My mind has been vexed by this simple question.  Specifically, what does the report card grade tell the my students and the parents?  Does it reflect what my students know?  Their faithfulness?  Their understanding?  Their tenacity?  Or is it, as I have come to view it, the fulfillment of the social contract between my students, their families, and myself?  The social contract should be that if students show understanding and push themselves, they will earn a grade that reflects the fulfilment of the implied contract.  Conversely, a hard-working student that pushes himself, but does not understand the essential learning of my class, cannot earn a grade that gives the appearance that he can transfer these skills into future classes and the working world.  Just as much, a student that shows understanding, but lacks the drive and work ethic expected of productive individuals, also cannot receive a grade that gives the impression that he is ready for the demands of the workplace. This is the frame of my reflective writing.  It is something that has evolved a lot over my teaching career.  After nearly a score of teaching years some clarity has become to emerge.

Of course, it would be a simple thing to say that my grading is a zero-tolerance endeavor.  The reality is that I want all my students to get an “A” in my class.  Every teacher will say this, but the challenge is what extra efforts do we teachers make to ensure that goal becomes reality.

First off, my grading thoughts needed a mission statement.  If you know me this seemingly easy thing causes me hours of grief.  The reason that it is so difficult lies in clarifying what the letter grade should tell parents and students.  Below is my attempt:

A grade in a class reflects the student’s understanding of the essential questions along with his or her faithfulness and work ethic.  The grade can also reflect the understanding of the cultural literacy associated with the class. Version 1.4

I am sure that this mission statement will change as this article extends, but it is a start.  The next challenge was for me to be honest in my belief statements. (I hate belief statements.  As they peel away the façade that I like to erect in front of me.  One of the reasons that I don’t want to publish my book is that it is too personal.  Also it invites criticism.  I don’t mind criticism for the most part.  But my teaching beliefs are personal; it is the equivalent of people criticizing my musical tastes.  I can’t control what I like in music.  I wrestle a lot with these type of things because I try to do them justice.)  So here goes.

Belief Statements (in no particular order):

  1. All multiple-choice tests are formative. I ducked when I wrote this bullet.  I have heard since I started teaching that a “well-crafted” multiple-choice test can uncover deeper and transferable thinking.  You may be able to nuanced connections, but uncover the transferable thinking that we want our students to do in the “real world”?  I don’t think so.  The format is artificial and the assessment foreshadowed.  I just don’t agree with the basic assertion.  This is not condemning multiple-choice test per se; it is just challenging the idea that a multiple-choice test is a long-term, transferable skill measurement.
  2. Students should prove they can perform a task or demonstrate a skill to prove understanding.  This cannot be emphasized enough.  When done correctly the summative assessment can drive a more focused instruction.  Instead of throwing tons of information against the wall to see what sticks it allows for a more intentional instruction.  Every summative assessment should contain a lifelong and transferable skill.
  3. Teachers MUST address the deficits revealed in formative assessments.  Otherwise, there is no reason to check for understanding if you do not react when they fail to demonstrate that they learned what you wanted them to learn. I have been guilty, but this is something that has been a point of improvement for me the last couple years.  Go over the answers and look for trends in wrong answers.  Restructure the information, change the vehicle, and check understanding again.  If it is important enough to ask; it is important enough to make sure they understand. It is criminal to not use formative assessments.
  4. Students should receive new learning three times as a minimum. My class is cumulative.  The key lessons are reviewed and refreshed all year.  My end-of-year test contains formative checks on the cultural literacy of my class.  I use Quizlet for reviews and give quick chunks of class time for my kids to review.  I also play games in Socrative for a little class competition.
  5. Summative assessments should return more than a letter grade.  Students need to know what worked, what did not, and what they can do to make the jump to the next level.  Last on I will share the rubric that I use with summative assessments that emphasizes this belief.
  6. Students should be given the opportunity to redo assignments until they have demonstrated understanding. This seems like a no-brainer and is actually a proof to my very object-ducking assertion that all multiple-choice tests are formative assessments.  As Scantron machines scream terrible scores on multiple-choice scores the dread from teachers and students is the elephant in the room.  The finality of multiple-choice tests drives grades, relationships, and parent-child relationships.  It is a natural transition for students to redo assignments when summative assessments become more genuine.  I hate Buzzword-Bingo, but if the emphasis is to develop the growth mindset in students, it seems logical that students should not only be allowed to redo an assignment; they should be positively encouraged to reach higher. On a related thought; allowing students to redo assignments ends the end of the grading period rush for extra credit as they can just redo a poor assignment.  In addition, it directly puts a student’s grade in the student’s realm of control.  That was one of the unexpected benefits of the change in my assessment worldview.  It was never about “my grading”; it is always about the student choosing to redo a poor assignment to show understanding.
  7. Going along with the previous belief, teachers need to model summative assessments that are projects.  The struggle is real.  There is no better bonding in my class than shared struggles over some of my projects.  It is also important for me to have a realistic idea how much time assignments take.  I normally assume my students need three times the time I need to complete an assignment.  This completely unscientific ratio has served me well over the years.  I also like to post my progress on the front board to serve as benchmarks for my students.
  8. Summative assessment should always link to the essential learning of the class. Okay, one of my favorite projects is my Tang Dynasty Poetry project where I try to get my students to honor the poetry of Du Fu and Li Bo by blending Tang Dynasty art, poetry and Chinese calligraphy.  Now Bill Gates and David Coleman may complain that I am not making my students “college and career ready”, but I disagree.  My students fear risk…like most people.  I want them to embrace the risk…paint, poetry, and struggle.  The perfect summative assignment as its lessons are lasting.
  9. Long tests do not reveal more than short tests.  One of the complaints that I hear from junior high teachers that teach high school courses is that they need extra time to finish tests.  They seek extra time for the test instead of looking at the instrument itself. More is not always better.  Do 50 questions reveal more than 20 questions?  If you subscribe to the idea that multiple-choice question tests are formative assessments, then the test is not about long-term understanding.
  10. Assessments should always be unannounced.  If they have to cram for the test, they don’t know the information.  My only exception to this rule is my cultural literacy (people, place, vocabulary) quizzes that I give on Fridays.  My teaching partner and trusted editor suggested that I explain the exception; therefore, I will.  There is a need for cultural literacy in our population.  Ignorance of the world around us is well documented and sometimes comical (see any of the “Man on the Street” features on YouTube).  There are things that literate citizens can recognize; people, places, landmarks, etc.  This is just a pet of mine.  This is not going to change the world.  I just want my students to not be ignorant.
  11. Summative assessments don’t need to be unnecessarily hard; but they should be challenging. Summative assessments don’t need to result in a bell curve of understanding.  Success must be achievable.  The key is to provide room for students to push higher through choice and open-endedness.

12.Summative assessments should never receive a “B” or “D”.  Both are mercy-grades that are murky messages to students.  Rubrics can add to this problem if it is possible to achieve a “B” grade and not prove understanding, or achieve a “D” without completing the assignment. My problem with a grade of a “B” really comes down to Pizza Hut’s honor roll pizza.   Over the years a “B” on a summative assessment took on one of two characteristics.  Either the work showed effort, the student followed instructions; BUT, they did not showed understanding; or there was some level of understanding, but the work did not follow the basic instructions.   Either condition is not honor roll worthy.  In addition, it is a failure on one side or the other.  “D” grades have been and always will be a mercy-grade; designed to move a failing child along.

How is My Class Grade Weighted?

Grades are weighted in my class.  I like to grade all assignments to insure investment; however, I realize that not everything in my class is of equal importance.  A grade in my class breaks down thusly:

  1. Summative Assessments: 75%.  This category is exclusively made up of unit projects, DBQ assessments, major analysis projects, and performance assessments.
  2. Formative Assessments: 20%.
    1. All formative quizzes.
    2. Class work.
    3. Interactive notebook metacognition assignments.
  3. Cultural Literacy Checks: 5%.  Again I think it is important for my students to recognize famous landmarks, places, people, and transferrable vocabulary.  I normally give a quick quiz every Friday.  Also, the key pieces of learning from each unit are also included on the Quizlet review and the Friday quizzes.

Tang Dynasty - A, C and F Rubric with Feedback


Grading Summative Assessments

This is the biggest change in my grading practices.  Summative assessments can only earn a range of “A’s”, a “C”, or an “F”.  This took me years to resolve in my mind.  Clarity came that my focus had to be on understanding.  I have been a disciple of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in the design of my units and teaching mindset.  The grading component of my discipleship has never embraced Understanding Design.  To the left is a basic rubric that I use:

In short students can earn three different “A” grades.  Each deals with understanding first.  The difference in an “A- “and “A” is in execution, not understanding.  An “A+” is what is termed lion’s work in my class.  It is that work that stands out both in execution and understanding.

Historically, the hardest grading for me was the kid who worked hard on an assignment, but completely missed the point.  I found that I awarded these kids with a “B”.  This is problematic.  Giving a kid an “honor roll” grade for not understanding stuck in my teacher gut.  It’s duplicitous.

I want kids to redo work until it earns, at least, an “A”.  I want them to demonstrate understanding.

There is a personal cost to this type of grading.  Time.  I grade a lot.  Writing even the briefest notes sap the clock.  There are no short cuts to grading summative assessments.  Thanks to our one-to-one digital-program the time I spend on formative assessments has dropped considerably.  Socrative is worth its weight in gold.  Instant feedback with Excel reports.  Glorious.

However, the off-set is not a zero-sum game.  The time savings is a fraction compared to the summative grading.  I don’t have a magic pill to ease the grading of my summative assessments.  There are some things that have helped.  The tips don’t always apply to every assignment, but they can help.

 Summative Grading Time Savers!!

  1. Collect assignments later in the week so that you have your unofficial prep days (Saturday and Sunday.  I would have put Friday on the list, but I am normally pretty brain dead on Friday) to get started on the grading so the assignment don’t lay around all week getting dusty.
  2. Use a custom graded rubric that has comments that provide clear feedback. It really helps when you do the assignments with the kids to find out those things that are more valuable and difficult in execution.
  3. Try to grade on 10-point scales and then weight them.  It makes the math easier.
  4. Give your students pre-grading work on writing assignments.  Develop a system to highlight those things that you are looking to see.  This will cut down your grading.
  5. Highlight the thesis with a green highlighter
  6. Highlight support factual supports, phrases only in yellow highlighter.
  7. Highlight synthesis statements in blue highlighter.  You will need to teach and encourage your students to make synthesis statements.  The key in my discipline is to apply what they have learned.
  8. Stay focused in your summative assessment design.  I have learned with my work with We the People that more is not necessarily better.  A tight two-page paper (around 675 words) is better than a rambling, unfocused 10-page paper.
  9. Separate mechanics from understanding.  Don’t make margins, fonts, color, and size worth much.  In fact, you can have the kids grade each other on the mechanics of an assignment.  Keep your focus on determining if they understand.
  10. Some teachers might be able to stagger their classes so that they are not picking up a bunch of summative assessments at the same time.  I am not that teacher.

Do I Give Zeroes?

The short answer is “yes”.  The long answer is “yes”, but it takes a lot to keep the zero.  I pursue missing summative assessments.  It is just too devastating to a grade for a zero to appear in the grade book; especially, when you heavily weigh summative assessments.