Grades are Subjective, So Let's Just Give All A's.

Let’s give all of our students A’s.

Just kidding. 

I would never give all kids A's. But I work really hard to create clear expectations, align work to realistic goals, modify assignments, and provide plenty of chances for kids to show me what they know. I also recently exempted a student from an assignment because he cried. He couldn't find his worksheet and didn't know where it had gone. It wasn't a big deal, really; just a bunch of questions about an article. I've assessed my students on their informational text comprehension in many, many ways throughout the school year by now, so instead of punishing him for his mistake (or mine! I've been guilty of misplacing papers), I just dropped the grade.

The biggest change to my teaching over the years has been this: Before any decision I make about grades, I ask myself one or all of these questions:

  •  Is this child's grade reflective of what he/she knows or can do academically?
  • How big of deal is this?
  • Do I have enough evidence to show mastery of learning?

Here's another example of a grading conundrum and my response.

I assigned a few vocabulary workbook pages the other night. It was a simple homework assignment to help students practice for a big review test we have coming up. Sometimes I enter these grades in my grade book, but often I don't. I believe that homework is practice work, and in a perfect world practice work would go ungraded. But I also feel that it's acceptable if I include homework in my grade book to hold students accountable for actually doing their practice work. I weigh it as a very small portion of students' overall grades—say, 10% or so. That's how I justify including homework in my grades at all.

The next day during class I asked students to take out their homework so we could review it, and also so that I could take a completion grade for my grade book. Several of them looked embarrassed, a few excused themselves to the hallway to work on it, and others looked confused. I've never had so many students not finish homework! Was it a full moon? Did I write the wrong assignment on the board? No and no, they said. They were busy working on a social studies assignment.

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So guess what? I decided not to enter the assignment in my grade book. I decided to review it for those who had done it, and then move on. Why would I spend my time entering grades, giving half of the kids zeroes or incompletes, when this assignment didn't show me a thing about what they know and can do? Also, I decided that two review pages were not a big deal. I could have used it to "get" them, or punish them for not doing their work. That's how grades were handled when I was a kid, so I certainly considered it for a moment. But then I reflected on these fundamental questions:

  •  Is this child's grade reflective of what he/she knows or can do academically?
  • How big of deal is this?
  • Do I have enough evidence to show mastery of learning?

I decided that it wasn't a big deal at all, and that the homework grade wouldn't reflect my students' knowledge.

OK, here’s one more crazy grading example. I recently changed a student's final grade from a B to an A. One click, and he now has an A in the class.

My colleagues think I'm a little nuts for changing a final, mathematically-computed grade. I think I'm a little crazy too. It always feels a bit subversive, like I'm breaking the rules. But then I take a deep breath and remind myself that grades are subjective. I created my grade categories. I determine how many "points" an assignment is worth.

I considered the three big questions in light of this student:

  •  Is this child's grade reflective of what he/she knows or can do academically
  • How big of deal is this?
  •  Do I have enough evidence to show mastery of learning?

I decided that an A grade reflected his knowledge, grades are not such a big deal anyway, and that I had, indeed, collected enough evidence to show that he'd mastered our big learning targets for the quarter. That means he should get an A.

What questions do you ask yourself as your assign grades to students? What do you take into consideration?

Learn more about grading practices and collecting and documenting evidence of learning in Module 3 and Module 4.