Saturday, October 17, 2009

What is a grade for...or worth?

I was a teacher for forty-five years--a bit longer if you add my few years as charter boat skipper where I taught cruising and seamanship and piloting. And probably the hardest part of teaching was grading students. It didn't make any difference if it were kindergarten children or graduate students in advance classes. How do you judge the worth of an individual?

For those who haven't taught, many would say, just figure out the percentage of the work submitted and if they got over seventy percent--they got a "C". If they got over eighty percent they got a "B". And over ninety percent is an "A". Nothing simpler. And I wish it was that simple.

For those of you who have read much of these blogs about teachers and teaching, you will recall the little girl in my grade school class who when given a "C" grade did "C" work, but when given a higher grade like an "A" did "A" work. She responded to what I thought she could do. Strange little girl but I really liked her.

I also had a colleague at the university level who did what was first suggested in this blog. All her assignments had so many points and a student in her class was given points for the assignment. Get over seventy percent of the points and you got a "C" now you know the drill. So you would think that by the end of the quarter it would be a snap to add all the points and do a quick calculation and award a grade. But my colleague, Mary, who had an office next to mine would be fuming and fussing at grade time. She was adding up the points and then being very subjective--I could hear her say, "Damn, I know she did better then that." or "He doesn't deserve an "A"--where did I go wrong here."

I would talk to Mary and she was genuinely concerned and upset about some of the grades that she was awarding. And she was taking in account all those things she did in class that was not given points for the class like discussions.....being on time.....making sure all assignments were turned in on time....etc. Although Mary had designed her grading to be objective, i.e., doing it by points, in the end she wanted to be subjective, i.e., her feelings and opinions to take charge.

Grading in schools is the biggest quicksand problem we have. What does an "A" stand for? And all the other grades? What is average? What if I had a class of all "A" students, then what is average? What if the school district says I have to give so many "C" grades and I have all those "A" students. Big problem.

And how do I tell my parents when they come to a parent/teacher conference that their child is an average child? No parent wants to hear that! No parent has average children--they are all special and bright and loving and creative......

One way some think to solve this problem is to make the courses (at least at the university level) harder. Make them really tough so that only a few students can get all the work done correctly. I once had a colleague in another department (no, not mathematics or education or English) who routinely flunked (an "F") up to half of his class. They would just have to take the class again. Except a lot of those students really did understand the subject, they just didn't know how to answer his question which he had to make more obtuse as the years when on. My colleague thought he was very bright because so few understood what he was teaching. Sad.

On the other hand I had a colleague in my department who routinely passed out the grade forms and told the students in his class to put in their own grade--whatever they thought they deserved. Of course his classes were mostly all "A"s. I was the department chair at the time and he drove me crazy. He really believed that each student should be responsible to their own self and he believed this would. force them to look inwardly. I still think to this day there were a number of students who took his class to get an "easy 'A'." Graduate level, too.

And in some cases he may have a point. I have taught graduate classes in Instructional Technology for K-12 teachers who want to become an Instructional Technology specialist. These people are coming at night once a week to attend class. They have paid good money for this class. They work hard. The class goes from 7 to 10 and they spend the entire time working on computers, programs, presentations..... Why shouldn't they all (just 10 in the class) get an "A"?

So how do you grade students? Right now, Seattle Public Schools have put aside a proposal to make a "D" the average grade to combat grade inflation. Parents complained and it was dropped for now. But the question remains, how do you grade students? I do know that if you give a child enough "D"s and "F"s, they will shortly decide they do not like learning in school. And they will say "They are dumb." You have destroyed their will to learn. I don't think that path is right either. On the other hand what subjects that you studied did you liked? Those subjects in which you excelled or got a good grade--right? What a complex issue grading is....

In an effort to look at how we grade students, I went to Boings in Kent, WA, where they have a training facility. I thought maybe I could learn how they do it. One of my ex students was in charge and gave me a tour of the facilities. They don't grade people with "A, B, C, D, and F"s mode like the public schools. It is either you do it correctly or you get fired. Simple as that. There is no gradation. Yes or No. Correct or not correct. Not much help to me and my problem of grading.

So then I went north a short distance to Microsoft. I talked to one of their teachers (who had never been in the college of education) who told me that they set up learning and invite Microsoft employees to the class... And by mid-term most of the students in the class understand the material and have dropped out. They are very smart and self disciplined.

Of all the tasks a teacher has to do, I find that grading students to be the hardest part. I don't like it and never did. I've been a "hard grader" and an "easy grader." Doesn't make much difference--I still do not like it. Maybe that is why I enjoyed teaching sailing so much--I didn't have to give grades.

So here is your assignment for next week. How would you grade this blog and what criteria did you use? Ten page maximum on standard paper. Double spaced and 12 font. Date and sign. Worth a gazillion points.

So a teacher once graded you higher then you thought you deserved? Better go thank her--she liked you. And she wanted you to succeed.

1 comment:

  1. Les, would you like to come help me judge 4-H demonstrations next February? These are a lot of fun! No experience necessary. 4-H uses a rubric. My kids learned how to organize and deliver a speech in 4-H.