Calling all teachers. Don't be mad at me for this post since we tend to get a little touchy when it comes to our grading system and grade books, but...

I want you to take a look at your grade book, and ask yourself this question: Is your grade book fair, equitable, and reliable? At first, we naturally say, "Why of course it is! Stay out of my grade book you pompous, know it all!" But upon careful examination can you really say your grade book is all three of these things? I can't, but I'm changing this! 

I was inspired this year after I attended an English Department Leader Meeting where we discussed equity in grading. After a presentation by two other awesome English teachers, I decided to purchase a book called A Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O'Connor. This book is such an easy read and makes so much sense to me. There are fifteen total fixes to broken grades:

Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades
Fixes for Practices that Distort Achievement
Fix 1: Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc) in grades; include only achievement
Fix 2: Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late; provide support for the learner
Fix 3: Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement
Fix 4: Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades; apply other consequences and reassess to determine actual level of achievement
Fix 5: Don’t consider attendance in grade determination; report absences separately
Fix 6: Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence

These first six changes really help with the RELIABILITY and EQUITY of your grade book. For example, if I mark a student's paper late and only give him/her half credit, what am I really telling that student and/or parent? I'm not telling them anything about performance, I'm saying something about behaviors or compliance. This makes my grade book unreliable because it's not centered upon a student's academic performance. Now if I want to mark down his/her citizenship grade because of his/her amazing ability to turn everything in late, then that makes more sense. I can hear your groans through the screen you're staring into. I know, I know, you don't think citizenship matters, but it does if citizenship is attached to what teenagers value most: freedom. For example, if a student has lower than a "C" in citizenship, maybe she doesn't get to attend the school dance. Or if a student fails to turn in a crucial essay, maybe she gets marked down in citizenship and has to attend what our department is now calling "English Academy." This student then has the opportunity to perform on a standards-based task during his "English Academy" time (AKA lunch). Marking a student's paper late and taking off points rarely corrects the behavior, but a little loss of freedom works like magic. Many of the consequences for compliance tend to be taken out of the academic achievement side of a grade book which means that our grade book would not be a reflection of student performance, but instead is a reflection of whether or not a student can "play school." That gives me an icky feeling.  Yes, we can still teach them to be responsible citizens, but we have to do it in different ways. Furthermore, we must be careful with extra-credit. If a teachers says "Bring in tissue boxes for extra credit," the student who can't afford to buy tissue boxes is now at a disadvantage. This isn't an EQUITABLE practice. Plus, how does bringing in extra tissue boxes correlate to a student's academic achievement? It doesn't, damn it, and now I'll have a whole bunch of students with nowhere to blow their noses. These first six changes will get rid of grade inflation and grading based upon compliance. It's a hard pill to swallow, but it's just what the grading doctors ordered. 

Fixes for Low-Quality or Poorly Organized Evidence
Fix 7: Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals
Fix 8: Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear performance standards; provide clear descriptions of achievement expectations
Fix 9: Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement compared to other students; compare each student’s performance to preset standards
Fix 10: Don’t rely on evidence gathered using assessments that fail to meet standards of quality; rely only on quality assessments
These four fixes are really about making sure that your grade book is RELIABLE and  appropriately aligned to standards. For example, if your grade book is set up into categories such as "Homework, Participation, Classwork, and Test/Quizzes," then how can you really say what standards your students truly struggle with or excel at? If I have low quiz scores, what the hell does that mean? But if my grade book is set up to reflect standards, then I have a better idea of how each student is performing based upon standards. In English, the grade book should be set up into categories based upon "Reading, Writing, Listening & Speaking, and Language." We have to be very methodical with whatever we put into the grade book when using this system. I will no longer walk around the room, look for completed homework, and then give everyone a 10 out of 10 under the category of "homework." This doesn't accurately reflect performance on any of the aforementioned standards. Instead, I have to thoroughly collaborate with my colleagues who teach the same English classes as me in order to figure out what type of product tasks we want to put into the grade book. This provides FAIRNESS across each course because each student is getting the same experience for the most part. Process grades such as rough drafts, quizzes, etc. shouldn't necessarily go into the grade book because the student is working towards proficiency of that standard, but product grades like a final draft of an essay should! Now of course I still grade process work and provide students with feedback, but I don't punish them by putting it into the grade book when we are working towards proficiency. What this means is that I will have fewer assignments in each category, less inflation,  and more accuracy. This also means that the products I do choose to put into the grade book need to be reliable and directly tied to standards. This is something our English Department spent 8-10 weeks on; we looked at our grade books together to see if they were fair, equitable, and reliable. As much as we hated to admit it, we couldn't say they were. Insert crying emoji. We are now working towards making sure anything and everything we put into the grade book is a product-based task that is directly aligned to standards. It takes a lot of work, but we feel really good about what we are doing.  In fact, we are having conversations that I haven't had in my entire career thus far. Imagine that, veteran teachers who haven't heard it all!

Fixes for Inappropriate Grade Calculation
Fix 11: Don’t rely only on the mean; consider other measures of central tendency and use professional judgment
Fix 12: Don’t include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment; use alternatives, such as reassessing to determine real achievement or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient Evidence

The next two fixes, particularly #12, usually make teachers want to throw their district-outdated, desktop computers out the window or at me. Yes, you read that correctly. When a student doesn't turn in work, you don't issue a zero, you issue an "I" for incomplete. This is a tricky one that would require support from your admin. team. When a teacher puts a zero into the grade book, it's like telling a kid "There ain't no way you're coming back from this one, kid!" Once again, this makes the grade book unreliable because the student didn't really earn the F; he just didn't turn in the work. This is when something like the English Academy comes in handy. Students who don't turn in work will lose freedom, hence why you need admin,. support. They will have to come in on their own time to make up an assignment. When we have rules like this, students begin to see that what we assign is important. We aren't saying, "Welp, you didn't turn in that assignment, so that's a zero. Moving along..." Instead we are saying, "It's really important that you do this assignment, so I'm asking you to come attend the English Academy to complete it." Students are not getting away with not turning in work. If students fail to attend the English Academy, there will be further consequences such as detention and so on. 

Fixes to Support Learning
Fix 13:  Don’t use information from formative assessments and practice to determine grades; use only summative evidence
Fix 14: Don’t summarize evidence accumulated over time when learning is developmental and will grow with time and repeated opportunities; in those instances, emphasize more recent achievement
Fix 15: Don’t leave students out of the grading process. Involve students; they can and should play key roles in assessment and grading and promote achievement

These last three fixes I've somewhat discussed in previous explanations of other fixes having to do with process and product assignments, but #15 is also really important. I'm not sure students really even understand the grading system. I'm not sure we understand the grading system anymore. Grades should be a reliable, fair, and equitable source that show what skill sets students have obtained throughout high school, but as of right now, many grades are just indicators of compliance or desired behaviors that aren't even related to achievement.
We have to start to change the way students think about grades. Right now it's just about a point system. Students don't even know why they earned the grade they earned, they just know they did some work and got some points. Instead, we have to show them that each thing we have them do is tied to particular standards which in turn shows what skill sets they have as writers, readers, mathematicians, scientists, etc.  Wouldn't that give more meaning to school? I would hope so!
I'm sure some of these fixes have you all pissed off, but the book goes on to explain how you can implement each one of these changes. And they make SENSE! Believe me, when I first read some of these fixes, I thought 'You can go stick that fix right up your...' but then I realized that I was just stuck in my old ways. By "old ways" I'm talking about my own experiences with education from kindergarten until now. I've been so used to a broken grading system that I didn't realize how broken it was until now. But I'm going to work hard to ensure that my students value what they are learning in my classroom and understand that their grade is an accurate reflection of what they have achieved in our class in regards to standards and skill sets.

Keep on stressin' on,
Michon Otuafi

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