Monday, November 6, 2017

What's It Worth To You?

I was sitting in my study hall duty with a friend and we were both grading papers. He was muttering as he worked about how it would be impossible for him to make the class any easier. Intrigued by this, I asked him to elaborate. He explained that his tests were worth 40% of the students' grades and that if they just paid close attention to the study guide when preparing, they were sure to pass the test. I knew his comments were about the study guide and the test, but I was curious about the other 60% of the grade, so I asked. The other 60% was a notebook check. Upon further probing, I learned that this meant that students needed to have all the papers from the class in a notebook, maybe in a particular order. I remember asking him, "if you keep all the completed papers in the correct order in the notebook, you could just opt out of the tests and still pass the class?" His response: I have never really thought about it like that.

At the school where I teach, we have just wrapped up first quarter and parent-teacher conferences. In an effort to help students improve their performance in my class, I ask them to do a bit of reflective thinking: How did I perform in each area of the class? In which area could I improve? How will I accomplish that improvement? Likewise, I am doing some reflective thinking about my practice, especially in the area of grades.

I classify my assignments in chemistry as tests (40% of the total grade), labs (25% of the grade), quizzes (25% of the grade) and a miscellaneous category (10%). During first quarter, I evaluated 25 assignments for 620 points - 2 tests, 17 labs and quizzes, and 6 miscellaneous assignments. A pie chart of assignments in my class might look like this:

I have deliberately structured these assignments and categories so that tests are a big deal, but they aren't everything. Labs and quizzes together are worth more than tests and there are many more of them. Students encounter and practice a concept about five times before they are tested on it; they receive formal and informal feedback several times leading up to the test so that they can have a keen idea about their progress.



Lately I have become aware that my system isn't the norm. In both of these examples with computer-weighted categories, 80% of the grade in the class is based on two assignments; 20% of the grade is based on several smaller assignments that often appear to be graded on completion. In both of these systems, if the computer-weighted categories were removed and a grade was recalculated using only the points each assignment was worth, the grade could change a great deal.


I have a lot of questions about these grading structures:

  • Why is so much of grade dependent on so few assignments?
  • How do students know how well they understand a concept if they are not formally evaluated between the birth and test of a concept?
  • Is it realistic to think that most students will accurately self-evaluate their progress during a unit of study based on completion assignments?
  • Does this type of structure generate concerns about homework that isn't helpful or test corrections and retakes?
  • Are there other types of assignments that could be used to measure progress? Is the continuum only high stakes tests for 80% of a grade or completion activities?
It seems a commonplace perception that education has become too focused on standardized tests. Why, then, would teachers choose to emphasize [non-standardized!] tests so much over other types of assignments within their classrooms?

Much has been written about the ways schools assign grades and whether or not grades accurately represent what students know and are able to do. In my building we overhauled our grading policy about about ten years ago, partly in response to the book "A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades." Taking many of the author's suggestions into account doesn't answer my questions about grading schemes that magnify one or two assignments.

In my teacher preparation, no time was spent discussing how many points assignments should be worth, how many assignments make a valid measure of student progress, or how to appropriately weight measures to reflect student progress. That's definitely a discussion that I hope will be ongoing. 

How do you organize and weight your assignments? Is it working? Please comment and join in the discussion.