Passing Muster: Schools Shake Up Grading Practices

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The way teachers assign grades in Albemarle County secondary schools has been overhauled this year in an effort to bring equity and consistency to grading practices division-wide.

The way teachers assign grades in Albemarle County secondary schools has been overhauled this year in an effort to bring equity and consistency to grading practices division-wide. After last year’s mostly online instruction, during which assessments were disrupted and deadlines became elastic, division officials decided that now was the time for a new approach to grading. However, the changes represent a significant shift from historic conventions, and many parents and students have raised concerns about their efficacy and impact.

“What we’re doing is cleaning up our grading practices, really tightening up what a grade means,” said Jennifer Sublette, Western Albemarle High School’s [WAHS] principal, who worked at the division level on the grading initiative over the last several years. “When we surveyed teachers about how they determined grades, we found a lot of practices that really muddied a grade in terms of bonus points and extra credit and penalties—a lot of inconsistency between teachers. So, students and their parents were having to navigate eight different grading systems each year.”

Jennifer Sublette, principal of Western Albemarle High School. Photo: Malcolm Andrews.

At the heart of the clean-up is the idea that a course grade should reflect the student’s achieved level of subject-matter proficiency and should exclude all extraneous measures. The Albemarle County Public Schools (ACPS) grading policy states broadly that grading practices will be “accurate, consistent, and supportive of student learning,” but the specifics of the current changes have been largely drawn from the work of Canadian educational consultant Ken O’Connor.

O’Connor’s 2011 book, A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, has been used as the basis for ACPS professional development seminars that about 250 middle and high school teachers have received over the last few years. The “fixes” are aimed at shielding the effects of students’ behavior, as well as their performance on “practice” (homework, quizzes, etc.), from affecting their course grades. O’Connor proposes that teachers not consider factors such as attendance, late work, or extra credit in grade determination, instead focusing solely on achievement on quality assessments (such as tests) as evidence of mastery.

For example, giving students points for completing homework could punish them for effort that is intended to help their learning, said Sublette. “Students are given practice, and that practice helps them to prepare, so that they’re not penalized while they’re learning,” she said. “Homework was a benefit to some because the points were a cushion, but it could really hurt kids because they may have been confused, or didn’t know how to do it, or they didn’t do it … and it’s not evidence of a student having achieved mastery and understanding.”

The unintended consequence of not counting homework, according to parents and teachers, is that many students simply stop doing it, removing the steps of practice and feedback from the learning process entirely. Sublette said that students will eventually make the connection that they must do the practice work to be able to do well on the test. “I don’t just show up in March and run the ten-miler without practice,” she said, “but I didn’t get a medal for going out every Saturday morning and running. I knew I had to do that.”

The new grading initiatives also encourage teachers to relegate any assessment of student behavior—class participation and attendance, turning in work late, academic dishonesty—to a separate category in their grade book. Those behaviors are noted, but now do not affect a student’s grade. “When we use a grade as either a bonus or a penalty, it becomes separated from actually communicating academic progress,” said Sublette, pointing out that parents can monitor student behavior as well if they wish. “Parents can see everything that’s assigned [via online access] and whether it was collected or missing, so they are informed about how much kids are doing.”

Questions and Answers

ACPS held an online community forum on November 9 to inform parents and teachers about the rationale for the grading changes and to allow them to ask questions of O’Connor. During the meeting, more than 50 participants posted more than 175 questions to the Q&A board about all aspects of the policy. Questions ranged from whether any research or evidence exists on the policy’s effectiveness in other school districts, to how well teachers are “buying in” to the policy, to how placing all of the points in a course on a few graded assessments will serve to reduce students’ test anxiety.

“It’s frustrating for the kids, I think, because it puts more pressure on them,” said Heather Marcel, parent of two county high school students. “For the first half of the year in science, for instance, they had only four [graded] tests, and that’s all their grade was based on. Can you imagine that kind of pressure for kids? I don’t understand how that’s supposed to be better.”

Many of the forum’s participants wondered how removing penalties for missed deadlines and allowing test retakes will prepare students for their transition to college, work, or military service after high school, and how colleges and employers will be able to interpret ACPS grades versus those of other districts. “All of my son’s grades before this were based on a whole different grading system,” said Marcel. “So now, how is that going to work? How will this be explained to colleges [who are looking at these transcripts]?” 

Lynn Define, English teacher at WAHS and the county’s Virtual School. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The school division chose to disable the virtual meeting function that would have allowed participants to see each other’s questions and comments, and many questions were not addressed directly during the presentation, according to participants. A recording of the meeting was not posted online, so the content was unavailable for later review by the public. After the meeting, the division posted a short FAQ on its website with 10 questions or statements and brief responses, leaving many parents frustrated. 

“I would say that the objective [of the new policy] is still unclear,” said Marcel. “It’s unclear how not counting homework will help more students do their homework.” As the division has imposed required provisions this year for not grading practice work, not grading student behavior, and not giving zeros, some teachers are as skeptical as the parents. 

“It’s one of those things we encounter in education where on paper it sounds great, but I think in practice it’s not realistic,” said WAHS photography teacher Cass Girvin, who has also taught English at the high school. “You want to be able to grade a kid on exactly what they know, unrelated to when or how they learn it or how long it takes, but that just isn’t the reality of the system we have in place. Certainly the ‘fixes’ that are being thrown at us right now really don’t work in a classroom of multiple students with one teacher.”

Zeros and Retakes

One of the most striking changes this year has been the truncation of the traditional 100-point grading scale so that its lower boundary is now 50. This means a score of zero can no longer be assigned for late, incomplete, or missing work, and that, counterintuitively, a student will receive 50 points on an assessment for which they have turned in nothing. O’Connor’s view is that a zero is mathematically extreme in its effect on a student’s grade average and detrimental to student motivation, and that it gives a numerical value (0) to something that has never been assessed, so it’s meaningless.

“You can read about [the idea of no zeros], you can be told about it, but then you have to experience it,” said WAHS English teacher Lynn Define. “What helped for me was talking with one of the consultants who said that the 50 just means ‘no evidence.’ To me, that made sense because it simply means that, as a professional teacher, I cannot evaluate the student on that knowledge because I don’t have enough evidence yet to assign a grade. And that’s what I can communicate to parents as well.” Some teachers have opted to use an ‘I’ or ‘IG’ (Incomplete Grade) in a similar way.

“Zeros really make it impossible for a kid to stumble and then catch back up,” said Sublette, “so we’re moving the floor because we felt that giving a zero was a nuclear option.” The 50- to 100-point scale is intended by the division as a step toward an eventual 5-point grading scale—a simple range in which, for example, a 4 or 5 indicates at- or near-proficiency and 1-3 means a student is not there yet. Under the 50-point floor system this year, parents, teachers, and students see disincentives. 

“The automatic 50% rule is unjust to all students,” said one WAHS junior frustrated by the change. “It teaches students that they don’t have to try and they will still get 50% … [which] is absolutely not true in the real world. Also, it prevents the students who have been getting good grades from distinguishing themselves among the rest. Someone who works very hard and gets a 56% on a test is not distinguished from someone who did not even try but got bumped all the way up to 50%. Please reconsider this policy for what it takes away from students and for the misconceptions it teaches.”

Girvin said he and his colleagues have observed that the policy has led to students gaming the system. “The idea of giving someone 50% for doing 0% of the work just does not compute for most people,” he said. “There are students who don’t turn in anything all semester and then turn in four assignments during the last week, so their grade is then a 60% for the semester and they’ve passed the class having only done a quarter of the work. I know the county doesn’t necessarily approve of that.”

Another policy adopted by many teachers this year allows students to retake assessments, in some cases multiple times, which parents say also inspires unproductive behavior. “If a student is stressed or busy, then they just don’t study for the first test but will take it anyway because they know they can retake it,” said Marcel. “[The retake] might not be exactly the same but it’s similar, and they can see what’s going to be on it, what are the questions they need to study.”

While this behavior may be a form of what O’Connor calls practice, it requires extra work for teachers, who must prepare additional assessments and provide a (sometimes indefinite) window for students to take them, impeding the class’s ability to move forward at a steady pace with course material. Test-taking procedures have varied widely among teachers this year, leading to a lack of consistency, one of the core tenets of the grading policy.

“That’s part of our growing pains,” said Sublette. “That’s part of the fact that we’re implementing something in the first five months, and it’s probably not perfect yet. But it definitely is a learning process, and we’re very aware that it has to be a really carefully done process because grades are really important, especially in our community. I think we’ve learned a lot in the first couple of months about doing quick assessments, providing feedback, and really helping be clear with kids about preparing for small and large assessments.”

Feedback Loop

For a strategy like O’Connor’s grading practices to work, the burden rests squarely on teachers to provide students with individualized feedback on each piece of ungraded practice work. That feedback may take the form of written comments, a teacher conference, or a numerical score that isn’t factored into the student’s grade, but the feedback drives the whole process by providing a path for students toward mastery of the material. If practice work “doesn’t count,” the success of the new system hinges on convincing students that those efforts still matter.

Define, who is teaching in the county’s Virtual School this year, said it’s a process that takes time and trust. “I’m always giving feedback—like a 1 to 4 assessment of the first few paragraphs of their essay, for instance—so they know where they are,” she said. “That’s valuable feedback, but it doesn’t count, so they’re willing to take the risk in doing the work. I’ve taken the grading out and instead we brain-storm, we peer edit, and there’s always this feedback going on. They see there’s room for improvement and they work on it, so by the time they get to that assessment, it’s a breeze.”

While Language Arts and Fine Arts classes seem tailor-made for this gradual building approach, what happens in classes like AP U.S. History or Advanced Calculus, where class material arrives in a constant deluge and assessments are frequent and often standardized? Time will have to tell, as several middle and high school teachers declined to speak on the record to the Gazette about the impact of the new grading policies on their classes.

With respect to ungraded student “behaviors,” many teachers believe that skills such as accountability are just as important for young people to learn as course material. “I view teachers as trying to work with the student as a holistic entity, not just a writer or reader,” said Girvin. “Punctuality and consistency are also important in life. The county has a credo about being a lifelong learner and model citizen, and I think that stuff matters. You need to be able to write well and read well and turn things in on time, so, yes, I feel that is part of my course content.”

Senior division officials such as Director of Secondary Education Jay Thomas have stressed that changing grading policies is an equity goal that will ultimately reduce achievement gaps among student groups. Officials plan to move ahead with more grading practice changes next year, as Superintendent Matt Haas has had a goal of fixing what he calls a “broken” grading system since he took the position in 2018. “Testing and grading is at the center of so much of what we do in schools,” he said in the fall of 2018 in an address to the School Board. “If we do not get grading and assessment right, all the other good work our teachers are doing to improve student learning will fail.” 

Down on the ground, teachers will continue testing out the practices to see what works best for their students. “We’re trying to move them away from playing that points game,” said Define, but she admits it’s a difficult transition. “The librarians used to bring in great speakers—writers and poets—to talk with the students during lunchtime, and they would ask if we could offer extra credit to convince students to give up their lunch period to attend. Of course, we want students to come and be exposed to these great people, but now I say, well, you’ll have to persuade them a different way.” 


Ken O’Connor’s 15 Fixes for Broken Grades

Fix 1: Don’t include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc.) in grades; include only achievement

Fix 2: Don’t reduce marks on “work” submitted late; provide support for the learner

Fix 3: Don’t give points for extra credit or use bonus points; seek only evidence that more work has resulted in a higher level of achievement 

Fix 4: Don’t punish academic dishonesty with reduced grades; apply other consequences and reassess to determine actual level of achievement 

Fix 5: Don’t consider attendance in grade determination; report absences separately 

Fix 6: Don’t include group scores in grades; use only individual achievement evidence 

Fix 7: Don’t organize information in grading records by assessment methods or simply summarize into a single grade; organize and report evidence by standards/learning goals 

Fix 8: Don’t assign grades using inappropriate or unclear performance standards; provide clear descriptions of achievement expectations 

Fix 9: Don’t assign grades based on student’s achievement compared to other students; compare each student’s performance to preset standards 

Fix 10: Don’t rely on evidence gathered using assessments that fail to meet standards of quality; rely only on quality assessments 

Fix 11: Don’t rely only on the mean; consider other measures of central tendency and use professional judgment 

Fix 12: Don’t include zeros in grade determination when evidence is missing or as punishment; use alternatives, such as reassessing to determine real achievement or use “I” for Incomplete or Insufficient Evidence 

Fix 13: Don’t use information from formative assessments and practice to determine grades; use only summative evidence. 

Fix 14: Don’t summarize evidence accumulated over time when learning is developmental and will grow with time and repeated opportunities; in those instances, emphasize more recent achievement 

Fix 15: Don’t leave students out of the grading process. Involve students; they can and should play key roles in assessment and grading and promote achievement 

Source: A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades by Ken O’Connor

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