Sunday, July 28, 2013

What are we grading?

This topic has been in the back of my mind since last September and now it is rearing it's ugly head in my main thought process as I start to think about the upcoming school year.  I am not a fan of grades.  I find it hard to put a grade on music, something that is such a personal thing.  But we live in an age where everything must have a label and a grade so I must accept this as part of what I do.

Let me begin by stating that I don't recall ever really discussing grading as an undergrad music education student.  Maybe we spent some time on it, but we were so focused on making it through that it may have not been a top priority.  I find this a bit amusing because it seems that achieving grades is what is often central to students' experience at school.  Our students always write goals at the beginning of the school year.  Rarely do I read a goal that talks about a student wanting to LEARN about something.  Rather the goal is about their grades (and usually straight A's).  What does this say about our society and culture of learning?  We have put so much emphasis on good grades that we seem to have lost sight of why students are receiving those grades.  And of course achieving good grades usually ties in with testing, and that is a topic I really don't want to dive into!

What do we grade?  No, seriously....what are we grading?  Are we grading what students have learned and the path they took to truly comprehend a topic?  Are we grading their responsibility to turn in an assignment?  Are we grading how well they followed instructions, even though they may have no idea of what the final outcome really was, but they still followed the instructions?  Are we grading improvement?  Are we grading effort? These are all thoughts and questions that have been bothering me the past year and I am not sure what the answer is.

There has been a lot of discussion in my district, specifically at the middle school level, of grading for learning.  We assign students grades, or they EARN their grades, based on what they learned.  For example....Susie Q turns in an assignment a week late.  Traditionally, in many classrooms, she probably would have received no more than half credit.  She turned it in late, so there is no reason that she should receive full credit.  However, the assignment is done correctly, she understands and can demonstrate knowledge of the material.  So F for responsibility and A for knowledge.  I am no math person (seriously....HORRIBLE), but that averages out to a C.  While technically a C is considered "average", it is a death sentence for most students.  At any rate....what was graded in this instance?  What is important here?  Her ability to demonstrate knowledge or the responsibility to turn something in?  Both are important, but how do we assess this and determine how to grade this? 

As a music teacher I really struggle with grading.  We have students with so many varied abilities.  Some of my students are just stellar musicians...they just get it. I have students who have to work hard to get their music down, but they eventually get it.  Then I have the few that just struggle to no end.  An 'A' to the stellar musicians will be a lot different to the 'A' to the students who play their instrument and there is barely a recognizable sound that comes out of it.  Let's look at the last group.  How do I grade a kiddo that cannot produce even something remotely similar to "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his instrument?  When speaking to him, he understands the ideas behind music, and he has a grasp on the fingerings (sorta), but his actually demonstration is just not there.

I firmly believe that as teachers we must be able to back up our grades and be able to provide reason as to why a student received the grade they did.  There are two instances in my personal student career where I received a grade lower than I anticipated and I was unsure as to why I received that grade.  The first time this happened, during my undergraduate days, I emailed the professor.  (The class was part of our educational seminar and I received a B+ in my teaching assisting assignment-which I loved and I actually continued going to beyond my assignment date.)  His response was that my grade reflected the work that I had done for the class.  I was really confused as I turned in assignments, never received any sort of suggestions for improvement or concerns.  I went above and beyond my responsibilities in my teaching assisting assignment (not student teaching) and received glowing reviews from my cooperating teacher.  But somehow this didn't jive with my professor's assessment of my written work.  At any rate, I was really upset and determined that this would not be something that I do to my students.

But here I am, trying to figure out how to grade my students' learning.  This is a topic that really has no end and has many detours.  One of which being grading participation.  What are we grading when we take off points for not having a pencil.  Is that affecting their learning?  Maybe?  They might have to go to their locker to get a pencil, thus missing part of the lesson.  I don't know.  I still really struggle with participation points.  Participation points are the same gray area as responsibility points to me.  I'm not sure exactly what the benefit is.  If a student is acting up, lowering their participation grade might allow them to realize that their misbehavior is not tolerated, and in all honesty, is probably preventing them from learning.  At the very least, it is most likely preventing others from learning.  But perhaps a better way to deal with this, rather than lowering a grade, is to have a talk with the student.  Lowering the grade due to a potential personality conflict could have even a more adverse affect.  The student may start thinking that you don't like him/her and that is why you are lowering their grade.  Talking with the student shows you actually care.  Again, just my thoughts.

What are your grading policies?  If you see that a students is a borderline B+/A- do you give them the benefit of the doubt?  Have your grading policies ever been challenged? 


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