My students just completed their first math assessment of the year on Wednesday. As I evaluated them that night, I thought back to how much I've evolved in this whole business of grading.
When I was a newer teacher, I gave a lot more unit tests, and I didn't give a whole lot of thought to what I was doing when I graded them. It was a simple process of establishing how many potential points each question was worth, and then calculating the number of points a particular student received. It was really easy, especially with multiple choice and fill-in-the blank questions. I do remember struggling with assigning a point value to the more constructed-response questions...should I make them 3 points? 5 points? What if a student gives a correct answer but doesn't explain it? What if the student has a less pertinent response but words it well? Should spelling count? I began to realize how arbitrary this was...I could shift a students' grade by making some things worth more than others.
This was no more apparent to me than in math instruction. My district uses Everyday Math for mathematics instruction...in the upper grades, each unit ends with a unit assessment. For the longest time, I would score these assessments like any other test. I would assign a certain point value to each question and the students would receive a percentage grade based on how many correct responses they gave. As I thought more about it, I began to struggle with several things. First, EDM written are broken into a summative piece and a formative piece. It didn't seem fair to me to lump their performance on things that they should already know together with things they had just learned. So, I started giving two percentage grades; one for the summative piece that I told students and parents to pay more attention to, and one for the formative piece, which I told students not to stress so much about. Second, as with any constructivist math program worth its salt, EDM's assessment components often called upon students to explain their mathematical thinking in more extended responses. How many points should I assign to those? How do I score partial responses?
The issue of how many points to assign also led to another issue. I noticed that students (and parents) would fixate solely on that percentage grade I wrote at the top of the paper. "I got a hundred!" was the cry of many a student, as though they won the lottery. I began to notice that no one was really talking about what learning was going on...only that the grade denoted that some learning was happening. If their grade was high, they had "learned!" To take the focus off the grade, I started just writing scores as a fraction...instead of a 90%, for example, I would write 18/20 or something like that. This really didn't do anything, as students could pretty easily figure out what their percentage grade would be. This also didn't change the fact that in the end, a different distribution of points could significantly change a students' score.
Finally, towards the middle of last year, I decided to make a change. Everyday Math provides a "progress checklist" with each unit that has a list of the skills that are addressed and assessed in that unit. Instead of giving an overall grade, you could mark if a student had made "adequate progress" in each area or not and add your comments. I had always known that they were there, but I always had dismissed them as "too much work." I knew that my current system of grading wasn't working for me, so I decided to give them another try.
While it isn't perfect, I think it's a vast improvement. EDM gives the teacher the option to mark "A" for "making adequate progress" and "N" for "not making adequate progress." I've also added a "P" for "partial progress," which is helpful when a skill has mulitple components to it (for example, a student can recognize divisibility for 2, 3, 5, and 10 but still makes some mistakes with divisibility by 6 and 9). With the help of Conditional Formatting in Google Sheets, I can get a quick snapshot of my class's performance on particular skills, which gives me insight into which things I should reteach or reinforce, and I can also both see and communicate more easily the areas of strength and weakness for my students. I took another step this year. In the past, I would maybe go over the assessment (if there was time) and just hand them back to the students. But this year, taking a page from the incomparable Paul Solarz's playbook, I now sit with each student and give them individualized feedback on their assessments and discuss with them the areas of strength I see and the places we are going to focus on as we continue. The students really appreciate the individualized attention and they are also starting to become more reflective of their work in the process.
I want to continue giving feedback to my students in this way. I admit that it's a bit of a learning process for me as much as for my students but I know that if the ultimate goal is for my students to be reflective of their learning and be willing to work on improving the skills that need strengthening, then this is a great way to do it. How do you give feedback in your classrooms?
5th grade teacher in Princeton, NJ. Passionate about education, technology, and the New York Giants!