Grading systems we currently use
Traditional grading systems
Problems associated with popular grading systems
We rank and sort kids for years on the basis of things they will never remember or use.— Monte Syrie (@MonteSyrie) July 7, 2020
Let that sink in for awhile.
Issues with popular grading systems and growth
Let's consider teacher evaluations. They can be a source of stress and conflict at some schools. We are often evaluated by administrators based on some aspect of teaching that we (or they) identify as an area in which we should improve. Think about what your last one was.
Administrators observe us, and then we meet with them, and we spend a lot of time and effort trying to get better at whatever aspect of teaching we identified. We might be observed a number of times after that, and part of our evaluation might be based on if we got better at whatever we were working on. Imagine you worked really hard and got really good at whatever you were trying to improve, and you moved from what you both decided was an ineffective rating (let's call it a C-) to a highly effective rating (an A+)!.
But then your admin says, "Well, taking the average of all of the observations of your teaching over the school year you are actually only at an effective rating (a B), so that is what you will be getting."
You made a point to work really hard to get good at something, and you got to where you were actually highly effective at it, but for some reason you final grade was determined by the average of all of your observations. Of course, your observations over the school year involved you teaching different topics, but why should that matter? It was supposed to be about that aspect of your teaching you identified to work on.
That is what we do to students! We give them all of these strategies and procedures for doing our subjects correctly. We demand that they follow them. We make them work on those same skills over and over on different topics but we give them a final grade based on the average of all of the applications of those skills.
Let's use physics as an example again. If you give students credit for their work in organizing a problem and showing work and you have a policy, like many good physics teachers do, that the right answer isn't actually worth all that much, it's more about the process, then you are really mostly grading problem-solving skills. But for some reason we name the grade after the content standard they were applying it to and we let that grade sit permanently in the grade book. Even when they have shown they have gotten much better at problem-solving down the road, we let the old grades factor in to their final evaluation.
If we are really just trying to grade problem-solving ability, or graphing skills, or lab design, and we are really interested in promoting growth in those skills, then why are we naming student attempts at applying those skills after the content standards, and why do we let their early attempts sit in a grade book to punish them forever by lowering their grade?
It's supposed to be about growth. Why do we care so much that they figured out every content standard? We know research says they won't remember that stuff. There's just too much of it and they won't use it often enough.
Traditional system issues
Standards-based grading issues
Standards-based grading, but with less standards and more meaning
Whatever solutions we can find to fix grading they should centered on long term growth and based on fairness. We should not be giving grades that stick in the beginning of a course. Any early grades should be seen as feedback and students should play an active role in using that and other feedback in figuring how to replace those grades with better grades by working to get better at what matters most.
I do not necessarily have a full solution to the problems, but I have some ideas I have been trying, and I have some ideas of what foundations on which one might build a more fair growth-focused system. I have a set of blog posts focused on what I think might work if you are interested. I am glad I tried standards-based grading. It allowed me to develop what I think is an even more fair and meaningful grading system based on some of the guiding principles and ideas from SBG.
It was during reflection and refining of the list of standards for my SBG system in between semesters that I finally figured out what was wrong with the standards-based grading approach and how I could modify it to work better for building a growth mindset. As I was moving between semesters I was changing the grade book to include the content standards which were important to semester 2, while dropping most of what was semester 1 content.