After Day Two Of Finals

In a stack of papers called Grading.

  • Jan
  • 17
  • 2008

Two functions of grades came up in a discussion today. One is to accurately reflect a student’s ability. A second is to help students understand their ability. Initially, I said in no uncertain terms that the first trumps the second, all day, every day. It’s much more important that the grade be an accurate reflection of skill than a student be able to understand how he got that grade. I’d rather err on the side of showing ability than on the side of being something students comprehend. The latter is nice, but the former is paramount. My friend disagrees, thinking that both of those concerns are equal. I’m still not sure, but I concede her point much more than earlier today.

Big Question

Is student understanding of grades as important as reflecting student mastery of content (standards)?

Second semester’s shadow casts darkly on the wall. Decisions, decisions. How can I make grades accurate and student friendly? I don’t mean to suggest that the two are mutually exclusive. But which one is the goal? If they conflict, which one is more important?


If grades are summative, then they need to reflect skill. This is me using a rubric to grade an essay: it doesn’t matter if students use the rubric, it just matters if I do so that my grading is consistent. Rubrics are for teachers, not students (t-shirts soon!).

If grades are formative, students need to understand how to change them. These are my comments on that essay. The comments don’t help me arrive at a final assessment and they don’t do anything in the gradebook, but they (hopefully) help students do better next time.

I think of grades as summative and that could be part of any number of my problems. But a letter on a page doesn’t communicate the same message as a comment. And grades are letters on pages. A formative approach could change how I think about assignments and assessments. Of course, formative becomes summative at some point (read as: January and June), but along the way, things change.


Weighting grades was the context of this discussion, a practice that I’ve found makes for a reliable assessment, but creates a grade incomprehensible to anyone but Excel and certain other teachers. Maybe if I just used points to dictate how weighty an assignment is students would understand the grade more and know ahead of time what to do to climb out of a hole.

So here I am crunching numbers, trying to figure out how much I need to make essays worth in order to roughly equal 50% of a grade (answer: 500 points each). Excel and I are good friends, so I put up a quick spreadsheet to experiment with scores from this semester. I’m finding that weighting is actually kinder to students. Most grades would be slightly lower without it. But would grades be more accurate? Would they be easier for students to understand? Should both of those issues be considered at the same time?


1. Mr. K says:

[1/17/2008 - 9:48 pm]

> help students understand their ability

i think this is one of the great unaddressed probbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbbblems in education. -+* -*- –

2. Mr. K says:

[1/17/2008 - 9:55 pm]

> help students understand their ability

I think this is one of the great unaddressed problems in education. There is an assumption that people can automatically tell when they do something right or when they do it wrong.

A paper from Dunning and Kruger(pdf) examines that the very reason people fail to adopt skills is because they are incapable of evaluating their performance.

This can lead to a chicken and egg problem: You can’t teach a skill without teaching the ability to evaluate the skill. Writing a rubric (something I admit to doing primarily to provide myself with some consistency) suddenly becomes an exercise in trying to explain music to a deaf person, or a rainbow to someone blind.

I’m not sure that this helps much with a grading scale – perhaps the grades aren’t that important. But I’m quite sure that enabling a student to self assess is critical to good learning.

3. Penelope Millar says:

[1/23/2008 - 7:01 pm]

I think that students understanding their grade is of paramount importance to creating students who take responsibility for learning.

Most high school students have an worldview in which grades are some sort of treat handed out at the whims of the teacher. This is where common comments heard around school come from: “Mr Soandso hates me, he gave me a C.” “Why did you fail me?” “What can I do (the day before finals) to bring my grade up?” Extra credit takes on the connotation of offerings to appease the hungry gradebook god. Teachers are the priests, initiated in the mysteries of grades.

(Sorry, I get these wild flights of simile sometimes.)

The point is, I think most high school students have sort of learned helplessness when it comes to grades, because they don’t understand. The more transparent and accessible the grading process, the better. That said, you’re right about weighting giving a more accurate measure than points. I used to stick with points because of the simplicity for students, but switched to weighting this year because I felt points weren’t as accurate.

I don’t think the answer is in one or the other. The answer is in teachers doing a better job of making the way those letters on paper turn into final grades transparent.

The main idea I’d been pondering for this was handing out gradesheets at the beginning of each marking period for them to record their grades on & walking them through the calculation process.

However, I don’t think that answer goes far enough. I’m pondering a grading scheme based on Dan Meyer’s (who I found you from, btw) because I think that will take a lot of the mystery out of grading. However, if you don’t feel you can modify his method to English (I’m still working out the kinks on how it fits with social studies), at least trying to make the grads->final grade alchemy clearer would help.

4. Todd says:

[1/23/2008 - 9:05 pm]

Yeah, I’ve gone the rounds with making Dan’s method fit into English. It’s the whole subjective-objective difference that makes it a problem. The idea is fantastic, but I have a tough time breaking down what we do into discreet, clearly measurable skills that can be evaluated one at a time.

Because I wrote this here entry and had to consider my opinions on all this stuff, I’m actually thinking of switching to points. Provided that I assign X amount of points per category, I can make the grades weighted in a way. If essays are worth 400 points each, they end up being just about 50% of the final grade. Obviously, what I’m doing now isn’t working very well. That means that something has to change and my grading system is one of the few things I haven’t changed for the last several years.

Walking them through the calculation process is not a good investment of time (see Dan’s important ratio #1). I’m not convinced it would even make a difference. How many students actually crunch the numbers to make that paper gradesheet work? You might have better luck with simply giving each student an Excel spreadsheet that adds everything up for them, perhaps via Google Docs.