To Grade or Not to Grade…Is that the Question?

I recently read a fabulous article by a middle school principal who is asking very important questions about what grading should look like.  Make sure you read the entire article!  I had originally planned to write my own two cents, but then the title of this post popped into my head.  I started to think, could I actually take Hamlet’s soliloquy and create a monologue of my own about grading?  So without further ado….

“To Grade Or Not To Grade”: Based on Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 1

To grade, or not to grade: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous assignments,
Or to take arms against a sea of percentages,
And by opposing end them? To grade: to rank;
No more; and by a rank to say we favor
The brown-nosing and the thousand plagiarized words
That students are heir to, ’tis not a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To grade, to quantify;
To measure: perchance to learn: ay, there’s the rub;
For in the quantification of grades what learning can be measured
When we have marked the book with but a single letter,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long an education;
For who would bear the scorns of measuring mastery,
The staggering standards, the proud parents’ aspirations,
The pangs of planning differentiated instruction, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and standardized testing
That overturns our plot for individualized pacing,
When teacher might find it easier to mark
With a simple letter grade? who would bear the risk,
To grunt and sweat under weary planning,
But that the dread of no quantifiable data,
The undiscover’d country from which it is believed that
No student passes, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear what makes us comfortable
Than to risk a change of which we have no guarantee?
Thus holding fast to gradebooks makes cowards of us all;
And thus our natural desire to do what’s best for children
becomes weak with over thinking
Mastery should be considered but gets misdirected

and stops being the purpose of a grade at all.

Reflecting on Failure and Change

When I was little, I often donned the role of “Teacher” which really meant bossing my sister around and making her color workbooks.  In my eye, teachers were authorities you did not question.  They had power to change your life for better or worse.  This power was wielded over me many times in college as professors determined whether or not I was worthy of their profession.  When I became a teacher, I have to admit, this power was intoxicating.  At first, I struggled with wanting to be liked and at the same time staying in control, which lead to frequent power struggles and inconsistency.  They didn’t know who I was and I didn’t know who I wanted to be.

Now seven years later, I began this year feeling like I knew who I wanted to be as a teacher.  I wanted to prove once and for all that this was the profession of my calling.  I wanted to flip my classroom and become an expert at integrating technology.  At the same time, I wanted to prove that I could finally do it all.  I wanted to be the super teacher of the year. However, looking back at this year, I’ve found that one thing still remains the same.   It turns out, I still want very much to be liked and I have a hard time giving up control.  Haven’t I learned anything these past 7 years?!

I will say this, I may not have written much on this blog, but at least it has been honest reflection that will hopefully help me grow as an educator.  It is this reflection that has allowed me to fix at least one thing:  I now know who I want to be as a teacher and I won’t get any better with the mentality that I have to be “the best”.  The tough part is making the change.

CHANGE #1: END THE PAPER TRAIL–  I don’t like passing out worksheets, but I find myself doing it often with one class.   I ask myself why I do this, and the truth is, I don’t know how to teach this particular group.  When I observed other teachers, they had students who dutifully filled out worksheets as well (as a fellow Twitter posted “A digital worksheet, is still a worksheet”).  These classrooms were so organized with students who behaved so wonderfully.  So I followed, and it worked.  My students behaved, they dutifully filled out worksheets, and I believed that they were actually learning.  But recently their work stopped making any sense.  They have become automatons who are able to go from activity to activity, completing tasks, but they aren’t making connections.  They know how to fill in a 4-square graphic organizer but they fill it with information that is still superficial and shows lack of understanding the topic.  Or an activity that they do in ASL becomes a complete failure when trying to transfer the same skills to English. I do notice a big change when assignments are more authentic or when I’m able to give them explicit 1:1 time.  I need to find work that is more meaningful at the same time something students can do independently while I work 1:1 with others.  So, Change #1: less paper and more 1:1 feedback (writing/reading conferences).

CHANGE #2: ADJUST MY DEFINITION OF ASSESSMENT– I enjoy having students work on projects.  I believe that students retain information better when they are able to apply what they learned to something they’ve made.  However, with high-stakes testing becoming more and more obtrusive, I worry that these project-based assessments do not translate well to paper/pencil tests.  So, I have continued to give test-simulated multiple choice assessments that include prompted written responses.  However, doing so is only confirming my fears.  Students are not doing well on these paper/pencil tests.  I’ve always assumed I was good at getting students to think critically about a topic; however, when it comes time to take a test, students are still failing.  What am I doing wrong? I believe that my tests and projects don’t assess the same things.  A project is a demonstration of what a student is capable of doing with the information they’ve learned.  A test is a demonstration of what the student is able to remember.  I need to take a more comprehensive look at my assessments.  I need to do a better job of identifying the skills my students need to retain once the project has ended and reassess those skills ongoing.  I need to make it clear to my students as well, what standards they are meeting and on what scale.  So, change #2: stop grading multiple-choice tests and instead make sure my students are able to CONTINUOUSLY apply skills in an authentic and meaningful way.

CHANGE #3: GIVE STANDARDS BASED GRADING A TRY. This is going to be the toughest change of all for me.  However, I believe in it wholeheartedly.  The concept is that a teacher should be able to identify a set of priority standards that students MUST meet by the end of the year (I don’t mean the TEKS or even IEP goals, but instead a teacher recognizing skills that students MUST have before they can move ahead in the general curriculum).  These standards would then be assessed throughout the year and students would be graded on how they are progressing with the standards.  It sounds wonderful to be able to say exactly what the student is or is not able to do.  It would provide more specific information to add to an IEP and help towards writing better goals/objectives.  What makes this a tough change for me is deciding the standards as well as figuring out the grades.  Ideally, a letter grade would not be assigned, but instead a meter of progress would be given.  A student should not be penalized for needing additional time to meet projected goals.  So, in a world that still wants to see letter grades, how do I introduced standards-based grading? What will it look like?  I need to research this a bit more and talk with others who have made the change.  Improving my teaching will require change #3: starting the year off with a clear set of manageable standards.

I’m not sure I’ll be able to make all three changes this year and I definitely want to at least attempt to make these changes in the fall.  The most important thing I must remember is that attempting to be “perfect” is going to send me to an early grave.  I need to let go of “winning” and embrace my own failures.  I don’t have to be a teacher of the year; I do need to be okay with being me.