Differentiated Grading: Fair Isn’t Always Equal

Grading. It’s a concept that has recently become a controversial issue within the classroom. Especially with the current focus on moving towards standardized testing, grading seems to be something that needs to be analyzed more closely. We need to move away from the traditional grading and look at what it really is doing for our students.

After being in the Middle Level program, I view grading differently. I was given a different definition of what grading meant, not just slapping a grade on the top of their assignment. This past weekend, I was very fortunate to sit on a session put on by Rick Wormeli, a former middle level teacher and author – basically celebrity material in the middle level world. His session solidified my beliefs towards grading solid and made me think about the concept more deeply.

He began with saying that the main purpose of grading a student’s work is to give us an idea if they understand the material, or if they do not. The grade must be “relevatory” or “reveals a story” of what a child knows and what the child does not know. It should display how well the student understands a concept. For example; if a child is being graded on how well they understand a math concept, they should not be graded on whether or not they brought in a calculator.

This ties into grades having to be strictly towards academics. Unless a standard is to see who can fill out a crossword puzzle/etc, you should not hand out a crossword puzzle or a coloring page and then give that student extra credit because they completed it. This is only giving a student false accreditation. For example; say you’re doing a unit on the Civil War. A student may earn a B because he/she completed all the extra credit of coloring pages or completing word searches, but he/she still does not understand the concepts of the Civil War and has not met any of the standards.

This is because “grades are not compensation, they are communication. Communication that is an accurate report of what happened”. You should not tell a student to do an extra assignment and you will give them an A or bonus points. This again, is false accreditation.

Extra credit is a concept that I do not believe in. Having extra credit says that there is a standard above the highest standard. “Meeting the standard should be a 4.0. If you meet the standard, you cannot go above and beyond because that is a different standard”. Extra credit was designed for students to get a second chance at making their grade better – which is great! However, like previously stated, grades are not compensation. If a student did badly on a test/quiz/assignment, they should be able to re-do that assignment in order to improve their grade.

Some teachers may think that this is is not holding students responsible to doing it right the first time. I’m sorry, but who the heck cares? As long as students understand the concept at the end, what does it matter how many times or how long it takes for that student to get there? “We mark a grade against the outcome, not how they got there”.

This ties into differentiated grading. If you have a bad test taker, why would you have that student show what he/she knows by taking a test? Have that student put on a skit, write a story, interview that student, anything that is able to show that the student knows/understands the material. When handing out tests to those who have test-taking anxiety, if you could read those students’ minds, you would hear, “I can’t take this test. Interview me or so something else because I know information! I just cannot show it in this way”. Once again, “We mark a grade against the outcome, not how they got there”.

Another thing a lot of teachers are doing is averaging a student’s grades with retakes, assignments, etc. to get an overall grade for that unit. If you think this is the way to go about things, picture this. 

All of these students to the right have one thing in common, they all average to be a 70% range. They all have different scores, but you would never know that because of their average rate or 70%. If every student was told they were a C- average student, they would never know what areas they struggled in or did well in. That grade of a 70% is a lie for all students except Student A. For example; Student C performed at an 85% level four times. The reason he/she got a zero on writing is an issue that must be addressed, but should not be averaged into his/her final score. Saying that these students have an average of 70% means nothing.

Another issue regarding grading is that “the grade a student receives shows more of the opinion of the grader”. An idea Rick used was he put an essay up on the screen. It was filled with grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, the topics were all over the place, there were not any transitions – what most would qualify as a bad paper. He said that this student who handed in this paper was an straight-A student. He/she was great at writing and deep down you knew that this student scribbled out this essay 15 minutes before class started. Well, what do you grade it? He asked the audience and many said “An F! This is barely trying. This student can do better!”.

He then changed the student’s story. He said that this student was homeless. This student lived on people’s couches and never knew where he/she would end up that night. This student is always hungry because the only meal he/she gets is the one the school provides. This student barely partakes in class, but actually made an effort this time around. You know deep down that this student worked four days on this essay and it is his/her best work. What do you grade this essay now?

This is why you must have standards. It limits biases of students who are our favorites, students who we feel sorry for, and students who make us pull out our hair. With standards, we know if a student has met them, or needs another chance to reach said standard.

All these practices are what I hope to incorporate in my future classroom. I believe that a standardized test does not tell me what my students know or do not know. Grades are being used more and more to sort kids, when that isn’t the point of education at all. School should be to learn, not to sort kids because the State says we should.