A veteran teacher’s thoughts on grading

Our ongoing discussion about grading wouldn’t be complete without the thoughtful perspective of retired teacher Steven Weinberg.

Steven WeinbergFor the past 40 years I have spent a good deal of my time thinking about grading. I think about my experiences as a student, my sons’ experiences (and my experiences as their parent), my experience as a teacher, my wife’s experiences in all those roles, and the experiences of other teachers I have known and worked with. It is not a simple issue.

Looking back at my experiences as a student, it was not always the most demanding teachers that taught me the most. I was not a particularly strong student coming out of elementary school. I was one of the youngest in my classes, and my reading and math skills were not high. My first semester in junior high school I earned all C’s, with the exception of a B in Math. My GPA improved steadily through junior high and high school until I reached a 4.0 (no AP boost in those days).

In each subject, my grade improvement followed the same pattern: I would receive a higher grade from a teacher who was an easier grader, and then I would push myself to maintain the grade the next year, even if that teacher was a much harder grader. I don’t think I would have made much progress if all my teachers had been hard graders; at some point I would have lost hope. But if all my teachers had been easy graders, I would not have learned how to push myself to improve.

When I look back at my sons’ educational experiences I see a similar pattern. They needed both the challenge of tough teachers and the nurturing from teachers who were easier. If they had never had a hard teacher, they would not have learned as much; but if they had had all demanding classes, they would not have had the time they needed to meet the work requirements of those harder classes nor for extra-curricular activities that helped them develop as much as their classroom experiences did.

In my own teaching I tried to find a balance between demanding and nurturing. I thought of grades as a tool I could use to help motivate students, and I experimented with different approaches through my 30 years in the classroom. Early in my career I was not very confident about my teaching and grading ability, and I would occasionally let students talk me into giving them higher grades in exchange for minimal make-up work and promises to improve the next marking period. As I matured I became more comfortable setting a standard and holding to it.

I had the advantage of being a middle school teacher, so I knew the grades I assigned had little meaning other than motivation. High school teachers face a more complex problem. Their grades have far greater consequences for their students, and they have an obligation to colleges to uphold some sort of consistency so that students can be judged fairly. I don’t envy them having that responsibility. I also know that many high school students are suffering from sets of classes that are not demanding at all, while others are carrying a load that risks burning them out before they ever get to college. Again, as with my own experiences as a student, I see the value of balance and variation.

I know that this discussion of grading will strike some as unsatisfactory, because I don’t produce any clear guidelines about what is right. I can, however, point out several district initiatives and practices that I think work against effective grading.

At some point before the arrival of state administration, the Oakland school board decided to “increase rigor” by changing a passing average from a D to a C. Their hope was that they could change the behavior of students, and those earning D’s would now apply themselves to earn C’s. It did not happen. Instead, teachers maintained their same standards for what constituted passing and what constituted failing, and just changed the grade they gave for barely passing work from a D- to a C-. Since a C was now a minimally passing grade, some former C students, who deserved more than the lowest passing grade, were pushed into the B category. The Board’s mandate did not bring more rigor, but it did create grade inflation.

Thanks to our computerized grading system, the district now routinely produces printouts of the grade distribution for every teacher at a school. These are reviewed by the Network Executive Officers and principals. I have looked at dozens of these printouts. The same pattern shows up year after year: the highest grade averages are in English Language Development classes (for English Language Learners) and Special Education classes. These classes have their own standards that are tied closely to the ability of the students, and teachers who have chosen to work with these students are often very nurturing. Grades in classes with some external set of standards and tests (like Algebra I in middle school) tend to be the lowest, even though the highest achieving students may be in those courses. Other class averages vary, sometimes due to which students are in the classes, but more often because of the styles and grading philosophies of the teachers.

While these differences might be interesting sources of rich discussion, they are usually not. Instead, a harried administrator glances over the sheet, highlights the teachers with the most D’s and F’s, and makes it clear to them that they need to do something to improve their students’ results. These administrators hope that the teachers will increase their efforts to contact parents, do more after school tutoring, or somehow convince their students to work harder; but it is plain to the teacher involved that giving higher grades will get the administrator to leave them alone, and some merely change their grading systems. I have never seen an administrator or Network Executive Officer who has complained because a teacher’s grades were too high, even though I have seen C’s given to students who rarely even attended classes.

Finally, and counter-intuitively, imposing an external standard on a teacher that is far too difficult for students to master, given their previous academic development, can result in grade inflation. You would expect grades to fall if students were being held to an unreasonable standard, but often the reverse happens. Since the only standard available would leave almost all students failing, teachers substitute other measures, such as turning in class work, to determine grades.

In the end, it isn’t the grade that matters; it is how a skilled teacher uses that grade to help the student grow. As Taylor Mali says in his marvelous performance poem, “What Teachers Make” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxsOVK4syxU):

I make kids work harder than they ever thought they could.
I can make a C+ feel like a Congressional medal of honor
and an A- feel like a slap in the face.
How dare you waste my time with anything less than your very best.

We will best serve our students if we recognize this and keep district mandates to a minimum.

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Let’s Get Real

    A well-rounded look at the complexities of grading. You touch on several issues that need to be discussed and addressed in the spirit of genuine education reform. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Steven.

  • http://www.skylinehs.org/apps/pages/index.jsp?uREC_ID=77763&type=u&rn=6808095 David Orphal

    I think Mr. Wienberg makes an interesting point with his story if the benefits of having a variety of teacher-grading systems. I am not sure I agree with him. I don’t say this as a soft way of saying that I disagree – I really and not sure; not sure and interested.

    I would be interested in seeing a department try this idea. Taking my school, Skyline, as an example: our social studies department could decide that freshmen history will be graded on a tougher standard than sophomore World History. Students transition from the freshmen class to World History might experience the reassurance that Mr. Weinberg mentions and think to themselves, “We can do this! History is easy!” Then junior year could become more rigorous, forcing kids to work harder to maintain their self-asscribed identities of “A” students. Then Senior year, we could back off again to reinforce again the attitude that students are good at history.

    Again, I’m not sure this would work, but I would be interested in seeing some data from an experiment like this.

    My point is, if Mr. Winberg is onto a good idea, let us not leave the implementation of this idea to chance; allowing the patchwork of rigor to continue. Instead, let us make some professional decisions and work hard to find out if this idea is really good for kids.