I have one question for anyone promoting an overhaul of their high school grading system: How will it impact your students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?
OK, maybe that’s three questions wrapped in one. But I feel like these are questions nobody is asking, and I want answers.
If we’re investing time, money and teacher energy changing any aspect of our education system, shouldn’t we be confident of its ultimate impact on student learning?
In the past few years, I’ve been swept along in my district’s movement toward “80/20” (80% of a student’s grade is performance, 20% practice), the school-wide implementation of re-learning and retakes, the elimination of Fs (we’ve replaced them with incompletes), and equal-interval grading (reducing the impact of 0s).
I’ve also read a few books and articles on this subject, and two weeks ago at ASCD, I got to hear the arguments straight from Tim Westerberg, one of the gurus of the standards-based grading movement.
Westerberg, a former principal, is a high-energy, no-holds-barred, persuasive speaker. He’s passionate about getting rid of 0s, removing work habits (and extra credit) from grades that are supposed to measure content knowledge, and encouraging re-assessment.
He doesn’t allow much room for dissent in his presentation, accentuating every point with a loud and resounding: “Right?!?”
I’ll give him credit for this: His arguments had an internal logic and coherence. Of course it makes sense not to give kids points for donating Kleenex. Of course teachers teaching the same class should measure learning consistently. Of course we should encourage students to keep learning and let them prove it (by reassessment) later.
Of course we should do our best to measure understanding, not arbitrary point-getting.
But I still left the session with more questions than answers. (I tried to send them to Westerberg, by the way, but his site just keep processing and never sent the message.)
Here are a few of the questions I jotted in my notes, as I listened:
- How do students react to an overhauled, standards-based grading system, where everything is assessed as a 1, 2, 3, or 4? Does it change their motivation and performance?
- How do these ideas align with the growth mindset? (Westerberg actually referred to a student who did poorly in chemistry as a “theatre kid” — which didn’t seem very growth mindset-like to me.)
- Are you confident that this system can’t be manipulated by teachers who still want to reward good behavior, homework completion, Kleenex boxes, or whatever?
- How is this system manageable, time-wise? (Some of his rubrics for a single assignment were over a page long, single-spaced.)
My first question (at the top of this post) is the only really important one, though.
How will this change impact students’ mindset, motivation, and learning?
Last week in AP Psych class, my students had a socratic seminar discussion about the growth mindset, IQ, and which one has more impact on success in school, career and life. The students frequently returned to discussing our school’s grading system, especially “80/20” and equal-interval grading, which is being piloted in some classes this year.
There seemed to be a consensus that the 80/20 system, with its emphasis on performance, actually undermines the growth mindset and hurts motivation. They were divided on whether equal-interval grading will help or make things worse.
I know this discussion is purely anecdotal, so I don’t want to read too much into it. Instead, I want to ask the experts: Is there proof that changing the grading system does more than just change the grading system? Will it help build a growth mindset and encourage persistence? Will kids learn more?
Let me be clear: I don’t think Westerberg and others are promoting bad ideas. I don’t think our old ways of assessing students were all that great, and I admire much of the thinking in the new systems. I just worry that we’re all jumping on the “change grading” bandwagon because it’s a relatively easy fix — a cheap change — compared to fixing the things that really impact teaching and learning.
Compared to adopting new teaching strategies, for example, changing the grading system is easy to impose from the top down, very easy to enforce, and if it makes it harder for kids to fail, it looks like it improves student performance.
But if the payoff isn’t great — if a new grading system doesn’t really produce better student engagement, more motivation and deeper learning — then I’m not sure it’s the place we should be spending our scarce educational dollars. Let’s see the evidence.
Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush