Friday, April 15, 2011

We Don't Need no Stinking Numbers!

When we look at traditional grading, numbers are very important.  From the early 1900s, grading has focused on attaching a number to learning.  At first, teachers attached a percentage number to a given assessment.  This seemed logical.  I think that we have a sense of security in numbers.  I think it is a false sense of security though.  Actually, in 1912 and 1913 (yep, almost 100 years ago), a couple of papers were published that challenged the idea of using a percent scale for grades.  The biggest complaint was that percentages were not consistent.  If multiple teachers were to grade a given assessment and give it a percentage grade, the percentages varied widely from teacher to teacher.  This range was found to be that a given paper may receive a grade as low as 28% or as high as 95% when graded by multiple teachers.  Remember, this is the same paper!

We have stuck with numbers ever since, and I think it is an artifact that keeps grading from moving forward.  The 100 point percentage scale doesn't work.  Because it doesn't work, some schools have moved to a 3 or 4 or 5 point scale.  Some do a 10  point scale, but also use decimals.  That still doesn't work.  (Hint, that is still 100 points).  I have seen others were the teacher uses a 100 point scale to grade specific assessments, then they have to convert that to a 4 point scale for report cards. 

In my opinion, to change grading, we can’t evolve.  Evolution is decent with modification, or keeping the old with minor changes.  We need to have a creationist philosophy here…a RE-creation.  We have to get rid of the old way of thinking and have a paradigm shift.

I suppose many people will still need grades.   We will feel a need to track students progress (I do anyway), and it is overwhelming to track each student individually.  We need a way to make it systematic, and grades are likely to be that way.  When we recreate this grading idea, I think we first need to think of precision.  When we grade work, assessments, or whatever, we are basically putting that work into a category.  How many different categories can you have?  When I think of students, standards, and assessments, I am able to easily differentiate 4 main categories.  First, you have the binary.  Students either “get it” or they don’t.  They either are showing proficient understanding, or they are not.  I think this scale is too basic.  I think we can identify categories beyond this.

Many grading scales have multiple levels describing understanding that falls below proficiency.  These are terms such as basic, below basic, well below basic.  I don’t know how much that helps.  For me, I use one.  Basically, the student's understanding is not there yet.  We have work to do, let’s not try to report too much on the deficiencies.  On the other side, I have a couple of categories.  I think there are students who are “advanced.”  They are more than just proficient.  I do think there are multiple levels of advanced as well.  Let me explain.

What I do is relatively simple.  I have a 4 level scale.  The bottom is not-proficient.  I don’t think these students have shown adequate understanding.  The next level is proficient.  These students can basically show they have learned the targets of class.  They are able to repeat knowledge, complete procedures, and do whatever we are doing in a very simple way.  I think they will probably forget much of it, but they are able to function in class.  Then I have 2 levels of “advanced.”  The highest level are students who are able to show understanding in a complex way.  This may mean that they are able to take what we have learned and apply it in a novel setting.  They may be able to use the knowledge and create something from it.  They may be able to apply it to another situation.  There is obvious complexity in their understanding.  I then reserve a level in-between proficient and advanced.  These are inconsistent or “emerging” students.  They may be able to know that there are applications in complex settings, but they can’t apply them correctly yet.  They may need a lot of assistance from me to apply them.  They are more complex than the proficient level, but they are not as complex as the advanced level.

Now, I am going to be slightly hypocritical.  I did say we shouldn't evolve in grading…but I am.  I do organize these levels above with traditional letter grades.  Proficient is equal to a “C,” the somewhat-advanced is equal to a “B,” and the advanced is equal to an “A.”  I don’t do plus or minus grades though. 

To make this work, you have to give students chances to show advanced understanding.  I can’t simply give an assessment were students are repeating what we did in class and document deficiencies from there.  I have to have assessments where students are applying knowledge and skills in complex settings.  This is done through tiered assessments.  Students are given assessments, usually very similar to each other, with questions that range from simple to complex.  Students who are only able to complete simple questions are graded as a “C.”  Students who can do complex questions as well are graded as an “A.”  The “Bs” are for in-between.

Assessments and grades are always subjective.  It is important to just admit that.  To help with this problem, I allow for students to redo any assessments they want.  If they think they can show me more complex understanding, I let them.   Sometimes they realize that they need to learn more before they can do the more complex tasks.  So, I let them learn more, and then redo the assessment.

When I am grading things, I remove the numbers.  I take a step back, look at the learning target at hand, and rate the students understanding with reference to the A,B,C categories.  Then, that grade is entered into the gradebook into under the appropriate learning target.  From there, we learn more and try again!


  1. What especially resonates with me about this post is that, on a 100% scale, the entire bottom half is redundant. We don't need 60% of the scale reserved for different degrees of failure.

    I wrote about this at from an evolutionary (not revolutionary ;)) mindset - just dropping the 0-50 range can go along way towards improving your grades, but you don't have to "change the scale," so it's easier to explain to students, teachers, and parents mid-semester.

  2. Riley,

    Thanks for the comment! Your post is one of the most convincing and practical ones out there on getting rid or the 100 point scale. I really like the color coded graphic. One simple change, or adaptation, can be a big first step towards more fair grading practices.