Sunday, March 21, 2010

Guskey and Grading: Lots to Think About

In education, the rule of thumb is that if you can use one thing learned at a conference then you should consider it a success.


On March 10, four Spofford Pond School teachers, Sara H., Mary H., Stacy B., and Betsy G., joined Beth Y., Kathy C., many others from the Tri-Town, and me at a conference with Thomas Guskey. Dr. Guskey spoke about ways to make grading and report cards more effective and more fair. Much of his presentation was presented in his new book Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading, He made our group think about our practice in a deep way. The group of teachers was so intrigued by what they’d heard that they all agreed to work with me to create a session on our grading practices with the faculty for the May Professional Development half day.

Here are some of his main ideas, in italics, with my thoughts interspersed.
  • 1. Why do we use report cards and assign grades to students' work?
  • 2. What purpose should report cards or grades serve?
  • 3. What elements should teachers use in determining students' grades?
  • We don't agree on the purpose of grades. That's the first problem. The various purposes are at adds with another.
  • Decide the purpose of grades first. Print it right on the report card for the parents to see.
    • This is the work that the teachers feel we need to do next. What is the purpose of the Spofford Pond School grades and report cards? Communication with parent? Improving learning? Accountability? Masco or private school admissions? Permanent record? Punishment? Celebration? None of the above? All of the above?
  • Grading is not essential to learning. Checking is essential to learning.
    • His idea here is that grading is not essential to the instructional process. What they need to learn well is someone checking on their learning; someone to guide them and shape their experiences.
  • Grading is evaluative, teacher is a Judge. Checking is Diagnostic, teacher is an Advocate.
    • This is a different way of thinking of the teacher. We do our best work with children when they believe we are on their side. I see many teachers at Spofford Pond School make strong connections with the students not just deliver strong content.
  • Multiple Purposes Require a Multi-Faceted, Comprehensive Reporting System!
  • Don't have a report card committee, have a REPORTING committee.
  • Make the first assessment and grade the one that is most likely for kids to be successful as it will set the tone for that child.
    • When I taught, I told all of my students that they were starting the term with 100%, an A. Some never had that high a grade before and were very excited. If I had also followed Guskey's advice and made the first assessment and grade one in which all kids could see success, I am sure that my struggling students would have done better throughout the year.
  • Averaging is detrimental to students because one low grade affects the high performance of later work.
    • This is a very radical idea to most of us at Spofford Pond School. We have averaged for many years and thought it was the right way to grade. Guskey makes a strong case for carefully considering whether using averages is the best way to show that the student has learned and made progress. This will surely lead to much discussion within the faculty.
  • Give priority to most recent evidence: Throw out midterm if final is much better.
    • This point works really with our standards based report card. The idea behind this is that we are interested in the student mastering the standard. So, it shouldn't matter if earlier in the term or the year the student didn't master the standard. All that matters is that by the end of the term, the student got it. Most teachers were not trained this way. I certainly did not grade this way when I taught middle school. I wish I had.
  • Instead of zero, assign Incomplete and make it required and immediate. 
    • We should not allow students to fail to complete homework. Of course, there are times when a student can’t get work done (something happens at home, for example). This policy would really be aimed at struggling students who have learned that it is easier to fail then to struggle with the work. The zero allows that student to give up. The zero says that we are not really interested in the student actually learning the material. I am planning on challenging the teachers to ban the zero from their gradebooks. Instead, give incomplete and make the student get the work done. The Before and After School Homework club or a special homework detention would need to be set up so that students have to stay in and get the work done. When we let them get away with a zero we are letting them down. We must insist on their effort.
    • There are many  in schools who would say that we are not teaching them responsibility this way. I would answer that a bad grade has rarely taught a student anything. Only a teacher can teach the student a lesson. So, let's teach them that the work and the learning matter, a lot.
  • Most countries use three grades per class: product (achievement), process (effort, attendance, etc), and Progress (growth)
    • Separate out the other stuff (homework, behavior, attendance, etc). Make the grade about the learning, the achievement. Then, list a score for the other stuff as it does matter and says a lot about a student. When we include those other items in grades, we are diluting what the grade stands for. Also, we end up with grades that do not reflect actual learning. It would fairly easy for us to move to this idea because our report card is already separated out this way. The place that is left unclear in our current system is the letter grade given in grades 4-6. This will require lots of discussion.
  • Grades have some value as Rewards, but NO Value as Punishments!
  • No evidence that low grades motivate a student. The students instead feels that class is not relevant. Do not use grades as weapons.

As you can see, Thomas Guskey gave us so much to think about in one conference. I'd say we broke the rule of thumb.