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California

Teachers and experts question traditional ways of grading

Test preparation
Ashley Carrick turns a page in her math SAT prep manual.
(Jim Baird / San Diego Union-Tribune)

If you’re a high school student in San Diego County, it may appear your chances of getting a good grade are better or worse depending on which teacher you have.

Some teachers will give you an A if you score a 90% for a course, while others will give you an A for 88% or 85%, a Union-Tribune review of more than 60 course syllabuses from high schools around the county shows.

There are teachers who will give an F for 67% or below, some for 64% or below, others for 59% or below, 54% or below, and even 19% or below.

Some teachers choose not to give any D grades at all. Morse High math teacher Alex Powell was one of a handful who indicated on their syllabuses that they give no Ds.

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He said D grades don’t help students graduate. D grades also don’t qualify a student for admission to California’s public universities.

“My goal was to kind of push away the idea that Ds were something that they should be getting,” Powell said.

There’s a wide variation in grading scales that highlights how inconsistent grading systems are from teacher to teacher. Experts say it points to deeper issues — of equity and privilege — plaguing age-old grading practices in U.S. schools.

A few points difference

Several experts say middle and high school grades are frequently unreliable, arbitrary, subjective and widely varied in terms of what they actually measure. Research studies dating as far back as 1912 show that a single sample of student work can draw scores all over the map from different teachers.

Experts point to the 100-percentage-point grading system as a prime culprit.

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Percentage ranges for letter grades are often arbitrary, and one number out of a 100-point scale doesn’t communicate much about what or how much a student has learned, said Ken O’Connor, a Toronto education consultant who helps schools and teachers change their grading practices.

“Realistically, nobody can tell the difference between 90% and 93 in any meaningful way,” O’Connor said.

Some common grading practices, such as giving extra credit and averaging grades over time, can perpetuate inequities for disadvantaged students, said Joe Feldman, an Oakland consultant who works with schools and teachers on equitable grading practices.

For example, giving extra credit to students who complete additional projects or attend outside events ends up rewarding students whose families have resources for those tasks, Feldman said, while it disadvantages students whose families do not.

Also, the practice of producing one cumulative course grade by averaging a student’s performance from beginning to end can discredit improvements that a student made over time and can penalize students who started class behind grade level, Feldman said.

Despite these flaws, grades are used to determine vital parts of students’ futures.

Grades determine who gets to take honors courses, who gets to receive scholarships, who gets to graduate, who gets into a desired college and more.

Besides academics, people use grades to label a student’s worth, Feldman said.

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“A big part of adolescence is identity construction,” Feldman said. “And there’s no more formalized way that adults tell children who they are than by the grades that students get. And so students will actually define themselves by their grades. They’ll say, ‘I’m a B student,’ or ‘I’m a C student.’”

Despite how much grades affect students’ lives, teachers are typically given zero training on grading, teachers and experts say. That’s largely why teachers often default to how they were graded when they were students years before, experts say.

Grading is one of the few aspects of a teacher’s job over which he has virtual autonomy. California law protects the right of teachers to be the final authority in determining a student’s grade.

“Teachers are weirdly protective and private about their grades,” said Kimberly Lepre, an English teacher at Rancho Del Rey Middle School and a 2017 County Teacher of the Year nominee. “They don’t want anyone to judge them based on their grades.”

Yet some teachers say they feel conflicted about grading.

“I am constantly unsatisfied with grades and grading policies,” said Gina Vattuone, an English teacher at Bonita Vista High School. “I want my grades to be fair and accurate, but I don’t know within the confines and constraints of this system what that means.”

Vattuone and other teachers say they believe current grading systems and the value society places on grades cause some parents and students to care more about grades than about what they’re learning. Lepre said parents will press her with questions about how to raise their child’s grade from an A minus to an A.

“I think about the lengths students will go to secure an A grade,” Vattuone said. “It doesn’t become about the learning or the content. It becomes about these external rewards.”

What’s in a grade

There are two main reasons why grading practices are widely inconsistent, said Thomas Guskey, a University of Louisville senior research scholar who has written books about grading and assessment.

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The first, Guskey said, is that educators don’t agree on the purpose of grades.

Is the grade to inform students about their performance or their parents? Is it to incentivize students to do schoolwork, or to document their behavior? Is it to sort students into groups in school based on skill level?

When Guskey has asked teachers to rank reasons why they give grades, their responses were “all over the place,” he said.

“We just don’t agree on why we’re doing it,” he said.

The second reason, Guskey says, is that teachers don’t agree on what should be counted in a grade.

Teachers grade students on much more than just how well they know course content.

Students can also be graded on actions that enable learning, such as homework completion and class participation, and how much they improved over time — distinct considerations often lumped into the same overall grade with content mastery, Guskey said.

Teachers also end up grading students on their behaviors, not just academics.

“Very often grading has been as much about compliance as it has been about achievement,” O’Connor said.

For example, it’s common for teachers to dock students’ grades for turning in work late, even though that doesn’t necessarily relate to how well the student knows the content.

The result is that, theoretically, a student who follows class rules but doesn’t know the content and a student who knows the content but doesn’t follow class rules can get the same grade.

Because teachers include so many other factors into grades besides content knowledge, students’ in-school grades can be inconsistent with scores they get on outside standardized exams, such as Advanced Placement tests or the state’s annual tests, Feldman said.

“When teachers use traditional grading practices, it’s actually making the grades inaccurate, where they’re not accurately describing a student’s level of knowledge mastery,” Feldman said. “Instead it’s this hodgepodge of all this disparate data that makes the grade almost meaningless.”

Different ways of grading

Some teachers have been experimenting with ways some experts recommend to make grading more equitable.

Several schools in San Diego County give separate “citizenship grades” that are solely about students’ behavior, such as tardiness and class participation.

Vattuone and Lepre both allow students to revise their assignments after they have turned them in, to try for a better grade, a practice recommended by Feldman.

They say revisions give students a chance to improve their work and learn from feedback, rather than just getting a grade and moving on from the assignment.

Both teachers say they also don’t give zeroes.

Vattuone gives her students a 50% on an assignment instead, which she says is still failing but gives students a better chance to improve their grade.

“If you get a zero on a 100-point scale, it’s like an anchor. It takes you forever to dig yourself out ... and there’s no evidence that it motivates students to do better,” Feldman said.

Lepre doesn’t penalize her middle school students for turning in late work because doing so can end up punishing those who didn’t have adults available at home at the time who could help them, she said.

“I actually don’t have that much of a problem with late work,” Lepre said.

In her classroom, Lepre uses a 1, 2, 3, 4 grading system, where 4 means mastery of the content and 1 means no mastery. Such grading systems outline specific definitions of what mastery looks like at each of the four levels.

Experts recommend this “standards-based grading” because they say it more clearly tells students and their parents how well their students know the content.

Guskey also says that having a smaller number of grades — say, four, versus the 101 possible grades in a percentage system — reduces subjectivity and increases reliability.

“I found that when I grade that way, it also gives students a sense of their progress and they can take ownership of their learning,” Lepre said.

Guskey, Feldman and O’Connor all said they want teachers to avoid the 100-percentage point system.

“Teachers complain that students only talk about learning in terms of points, but that’s how we’ve taught it to them. And we can un-teach them, by the way,” Feldman said. “The amount of stress and anxiety that students feel is a big problem in schools, and our traditional grading contributes to that.”

The vast majority of syllabuses reviewed showed that most San Diego County teachers use the 100-point system to score students and arrive at letter grades.

Some teachers said that although they might like to experiment with different grading systems, at the end of the day they still have to input a letter grade into their school grade books.


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