Plus ca change, plus ca pareil

07 April 2005

After a few days of much needed R and R with my Sweetie, I'm back at home for the final days of Spring Break. I had a wonderful escape to Arizona and find myself sighing a lot over having to come home.

As I try to catch up on things around here, I've run across several education-related stories that are piquing my interest. One in particular was an op-ed piece about the "Art of Grading." A student wrote in to ask an advisor of ethics about her teacher's grading practices. She states "My ninth-grade art teacher doesn't give any grade above 94 percent because, she says, 'There's always room for improvement.' In previous years, I earned a 99 percent and a 100 percent. The 94 I received this term does not reflect the hard work that I put into this course. Because of her 'improvement' theory, I got a lower grade than I deserve. Is her grading philosophy ethical?"

I'm not sure that I necessarily agree with the ethicist's answer, although he dances around a good deal...and in the end, advises the student to talk to her teacher and/or principal. But I do understand where the student is coming from. In high school, my band director consistently wrote a "95" in the grade box every grading period---regardless of one's accomplishments, attendance, or most importantly, skills. I always found this annoying, but I never questioned him about it.

The Arts must indeed pose some unique challenges in terms of assessment. But I think I'll stick with grading in general for my 2 cents today. What I think that we as teachers owe our students are clear targets. We need to communicate what the standard is before kids begin work. And during and following their work, they need honest and accurate feedback about their progress and why or why it doesn't "hit the bullseye." I think that if the art teacher in the article had done so, the student would know where she had room for improvement.

Current theory surrounding "sound grading practices" factors out things like attendance, effort, and/or participation. After all, these are subjective (a lot like grading in music and art). Whether or not a student can demonstrate some knowledge and skill is not subjective and should be the basis for a "grade."

In fact, grades seem to be becoming passe. In today's era of standards-based teaching and learning, all that matters is whether or not a kid can meet the standard. Does it matter if the kid does their work on time? Should a kid get credit for an assignment written in pen when the math teacher specifically required writing in pencil? Who has the "burden of proof" in determining a student's progress: the student (via a portfolio of work) or the teacher (as the expert)?

I know a lot of schools and districts (including mine) are wrestling with these sorts of issues. Ours, for example, is developing an entirely new type of report card for elementary students. It lists all the standards they are required to meet at their grade level and the teacher will use a 1, 2, 3, or 4 to indicate the student's progress toward the standard (a "3" would indicate meeting the standard). I'm wondering how long it will be until we see this sort of thing migrate to secondary education.

I hope that the student mentioned in the OpEd piece finds an answer that satisfies her. I also hope that she understands that there are a lot of us in the realm of education searching for similar answers.

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