High school grading: Mastery v. handing things in

One of the students in my data-driven decision-making class (for discussion purposes, let’s call her ‘Jen’) posted this in our online discussion area:

Most grading at the high school level is more reflective of responsibility (just handing things in) and not on whether the student has truly mastered the content.

There are a lot of issues embedded in this short sentence. For example…

  1. What does ‘true mastery of content’ mean (or look like) for secondary students?
  2. Does high school grading really get at the idea of student responsibility?
  3. If yes to #2, is ‘handing things in’ a good measure of student responsibility?
  4. Does student regurgitation of low-level factual recall items on quizzes and tests constitute ‘handing things in’ or ‘mastery?’

What do you think? Do you agree with Jen’s initial statement?

20 Responses to “High school grading: Mastery v. handing things in”

  1. Interesting post, Scott. I’ve been pondering a similar question myself. As a high school math teacher, I first think it’s interesting to point out that our “grading” is pretty backwards. A typical high school math “grade” consists of some sort of mix between responsibility (did you turn in your homework), formative assessment numbers (quiz scores) and summative assessment numbers (test scores that don’t really mean a whole lot to the student. How is 78% different from 79% Does the 78% mean that the student really has a 1% less level of understanding? It probably means s/he forgot a negative sign somewhere! It is very subjective…even in math). So…why not take “responsibility” as we see it through the lens of homework completion out of the “grade” and while we’re at it, let’s take the formative assessments out, too. Let’s make a grade actually mean something that all stakeholders can understand. Why is it that a student who “gets it” right away on homework and quizzes gets a better overall grade than one who finally “gets it” only on the test? The later-learner is penalized via his “grade” because of his mediocre performance on the “practice” (homework) and “formative assessment” (quiz). It just doesn’t make sense to me. Why can’t the “grade” simply be a reflection of what a student “knows” and can “apply”? I recently went a conference where a presenter discussed these ideas in lieu of Stiggins and O’Connor’s ideas on grading for learning. I’d be more than willing to share these ideas and how they might be implemented at the secondary level with anyone that’s interested.

    The big question that’s mulling through my mind is how to merge the “standards” philosophy of formative assessment, learning targets, etc. with a more 21st century “relevance” approach.

  2. I agree with Matt about what a grade should reflect. Unfortunately, as we are all aware, that is often not the case.

    My feeling is that we try to force ourselves (often we have no choice) to make “grades” and “assessments” mean exactly the same thing. I think they don’t and that is a big part of our problem with getting a handle on this that we can be comfortable with. When I observe a group discussion and do a formative assessment (observation check list) of a student in that group, and I check that the student contributed frequently, their contribution was mostly relevant, and 2 times they gave somewhat helpful feedback. My assessment would be that the student was proficient at group work – but at what %? What grade is that? I think we are trying to compare apples and oranges.

  3. I was just thinking today about how I used to assign a business letter on the first day of my grade 12 English class. The purpose was for students to introduce themselves to me. I gave them a template and a model to follow, but I didn’t really “teach” the business letter.

    And then I marked it.

    “What the heck were you thinking!” I asked myself. “How can you mark something that you didn’t teach?” Well if I don’t mark it, they won’t see it as valuable and therefore won’t hand it in.

    So now I would say to the old me, “There needs to be another reason for them to hand it in other than for marks. If you can’t come up with a good enough reason, then it’s probably not a valid assessment. And if you’re marking something that you haven’t taught, then you’re an evaluator–not a teacher.”

    I would really like to see some innovative suggestions to get students to see the value in assessment that is not grading, ie. ways to get around assigning a mark for being responsible when that isn’t a curriculum expectation.

    In our board’s report cards, we are asked to record learning skills but they don’t factor into any overall grades.

    Should there be a separate grade for learning skills? Are students mature enough to understand the importance of completing formative assessments for reasons other than grades? How do we make it matter?

  4. I hope what you find, Matt, is that our current standards-centric environment will be a perfect fit for a mastery-based grading system. We’ve already got the vocabulary with proficient/mastery/etc.

    Now, the ever-present question remains: who will buy in to a change and who will hold onto the old way? Parents? Teachers? Administrators?

  5. Maine has just completed a “Stakeholders Report” on implementing a standards-based high school diploma by 2016 (current 5th grade class). The report has not yet been adopted by the Legislature and I do not know what that chance is.

    The questions posed in the post above (particularly #1 and #4) are not answered by the Stakeholders Report, so I’d be interested in reading what people here think about the Maine proposal. FMI: http://www.maine.gov/education/diploma/index.html

  6. I’ve thought about this on countless occasions. What if they’re not even doing that other work you assign, but are passing your tests? Aren’t they mastering the content if they can Ace the test? Regardless of if they remember it after the test, haven’t they “mastered” the content for that specific day?

  7. @ Scott
    An interesting post and the students comments most likely ring true in the majority of secondary schools. I can’t verify that but in my experience it has held true. Some of the issue of the “gimme points” for doing assignments comes from the inherent disfunction in how we structure the typical school day at the high school level.

    High schools that use the 4 X 4 block or traditional carnegie unit often place 100-150 students a day in front of their teachers. Gladwell pointed out in a recent New Yorker article that good teaching is about good feedback. Who can give good feedback when they see that many students day in day out? Teachers adapt to the lowest common practice of busy work which often means not only mindless to complete but easy to grade (you did it or you didn’t).

    We are considering altering our schedule to a flex trimester model that would allow our teachers to see a significantly lower number of students at any given time. We aren’t doing this yet but we are planning for it.

  8. I see mastery as a goal, not a reality. We talk about mastering content, but do we really mean it? I Have not mastered teaching, but I have been practicing it for 20 years. Each year I gain more insights and deeper understandings.

    Secondly, I hate grading. The questions raised are realistic, and I no longer focus on handing things in as a primary means of grading. I also no longer grade formative quizzes. Formative assessment is about checking for understanding, not for gotcha pop quizzes. Thus, daily work is minimized to 20%, summative work is a heady 50%, and testing is 30%.

    My daily work includes metacognitive reflection, concept maps, group whiteboarding, and 4-8 problems or questions/day as a part of a block. I guess it could be argued that I am feeding into the tacit hand-it-in-and-get-a-grade idea, but I prefer to think that it is part of the formative process, and I am willing to waive that daily score if a child has special needs–we just contract the grade differently.

    Since I am technically at a professed mastery school, my summative assessment is project-based, complete with student-tweaked rubric, to help measure mastery of concepts. It’s the hope that this assessment be linked into the ICLE Rigor Relevance matrix, and is a Quadrant D lesson. These projects always have a personal reflection component so I can check for understanding.

    I also check for understanding using a traditional test at least once each unit, but I find this best used for lower level understandings, rather than the HOTS encouraged by the projects.

    Examples of my summatives include building musical instrument, catapults, analyzing cartoons for kinematics, and creating comic books to focus on the process of the proton-proton chain. This intentional rethinking of what I am doing has shaped my understanding of student learning as a constructivist process.

    Thanks, Jen. Tweet me at mapowell if you wish to discuss this more.

  9. Wow… even the term “master the content” for me has connotations rote memorization.

    If the purpose of homework is to provide some formative idea of whether children are progressing in some way, wouldn’t it follow that we would then use that information to do something differently for that child when it isn’t happening?

    Is it possible that we simply keep moving on because we need to get to a certain place in the scope and sequence?

    (And if the answer to this last question is, “yes” – why would anyone give homework in the first place?)

    Maybe another question Scott should add to the list is, “Why do we assign homework?”

  10. Paging Alfie Kohn…

  11. This is something I’ve been pondering since I started teaching. As a Teach For America teacher I was trained to track student mastery data. TFA even provides large xcel sheets set up for tracking student mastery by class on end of unit assessments. But TFA never told me how to come up with student grades… so I went with what other teachers in my school are doing, which heavily based on completion. When a student is failing I’m asked by parents and administrators, “what work do they need to get done?” and never “what do they still need to learn/master?”. So I find myself keeping two separate systems, one to track mastery and one to track who turned in what. Seems silly, but I’m not sure how to change things.

  12. You think you are getting a lot of opinions with this post? Try bringing up grading with a staff of 110 high school teachers. I have an activity that I have done with both my staff at my last school as well as the new learning community I joined this past summer.
    I simply hand out a discussion guide and encourage teachers to discuss the statements and questions on the handout.
    There are always mixed reactions from staff. Many become angry as they feel that their ability to grade is in question (the whole point of the activity) and thus their worth as a teacher. Isn’t it remarkable how in education we feel we need to serve as the coach and the official? There are those who become confused. They had never really thought about the differences in how teachers assign a grade. Some almost become remorseful after considering their own grading practices in light of evaluating them by alignment with their beliefs.
    On the sheet there are questions about the impact daily work should have on a student’s grade, there are questions about the equity between students who are taking the class from two different teachers who have drastically different ways in determining a grade. There are always the comments that students won’t do the work if they don’t get “points” for it, but there are also questions asking teachers why WE condition them to be like that. Alphie Kohn would argue that we do this to ourselves. We are frustrated by students at the secondary and post-secondary level who are more interested in their grade than in their learning, but you would have a hard time convincing me that we have not encouraged this from the time they enter schools.
    There are discussion questions on this handout that also challenge the common practice of averaging. I used a great deal of stuff from Ken O’Connors in developing this.
    There are questions that challenge the idea of deducting points for turning in assignments late. My favorite point made here is if you take half off for turning in an assignment late, do you automatically give everyone who turned in a paper 1/2 the points for just turning it in on time? If we are saying that the deduction is because a portion of the assignment is to teach responsibility, regardless of the quality of the work, if 1/2 is deducted for irresponsibility, then 1/2 should be awarded as well.
    I love this activity and have used it to engage teachers in a conversation about the eventual elimination of our traditional grading system and moving towards a standards based report card. Teachers are quick to see, after engaging in discussion, just how ineffective a single grade for a class is in communicating anything to those who look at it. It means a different thing to every teacher who assigns it.
    Today, with the technology we have availble, there is no reason we would not report a student’s level of performance in a number of different areas rather than blending them all together in a variety of ways to come to just one grade. If a teacher has a student come into their at the beginning of the year, even looking at their grades, does the teacher really know anything about the students’ strengths and weaknesses? How then can they differentiate instruction and meet all their learner’s needs?
    I think that getting things done in a timely manner is something we need to teach our students, and monitor they current level of performance in this area, but as the quote states, it can often have a much bigger impact on a student’s grade than a well designed assessment measuring a student’s understanding of a particular concept. This is also true for a student who knows little about a subject at the beginning of a unit but a great deal at the end who will often receive a lesser grade than a student who knew something about the subject at the beginning of the unit and little more at the end. Establishing a mean is not the only statistical way to address a group of performance measurement.
    I think we could spend an entire semester in teacher preparation programs ensuring teachers at least have an understanding of what factors are playing into their grading formulas and exactly how big an impact each type of score is playing. Or let’s get really innovative and eliminate teaching methods to determine a single grade all together and teach other ways to communicate a student’s level of performance to the student, their parents, other teachers, and later to potential employers.

  13. I would love to have a forum for further discussion on this issue. I think those who have responded thus far probably have some great ideas I could benefit from hearing. It is a topic that needs more attention from those in our profession.

  14. Um, Dave, aren’t you going to share with us the materials you mention above? =)

    FYI, it’s okay with me if we use this comment space for a forum on this. Or we can set up something different (synchronous? asynchronous?)…

  15. I would be happy to share the materials. It is more or less a list of thirty questions I put together in a sequence. I was contacted today by a fellow Iowa Principal and sent him the word file. I would be happy to send it to anyone else as well.
    e-mail me at dkeane@fort-dodge.k12.ia.us

    I recently visited with the curriculum coordinator at Mason City Community School District who shared with me the process they used to move to a standards based report card. They are using the PowerSchool student management system. While they have not convinced everyone to eliminate course grades, gpa and class rank, they have put in place a system where a student’s performance on district standards are being reported on in multiple classes and then aggregated in a report card format. Their progressive approach has inspired me. I see them as pioneers. I am sure there are others out there making similar progress. There are some technology changes which could improve this model and if there are enough of us interested in seeing other types of statistical analysis capabilities we could pressure the major vendors of student management systems to include these options in their products. Currently aggregation is limited to a weighted calculation or a mean of the scores entered. If we could use most recent scores or even mode we could get a better picture or where a student is on any particular skill even if it is being assessed in multiple courses.
    I would be very interest to know of any other schools who are currently using a standards based report card at the high school level.

  16. “Why do we assign homework?”

    If it’s busy work that is assigned specifically to be done at home, I don’t know the answer to the question. I would hope teachers have more respect for their students’ out-of-school time than to pile on work just so kids have something to do at home.

    If it’s independent practice that has spilled over from class time to home time, I think teachers should work to use class time more efficiently, but independent practice is a part of learning. The number or amount of the independent practice depends on the student — not the skill/concept. Some students achieve proficiency/mastery quickly and should not be asked to complete a pile-on of homework problems.

    “We talk about mastering content, but do we really mean it?”

    I do. Perhaps it’s just a difference in semantics, though. I understand “mastery” in this context to refer to concepts and skills. I don’t consider “teaching” in itself to be “content” — at least not in the way that I as a teacher think it means to teach. Teaching combines so many different concepts and skills, and more importantly student dynamics which are beyond our control (and ability to “master”), that I would agree, mastery is an ideal. However, when my students are studying surface area of polyhedra, I consider this a concept they can master. When my students are learning parts of speech, mastery is attainable.

  17. Russ, Dave, Scott and others:
    Count me in for continuing this conversation here or elsewhere. I think there are many great ideas being shared, but as others have mentioned, the bigger picture is diffusing these ideas to the staff in our buildings/districts. Perhaps Dave’s document and some suggested reading (O’Connor, Wiggins, Stiggins, Marzano, Wormeli) would be a great start for us all to share with our colleagues to help others get on board.

  18. Our district has started “conversations” about this topic. There is no top-down mandate at this time, only discussions. I’m surprised at the level of passion and heated discussions that arise about this subject. Mostly, I think that we have done a disservice to LEARNING with grades for 50 years or so… and it’s such a part of our system in the US… changing “grades” as we know them will be extremely difficult for parents and community. I hope it happens sooner than later, though.

    As a parent and educator, I really agree with the work of Stiggins and O’Connor- it just seems logical to me that you ‘mark’ what a child knows and is able to do, not if he finished his work. Don’t penalize the ‘practice,’ and know that not every child will achieve mastery at the same time.

    I love O’Connor’s example when he asks groups (I’m paraphrasing here): Do you all have a driver’s license? Did you all pass the test the first time? For those of you who didn’t pass the first time, does your license look different from those who did pass on the first attempt?

    I would be interested in future discussion, too. My four children have afforded me excellent examples of how ‘traditional’ grading has failed.

  19. @ Michelle,
    I totally agree with you. We have to ensure that parents and community members understand the problems with our existing reporting system. I would suggest that our system of grading is much like an addiction. Everyone knows it is “bad/unhealthy”, but they are fearful of life without it.
    I have a feeling that this will be one of those practices that takes a revolution to change. Seth Godin would comment that as significant changes like this is like jumping across a canyon, you don’t make it by a series of small jumps. I am not sure that we are willing to make a move because in doing so, we have to be very critical of a long standing practice. We will undoubtedly hear valid concerns from the public when we propose the elimination of grades in high school. They are used, ineffectively, to determine class rank, GPA, etc. All of which are seen as status and even more seriously dollars in the form of scholarships. Those with the gold make the rules and those with the gold currently are not always adversely affected by our current grading practices. It is much more likely for a student in poverty to be negatively effected by homework than a student of means. For one thing, the student of means has a social network that is striving to maintain its status. I have seen far more copying of homework by affluent students than I do in students I have dealt with in poverty. Many of the students in poverty just don’t do it period. Teachers know this is true yet do little to compensate for it. We feel very strongly about judging a team by their performance on the competition floor regardless of how they practice, but many teahcers today will comment that homework must play a large part in determing a student’s grade due to their unwillingness to do it otherwise and even more disturbing, “some students are not good test takers”. I know few people who would drop their car off at a garage and when they return on Friday be willing to pay the mechanic if it is not fixed. Even if the mechanic “tried really hard” and behaved themselves in the garage.
    Educating students, their parents and even other educators about the problems with our current practice will not be a pleasant task. It means offending people and will require changes in the way post-secondary schools look at admitting students.
    I feel confident, however, that it can be done. A standards report card gives all of us a clearer picture as to what a student knows, and is able to do at the time of reporting. This then allows for students who are not acheiving in a particular area to have those areas of deficiency addressed.
    We have the means of doing this now with the technology available, but still shy from the practice due to the desire to cling to a well established practice.

  20. Oh my gosh. This speaks directly to my feelings about getting the grade versus actually learning something. Just as most of you, I am stuck between parents and administrators and fellow teachers that want to see a plethora of grades in my gradebook, while I know that it takes time to actually check to see if my 120 students actually have learned something (for the long term–heaven forbid). I feel supported with this dialogue and will work harder to stick to my guns. As far as David Keane’s teacher respnses, I find myself remorseful for caving (not all the time–but enough) to the majority (or the loudest). I hope this dialogue is not completely over–would love to hear how the changes have worked–and what hasn’t worked.

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