Updated: Nov 10, 2021
Part 4 of 4: Expectations of Teachers with Regard to Grading Student Work Must Become Reasonable, and the Student Feedback Paradigm Must Shift Toward More Meaningful Outcomes
At one point in my teaching career, I taught AP Literature. My students had written argumentative essays based on a thesis they developed independently based on their self-selection of a book they had been assigned from any of their high school years. I had conferenced with each of them as they developed their thesis and they seemed generally energized by being given a choice and so much creative leeway to express themselves.
I had 91 AP students, and I spent 40+ hours meticulously writing feedback (extraordinarily motivating, extremely thorough, and deeply insightful feedback, if I do say so myself) on their five-page essays. Every free moment was spent at my dining table with that stack of essays, neatly clipped together by class with a bookmark to show where I had left off. I forfeited time with my family, ignored invitations from friends, and gave up sleep to get these done because, as every teacher knows, prompt and meaningful feedback is a long-standing expectation and hallmark of excellence.
Imagine the gut-punch I felt at the end of the day when I saw no fewer than fifteen papers tossed into the trash can that sat just inside my classroom doorway. I had made a rookie mistake, I admit, passing the papers back at the end of the period. I had asked them to read and think about the feedback before the next class so we could discuss. The next day, the majority of my students clearly had not even so much as glanced at my colorful comments on their papers. I had suspected for years that all my efforts at written feedback were largely wasted time, but this situation showed me that even the most academically oriented students were not going to take the time to peruse and ponder the teacher-squiggles on papers that they considered “done.” Of course, there are exceptions: there are indeed students who want to discuss feedback and improve their understanding and overall score. But the majority are not learning enough from written feedback to validate the time it takes.
And it does take time. Lots and lots of time. Teachers are easy to spot at their kids’ soccer games — they’re the ones with papers in their laps and pens in hand. Teachers sit in front of the television with papers, take papers on vacations, and carry a bag full of papers with them almost everywhere (even on weekends) just in case there is an opportunity to grade. Around interim time and toward the end of each quarter, it’s easy to tell teachers’ houses by the glow of the dining room light still on well past midnight.
Teachers must reevaluate the amount of time they spend grading papers. If teachers recapture this ineffective use of grading time, they can use half of it to make better, more engaging lesson plans and the other half to have a personal life that keeps them healthy and rejuvenated for their work with students. To do this, educational systems, structures, and expectations must become more flexible and supportive of changing the perceptions of valuable feedback and embracing alternative methods of helping students grow.
Students Are Not Beef - Stop Grading Them. Instead, Evaluate for Mastery
The idea of doing away with grades altogether and focusing on conceptual and skill mastery is an idea whose time has come. A 2019 article by Lee Westberry for ASCD entitled, “Grading for Mastery, Not Mystery,” lays out the case for a mastery model for instruction. The standards are part of virtually every state and district policy and are visible to all stakeholders, including parents and students. Criteria for mastery, near-mastery, and non-mastery can be developed easily so all can understand exactly where a student is proficient and where a student needs more support. It’s transparent, and it makes sense. If a student masters all requirements before the end of the year, that student can work on an independent or group project that they help design to further their learning and make a contribution to the learning of others.
Think about the meaning of the current system. When a student gets an “A,” is it because the content and standards were mastered or because all assignments were turned in? If the answer is “both,” to what extent is each a factor? And what about an “F”? Can a student refuse to do any work and still have all the content knowledge? Of course. Letter grades are so deeply rooted in the psyches of parents and students alike, but the question remains: what do these letter grades really represent?
Some school systems have responded to this concern by creating “process” and “product” grade mandates with a greater weight percentage on the “product” scores. This seems logical on the surface, but the weighting makes it impossible for students and parents to truly grasp what a grade really represents. Some systems are considering a divided report card that shows content understanding as one grade and work habits/conduct as another. This is clearer, but still leaves a lot to interpretation. Still another grading strategy is to enter grades but change the quarterly grade to a 50 if the numerical score is lower than 50. The thinking behind this policy is that students whose grade for the year is devastated in the first quarter will give up and lose all educational opportunities for the year. This can indeed have devastating outcomes for students’ future opportunities. That said, some students have found ways to game the system. They can receive 50 scores for three quarters and then get a 95 and pass for the year with a 60. This takes a great deal of confidence to be sure of a 95, but the idea is to slack for half the year and then step up. To me, this shows that some students do not recognize the value of education for its own sake. And some write brilliant AP Lit essays that end up in the trash without reading feedback because the letter and number at the top are all that matters. This is the legacy of making it all about the grade.
Other Ideas for Purposeful Feedback
There are many creative, effective, and meaningful ways teachers can provide student feedback:
a. Read through the class assignments and type a list of important elements to address with the whole group as a class warm-up. Provide the list as a graphic organizer so students can self-assess and make notes. Collect the graphic organizer and use that to enter grades.
b. Have students use Grammarly or another error-correction app, even in English/Language Arts. I use Grammarly although I consider myself an accomplished writer. Every time it makes a correction, I learn, or I think through the decision to ignore. Modeling the use of Grammarly for the class as a teacher think-aloud is a great way to introduce the advantages to students and save time grading that can be spent on helping students gain more confidence in written expression.
c. Use student portfolios and self-assessment tools. Plan assignments to build skills that culminate in assignments that integrate the skills. Introduce the sequence to students so they will see the relevance of each assignment as part of an overall goal. At the end of the skill sequence and before the culminating assignment (every two to three weeks), plan a day or two of independent or group work to provide opportunities for conferencing with individuals or small groups as appropriate. Use the conference to provide skill reinforcement as well as context and motivation for the culminating assignment.
d. When class sizes are prohibitive for conferencing, small group conferencing can be built into the daily schedule so that five to 10 students per day have a period of about 25-30 minutes to get individualized feedback on writing, projects, and/or classroom progress. This would allow for more relevant, meaningful, and effective student feedback while also building and nurturing relationships. Because the time would be purpose-built into the schedule, it would be productive and valued by teachers rather than being viewed as “one more thing.”
e. Be clear about the criteria for the culminating assignment (or any high stakes assignment or assessment) and make it as brief and attainable as possible. Focusing on the elements that really matter for student learning will maximize their effort. Consider creating and using checklists that allow students to self-monitor progress that also include space for student reflection.
f. Use exit tickets! Sort them quickly after class into three piles: “Got it,” “Needs Some Clarification,” and “Needs to Revisit.” Students can get credit for completion and teachers can save a lot of valuable time while learning about students’ understanding.
Teachers are constantly inundated with the idea that learning is “all about relationships.” I know from experience — that idea is true. We also know that feedback is most effective when it is given in person along with an opportunity to discuss and ask questions. School structures and schedules must start allowing for teachers to use class time for building relationships and students’ academic progress through authentic, personal feedback using a mastery approach. A focus and emphasis on mastery in the classroom will lead to — mastery.
The Travesty of Testing: When Data Masquerades as Learning
School systems have institutionalized “data driven instruction,” touting it as the way to identify students’ needs and give them the targeted academic help they need. What the data truly show is anyone’s guess: a fight with a friend, an empty stomach, worry about an addicted parent, fear of violence, anxiety over a bully two seats away, the irresistible YouTube or Tik Tok video, boredom, apathy, a lucky guess, an unlucky guess, or an honest effort. Teachers are taught to look at the data as if the data truly says what it appears to say. Numbers are numbers — except when they represent human behavior.
Testing students incessantly is one of the worst things that could possibly happen to a public school system that states its mission as creating lifelong learners ready for higher education or the world of work. Students, parents, community members, teachers, administrators, and even policy makers have fallen under the evil spell of the illusion of accountability. Testing companies promote their data tracking and testing services and have the ear of policymakers who are persuaded to take the easy road in showing the effectiveness of schools. It seems to make sense that displaying humans as numerical values and schools as the aggregate of that data is the way to show oversight and competence. The companies get richer as the students and teachers become more and more disheartened. Student behavior grows more negative, the teachers’ job becomes more difficult, and learning slows to a crawl.
Students who once enjoyed school have become blinded and numbed by a numerical score that represents their self-worth. Those students who need more encouragement have lost hope because they are perpetually in the “red” or “yellow” data segments. I can’t think of anything worse we could do more deliberately to crush the meaning and potential of education.
We need honest conversations about the unintended consequences of testing. I have seen with my own eyes the eye-rolling, and the heavy, defeated sighs that accompany the exclamation, “Another test?!?” from my students. I see some dutifully go through the motions. Earlier, I mentioned the damaging effects of new teachers’ associations of stress with learning to teach. This goes double for public school students who are still children who have come to associate stress and boredom with learning. I have literally had students tell me that they stopped working on a county assessment a third of the way through because they simply got tired of it. This is what testing hath wrought: too many students simply do not care anymore. Too many of those that do are hyper-focused on the grade and not their curiosity or desire to discover.
A Fresh Start for Education Begins with and End to Gaslighting
The alternatives and solutions to end the need for gaslighting exist and are within reach. Gaslighting will stop, authentic self-care will finally be possible, and the profession will be better able to retain its best and brightest teachers when the structures change to allow teachers to have a rational job description that honors their professionalism and commitment to education. Teachers are adults who know what they need to renew and recharge themselves. They can make these decisions, as other professionals do, once they understand the breadth and depth of the conscious and unconscious gaslighting that permeates the profession and demand an end to it on behalf of themselves and the students they serve. The loss of teacher talent is staggering and will only become worse if nothing changes. The time is now to change the structures that support the continuation of misguided beliefs and practices. More reasonable job expectations, more effective programs, and better working conditions are within reach. The consequences for continuing business as usual are too great for teachers, prospective teachers, and the students and communities that depend on them.
Westberry, L. (2019). Grading for Mastery, Not Mystery. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development: https://www.ascd.org/el/articles/grading-for-mastery-not-mystery