Grading Guidelines: My Take

Posted: August 23, 2013 in pedagogy, Uncategorized
Tags: ,

Today I read an opinion piece in the Toronto Star by secondary teacher Joe Killoran titled: Ontario’s grading guidelines get a big zero.  I wanted to take some time to respond to some of Joe’s comments as he covers a lot of ground in the article.  I have some disagreements with some of his views, and in the interest of professional discourse, I invite you to consider the following.

He begins by informing the reader that  according to the Ministry of Education (MoE) that “the evaluation of learning skills and work habits, apart from any that maybe included as part of a curriculum expectation in a subject or course, should not be considered in the determination of a student’s grades.” and clarifies that  “students may not receive poor grades for lateness, misbehaviour, skipping, late assignments, laziness or inability to work with others.

Killoran then makes an odd statement about these learning skills: “these learning skills may be “assessed” …, they may not be “evaluated” (the use of two synonyms to convey different meanings puzzles many teachers) as part of the number grade.”  First off, the fact that a teacher provides students a letter grade (E, G, S, N) is an evaluation of their learning skills, it just happens to be a letter instead of a number.   So I suppose some teachers do find the difference puzzling.  For the record, assessment is a process of gathering evidence to determine how students are progressing, and promote student learning through feedback.  Evaluation is the final comparison to the standard for which you are grading.  Assessment and evaluation are key components in teacher education (in my experience) as well as professional development.  I certainly don’t have Killoran’s experience with finding these differences puzzling.

Killoran goes on to say that the MoE is “handcuffing” teachers by not allowing them to include an evaluation of learning goals in a student’s final course grade.  He says that because of this, teacher’s cannot reward positive behaviors and deter negative behaviors.  He affirms that learning behaviors is an important part of being prepared for their “adult lives and careers.”  I would suggest that teachers who have difficulty in teaching student’s proper behavior without the use of “grades” do have issues.  The inclusion of learning goal grades won’t be a solution.  If “giving marks” was the answer, why do some students fail, dropout, or otherwise not achieve perfection.  The simple answer is that grades are not enough.  The second answer is a much longer one as to how research suggests our traditional grading system is not great at motivating students.  This isn’t to say that there should be no consequences for negative behavior, just that grades aren’t the answer.

Killoran continues with: “There are bright students who can cram for tests and submit late assignments who excel in our system, just as there are determined, hardworking students who are never rewarded for their dedication.”  I will agree that the system may need to change if this is the class in your classroom.  Assessments that reward the ability to cram and excel should be changed or eliminated.  Classroom work can be designed to reward hard work and deep understanding; teachers are doing this all the time.

Here’s where things get off the rails as Killoran discusses the MoE recommendation that students not deduct late marks or give work a mark oz zero:  “These “experts” (or “edu-babblers,” as they are called by many classroom teachers) argue that a missed assignment provides only “zero evidence” rather than “evidence of zero.” Imagine an employee attempting this Orwellian doublespeak at work, contending that their failure to repair a car, prepare a presentation, or analyze a quarterly report cannot be cause for punishment or dismissal because they did not even attempt the task and so cannot be said to have done it poorly.” I have a serious problem with this type of thinking from an educator.  First, these are students not employees.  Yes we are preparing them for their adult life – but they are not there yet.  Comparing education and the “real world” are not good comparisons.  Killoran wants to reward students who work hard, but I don’t want a heart surgeon who doesn’t know what he should, but she works hard and has a positive attitude, so she gets by.  You also don’t get to choose which career to compare to.  The majority of software developed goes over budget and is late.  The weatherperson on the news is wrong often yet somehow I see them on TV the next night.  Teachers get to call in sick and have someone come in and do their work for them.  Why not compare them to these aspects of careers in the “real world?”  The second problem with this attitude is that school is about helping young people at a critical stage in their development.  So the student whose parents are going through a divorce, or gets bullied at school, or is suffering with a yet un-diagnosed mental illness we should ignore and deduct marks all over the place.  I agree with Killoran that we want students to become resilient, however, that is not done by punishing students.  It is done through dialogue with your students, understanding their challenges, developing achievable goals with them and praising their success.

I would also say that deducting late marks at least creates an additional level of discontinuity in schools.  These are students competing for seats in Universities and Colleges.  If one teacher deducts marks and down the street one doesn’t, then we have a problem.  If the deduction is a standard (i.e. deduct 10% per day late) then the difference is one teacher gives three days for an assignment and another teacher gives five days for a similar assignment.

In my opinion Killoran also twists the MoE’s view on “most-recent and most-consistent” assessment for the sake of his article.  He states: “This means that a student who earned a 50 per cent for the first half of the year and a 90 per cent for the second half could be given a mark of 90, while a student who did the reverse could earn only a 50.”  Yes, this is true if there was some sort of forced algorithm that teacher’s use for this type of evaluation (PS. there isn’t.)  Teacher’s use professional development all the time.  If we’re talking about an isolated unit on Dinosaurs, most recent would capture the assessments towards the end of the unit and make them more influential on a grade.  It would not capture Mammals as most recent just because that unit comes after Dinosaurs.  So it depends on the course you are teaching as to how this applies.  Let’s look at Janet who goes into her summative activity and final exam with a 65%.  She have been steadily progressing from earlier in the year when she was failing.  She has been working diligently and earns a 90% on her end of year tasks.  Now mathematically that would bring her mark to a 73%. I would conjecture that a student who earns a 90% on the exam knows the material pretty well.  Should they perhaps be evaluated at a grade higher than the 73%?  I think if you value (and reward) hard work, persistence, and resilience, then yeah, we should consider some professional judgement on the final grade.  Should she get the 90%, well probably not since we also value (and reward) consistency.

Killoran adds another “real life” comparison: “Success or failure is determined by the sum total of one’s efforts in life, not simply how one has performed in the recent past. The sooner students learn this, the better off they will be.”  Well, students make mistakes.  Telling students they will forever be punished for a mistake is cruel and inaccurate.  Lots of people make mistakes (like 100% of them.)  So this doesn’t even apply to “real life.” We don’t fire a person at their first mistake.  Will there be consequences?  Yes, this is how students learn.  Again, mistakes are how students learn.  The research is supportive of this fact.  In my math class, I want students to try things, to risk being wrong, make a mistake, and then learn from it.  If students are simply wrist-slapped with grade deductions with no feedback or self reflection, then they are less likely to learn from these mistakes.  If a student performs poorly on a quiz and otherwise is performing exceptionally, at the end of the year can we not think of that as a bit of a hiccup?  Perhaps they were a bit sick, maybe they have a infant sister who was crying all night, maybe they just got dumped by their girlfriend.  That’s why we think about consistency.

Killoran finishes with “The ministry’s approach to grading is well-intentioned but it does students no favours. Skills like meeting deadlines, showing up on time, and working hard matter in the real world. They should matter in school too.”  A teacher should keep this in mind the next time a student is failing her class, or a lesson goes poorly, she returns tests a bit late, or she is less than at 100% because of a personal issue affecting her in some way, and when that happens she consider that he still earns 100% of her salary.  Yeah, these “real life” examples just don’t apply the way that Killoran asserts that they should.

  1. Genova Linda says:

    I don’t see that Killoran was saying that students shouldn’t be allowed to learn from their mistakes. You imply that earlier “hiccups” ( feeling sick etc.) should be overlooked, if the final performance is great. What if that “hiccup” occurs on the final evaluation? Why should one look for consistency? A student may find certain parts of the course more difficult. It shouldn’t matter that he falters at the beginning or the end of the year––give him credit for what he does well.

    You don’t believe in deducting marks for late or missed assignments? How can teachers gather the evidence they need for evaluation, if it isn’t there? How long is the teacher expected to wait?

    If students are allowed to hand in late assignments or skip assignments, then one should extend this approach to tests. Why would you expect them to hand in a test on time? Why give them zero for missing a question for lack of time? Some students may find it hard to marshall their thoughts according to some arbitrary time frame of an hour and a half ( and I’m not referring to Special Ed students). Perhaps in Math, quick-thinking is part of the evaluation. But in some instances, a more complex thinker may need more time. Yet the MOE is not suggesting that exams have flexible timing.

    • mryantho says:

      Hi Genova – I would maintain the same stance for doing poorly on the exam, within reason. This is what professional judgement is all about. Mathematically, for an exam to seriously affect their grade negatively they really have to have a very large gap. I will clarify again that we look for consistency within content. That’s my Dino unit example. And you are correct, it shouldn’t matter solely on time. Time only applies for the same content not for different content spaced apart. One way of thinking of it is that at the end of the course, the grade reflects what the student knows. Growing Success affirms this with “The report card grade represents a student’s achievement of overall curriculum expectations, as demonstrated to that point in time.” Consider it content knowledge, understanding, and skills. But if a student was always slightly behind, they may be achieving a 60%. But if they catch up before the end of the course and we can measurably assure this, then they have done what we have asked “Learn this, by the time the course finishes.” The alternative is that we are telling students “Here are all the benchmarks you need to hit during the year, if you miss one, there is no real incentive to ensure you learn the material.” This message is especially clear in elementary where there is no second chance (exam) to prove content mastery. Even under a very inflexible assessment policy, the incentive is minor for secondary students, and certainly very daunting.

      Missed assignments are a different story. There are a host of situations we can talk about. Whether it is chronic or a single instance, and even when it occurs in the year. For the record, I would say that standards based grading alleviates some of these debates. If a student cannot demonstrate mastery of a concept (curriculum expectation) then they would receive a zero for that skill. My view is more that a teacher needs to work with students that are late or missing with an assignment. They should be developing a plan with students to complete the work. Strict mark deductions are in my opinion, less effective for students, but easier for teachers. For late assignments, I would rather have a student complete the work late, than not at all. But students under the threat of a 40% late deduction may give up entirely. I know the fear is that students will begin to abuse the ability to hand in things late. In my experience this happens when things are always accepted late AND they are never addressed. Discussing the value of completing work on time and then validating their efforts when they improve, goes a long way. I have done both strategies in my own teaching, so this isn’t coming from only a theoretical approach.

      First, I necessarily think many math teachers (myself included) have improved at how we write tests. I have tried to introduce more deep thinking tasks in my class, but then tests are still focused heavily on procedural math and fact recall. This certainly puts the emphasis of a student’s mark primarily on aspects that are not necessarily the most important. So within a school year, there are plenty of opportunities to structure and weight assessments that reflect what a teacher values from students. “Are tests the best way to measure understanding?” is not a new question for teachers. However, we owe it to our students not to answer “Well, maybe not, but I’m not sure what else to do.” In terms of the MoE, yes students may have an exam, let’s say worth 15% of their mark. Deciding what is covered on the exam vs the culminating task is an often debated topic. Should a spread out culminating task cover deep thinking and inquiry, and an exam cover more knowledge based skills? Perhaps, or at least it’s something a teacher can think about. If you are suggesting that the MoE is offering conflicted views of assessment, then I would probably say this comes down to the way schools and boards interpret Growing Success. The MoE really only states that 30% of a students grade must come from summative end of year tasks. How that is distributed among tasks and exams, whether by weight, or by content, or type of task are questions that boards and schools seek to answer. And that is why these conversations are important.

      • Genova Linda says:

        Regarding flexible timing for tests, I was playing Devil’s Advocate. In my past experience, it was hardly ever allowed (except of course for identified Special Ed students) . During formal exams, teachers swept by and collected all papers right on the hour. It certainly was not allowed during EQAO tests. I am quite sure that such practices still prevail. But I often ignored such practices. If I was supervising my own exam, I waited for those who needed more time; I let students stay on during the following class to finish a test. I acknowledged the arbitrariness of the time limit on the test and was more interested in finding out what they knew and what they were thinking.

        But missed and late assignments were another matter. Students often had weeks to organize themselves to produce an essay or project. If a student didn’t meet the deadline, I would apply my professional judgement and humanity in deciding whether or not to give the student some leeway. I would rather have received a late assignment than not get it at all, too––but I wasn’t about to encourage a scenario in which ten students could hand in essays at the end of the term. How would I have time to grade them? And again, why give a student two months longer to turn in an assignment, if you won’t give them five more minutes on an exam?

        As for missing the assignment altogether, I’m not talking about busy work. Assignments that required a great deal of effort on my part were not given out for the good of my health. They were designed to address specific expectations in a significant way. If a student failed to submit an assignment, he likely failed to fully demonstrate mastery of certain expectations.

        Assigning a “0” for a missed assignment makes much more sense than assigning a “0” for a missed expectation. This reminds me of a time several years ago when my son’s report card mark went from a B to a D because he failed to do a show-and-tell homework assignment . It was a minor assignment, but it represented some specific category, therefore drastically reduced his grade. Some courses have twenty expectations. Some have hundreds. Some expectations are unrealistic or meaningless. What is any expectation worth?

        Furthermore, a student could argue that the missed assignment is irrelevant: after all, she demonstrated those expectations in other ways. Demonstrating them on a few questions of a multiple-choice test or during casual discussion in class wouldn’t cut it for me. The act of doing the assignment is a thinking and learning process. This process can’t be checked off on a checklist.

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