school guidance counselor I give much more than a cursory glance at a student’s transcript when I am writing a letter of recommendation. But what I rely on more than GPA, ACT and SAT is our twenty-question Counselor Recommendation Form. Here is where we ask kids about their passions, how they deal with adversity, what their strengths and weaknesses are. That form is much more telling of who the child is as a learner, musician, athlete, community servant or thespian.
Clearly Mr. Vaughn is passionate about the topic of SBR. During a ninety minute block period he captivated the juniors and seniors in the class. He took questions and provided some personal anecdotes about how kids learn differently, even sharing a story of a friend who hated his schooling experience all the way through college. That friend has gone on to lead a very successful life with a fulfilling family and job.
After the presentation another discussion was had about providing staff the appropriate amount of time to do meaningful reflection and offer meaningful feedback for students--something that goes far beyond the “pleasure to have in class,” feedback we currently provide. Many things need to change in order for this initiative to:
- Be meaningful for all
- Be accepted wholly as acceptable change
- Be more than a one-year initiative
My hope is that our current grading system moves in a direction that is more consistent for kids. An argument was made today for Standards Based Reporting and, quite honestly, there wasn’t much pushback in the room.
One of Mr. Vaughn’s final thoughts echoed as the students dispersed, “Students can learn without grades, but they can’t learn without timely, descriptive feedback.”