The purpose of this post is to promote awareness and discussion of how ineffective most of our grading systems are at fostering a growth mindset in students. I will also offer what I believe to be descriptions of some aspects of grading systems that could do better.
I love talking about moving away from grading and into something which makes more sense, but that post is for another time. For now I am going to assume we need to assign traditional grades.
I am also working with the assumption that the reader values promoting a growth mindset with students. Most research converges around the idea that when students believe they can work to achieve they tend to do better than when they believe their ability is determined by inherent static talents. If you don't buy into that then you may as well quit reading now.
Grading systems we currently use
The two most popular grading systems for high school classes seem to be the traditional grading system and standards-based grading (SBG). There are other grading systems, like pass/fail, but the traditional systems and SBG seem to be the big ones in high school, especially in physical science learning. Many different styles of teaching and learning can be made to fit into either system. Many modelers associated with the American Modeling Teacher Association tend to be drawn to SBG systems, but modeling certainly works fine within a traditional grading system. I personally think full-on project-based learning fits a bit better in a traditional system than in SBG, but that all depends on what else is happening, if anything, for assessment in the class.
Traditional grading systems
Using a physics class as an example, like I always do, a traditional grading system might have weighted categories method of grade determination where tests make up 30% of the grades, and quizzes 20%, homework, 25%, labs 25%. Another option is a total points systems where each grade item is simply weighted by the total points, tests are 100 points, quizzes are 25, each homework assignment is 5 points, etc. In the first unit of a physics class a student might do three kinematics homework assignments, with two kinematics quizzes, a kinematics lab report, and a kinematics test. Each would have a grade entered in the grade book which would figure in to the quarter or semester grade. All units after would be structured similarly, resulting in bunch of entries in the grade book with names like Newton's Laws Test and Simple Pendulum Lab Report, and HW #13.
Many progressive teachers adopt a standards-based grading (SBG) system, with a goal of focusing learning and giving some room for growth and improvement before a grade becomes final. SBG grade books often simply have a single entry for each content standards student need to master. For example, there might be and entry for Create line graphs using measured values of position and elapsed time.
Mastery of each content standard would most likely be determined with some complexity using multiple attempts at showing mastery for each content standard, and the teacher would have some method of using data from those to determine a grade. That standard would get a score and there would be a number of others in the grade book with equal weight. The average score of all content standard score or rating would determine a final grade.
SBG systems are meant to give students a chance to focus more on the actual content, not points or performance on one-off assessments. A SBG system often includes opportunities for re-assessing and alternative assessment options. They are designed to promote a more growth mindset and offer a more fair grading system in which students can work and learn.
Problems associated with popular grading systems
Most teachers are required to assign grades based significantly on measurements of content retention and application. We also tend to give grades for other things like compliance, citizenship, participation, etc, but the large portion of a student grades in most high school classes will be determined by how well that student does on assessments and assignments tied to the content of the class. It makes sense for most teachers. It is how they did school. It's how school has always been done, it seems.
I was about to start writing about my grading system recently and I was thinking about all of the reasons why it makes sense to me and then I saw this Tweet.
It's important to make arguments for why a new system makes sense, but if you are trying to tear down a current system to replace it with something better it's also important to justify the changes by explaining why the current system does not make sense. That Tweet does a pretty good job of summarizing a big part of the problem.
Both traditional and SBG systems generate problems and stresses with students that often result in something other than a healthy growth mindset. There are plenty of teachers out there with strategies to mitigate these problems and reduce stress, but when the root of the problem is actually the grading system there is only so much one can do.
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
The traditional grading policies and the common methods used to calculate them, weighted categories and total points, have plenty of issues associated with them. Students do some task, they get a grade, they may or may not have an opportunity to try to do better, and then eventually that grade is locked in and they move on. They can wash their hands of that content, or they believe they can, even though we tell them it will be important for what is coming next. Once a unit ends, often with a test, students rarely spend more time than we force them to considering what went well and what did not and how that should affect what they do going forward in new material.
They tend to develop an attitude that they need to achieve on a task, and if they don't, then oh, well, it's on to the next task. It's not really conducive to a building a growth mindset. I failed that rotation test. I guess I'll just try harder when we start electricity. Offering make-up opportunities can get closer to growth thinking, but it is too often short term growth centered on content standards. I did better on that rotation make-up test. Man, I hate that topic. I'm happy to move on to electricity. Rotation wasn't for me. Students will still attempt to leave it behind, like they should, if it is something that isn't relevant to their lives.
With points counting in a running tally you get points-chasing on one-off assignments and assessments. The focus is on the score, not the understanding. You get shortcuts, tricks, memorization, begging for extra points, and all kinds of behavior not associated with growth as student try to get points and scores.
Students often start of a class with major discouragement from traditional grading systems. Getting all of the skills in place to be successful in a high school course takes some students longer than others, especially students who are already disadvantaged. Writing an essay is not easy to do effectively at first. If a student has to accept a poor grade on their record it can kill their motivation going forward. It's easier to give up and accept that they just aren't cut out for it.
In physics it often takes students a while to get used to how to do well, especially if you start with mechanics. Math is all of a sudden a big deal in science, and it's this weird vector math they have never done before. Kinematics is an especially dry topic with very few actual reasons why things are happening involved. A kinematics test is a great way to make sure an intro student hates physics, and when it sits in their grade book it will remind them how much they hate it. Re-ordering topics might help, but it still takes many students a while to figure out the skills for success in physics.
The first unit of a challenging math-based physical science class often only discourages students, making them feel like they are just not able to be good at physics. This is the opposite of what anyone who is trying to foster growth mindset wants. The traditional systems do not really make room for growth. Teachers attempt to make them more fair and appealing by implementing lowest score drops in categories or extra credit, but those policies tend to contribute to grade-chasing and minimum performance/effort strategies, not growth thinking.
Standards-based grading issues
Standards-based grading sounds a lot better in theory than traditional grading systems, but it can easily generate large amounts of stress and frustration, and the number of standards can cause problems. SBG can also further steer the focus of learning away from important skills, as the focus becomes content mastery. With traditional grading systems you get lab skills, and problem-solving skills that are easily made important by figuring into how assignments and assessments are graded. If you try to make too many of these skills into standards to be graded in a SBG system, which may seem like a wise choice, then the list of graded standards can quickly grow into something unmanageable (more on this later).
I have run both the traditional and standards-based grading systems in my physics classes. For years I did traditional, always with the intention of going SBG, and every time I thought I was ready to dive into SBG I would balk and go back to my traditional system. Once I finally actually tried SBG I found I liked it, and I wished I would have tried it earlier. Students seems a bit less stressed, and most of the students who needed the extra chances at improving took advantage of the opportunities to expand their understanding and re-assessed with improvement.
While the SBG system felt better, I didn't see too many changes with how students approached learning, besides noticing it was easier for them to pinpoint exact content they struggle with. To students it just seemed like I had a weird grade book that was a dissected series of quizzes and tests subtopics, and that I offered custom make-up quizzes focused on what they didn't do correctly the first time. They appreciated that, but it did not really seem to change the way they approached learning. There might have been some less stress for some, but the ones who needed to improve and re-assess actually got pretty overwhelmed with trying to learn new material while also trying to figure out the old.
It seemed to me that the biggest changes with taking on a SBG system were on my end, but it was manageable. There was a ton of book keeping that was much different than what I was doing before. Anything that I wanted to use for actual formal assessment had to be tied to the content standards. It wasn't really that hard or anything, but I was the one doing all of the thinking, identifying, categorizing, writing questions, inventing problems and scoring.
The fact that the major difference of the new grading system was mostly a ton of extra work for me should have been a sign that it wasn't doing much for the students. The ones doing the all of the creative work tend to be the ones doing the learning. I had a plan for fixing this issue, with getting the students choosing what should be assessed out of their work for each standard.
It was during this reflection and brainstorming of a plan that I really started to become aware of the fundamental issue with SBG and the traditional systems -- they are mostly based on content performance and much of content is fleeting in nature and arguably not that important to students, making the systems counterproductive to building a growth mindset. And if you try to add important through-line skills the number of standards gets overwhelming.
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.
There was a group of content standards that I called General Science and Math Standards or something. They described things like graphing skills, and solving systems of equations, and breaking down word problems, and writing Python code, and designing lab investigations, and collaborating, and technical communication, and many others. It was a list that had continued to grow throughout the year and they were skills that I found myself reassessing all the time because they were required to do all of the stuff we do in class. Those standards stayed in the grade book throughout the year. As that list of general science standards grew the total number of standards I was grading got unmanageable.
The physics content standards plus the general skills were just too much and everything was getting lost in the details of book keeping. I started lumping together physics content standards to make the list more manageable for everyone, but at some point I realized I was sort of just making topic assessment grades (subtopic quizzes) by doing so. If Modeling situations with constant velocity kinematics becomes a content standard with different aspects like graphing, motions maps, table trends, and vector math wrapped into it, then how is that really any different than having a constant velocity quiz?
I was starting to see how much more value those general science standards seemed to have than the content standards associated with specific content items. Why did Apply the independence of the vertical and horizontal initial velocities to solve projectile motion problems share equal weight with the essential skill of being able to break down word problems with diagramming and organizing information for use in mathematical solving? In fact, wasn't the projectiles problem-solving standard just an example application of that general science skill? Why was is so important that they get the projectile's problem-solving mastered? Did they really need a grade for that? Of if they did get a grade for it, then why couldn't the next grade where they used that skill in a different physics topic replace the previous one?
I'm not sure if grading general skills as the course standards is the answer, but at least they are examples of useful skills that are needed for every physics topic. They could be graded repeatedly and used as through lines on which students can focus their growth over the whole course. Chose the general skills to grade wisely and they might even seem worth grading to students.
Most of our current grading systems can discourage student development of a growth mindset for learning. They do so by the very nature of being rooted in content mastery grading, which often results in early student performance grades included in determination of a final grade. Standards-based grading is a decent start at a system for growth but it still has the content focus problem, and it often includes too many standards. It is possible to modify a SBG system to tack long term growth. If standards, skills or goals in a SBG system be identified as essential to all topics in a course, then they can be tracked/graded through an entire course. If students can focus on getting better at them and the teacher bases grades on growth on them, the students will be allowed to work in a fair and meaningful system that can help them build a growth mindset.
Thanks for reading. I hope I didn't offend anyone too much. We all work within these systems and sometimes it's hard to hear some jerk we don't know telling us we are doing it all wrong. Well, I didn't say that. I just said you are grading stuff wrong, but it's not your fault. You didn't invent the system. But you might be able to re-invent or modify it to make more sense. I'd love to talk about it if you want.
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