If you were a naughty person, which I'm sure you're not, and you wanted to stir up a room full of educators, start talking about grading practices that are actually research based. (Note: If you really are interested in the research citations, shoot me an email and I can share some with you.) If you need a starting point, try Ken O'Connor's "A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes for Broken Grades".
Simply put, grades should reflect what students know and are able to do. Unfortunately, a lot of common grading practices inflate or deflate grades. In doing so, grades are no longer an accurate summary of student learning. At best, they are an accurate measure of student compliance.
Here are four big, common issues that "break" grades:
- Late work should not penalized.
- Academic dishonesty should not met with a zero.
- Grades for a given concept or standard should not be averaged together.
- Homework (if you give it) or practice should not be included in the grade.
The first two are related, usually the most hotly contested and can be summarized as: Don't include behavior in a grade. I agree with you that late work and academic dishonesty are both serious problems and that they should both have consequences. However, that consequence should not include the assignment's grade. Turning in work late or cheating is a behavioral problem. So, give a behavioral consequence that actually addresses the root of the behavior. Giving a student half-credit or a zero doesn't address the behavior. Worse yet, that grade of half-credit or zero credit does not accurately reflect their understanding. Every grade that goes into your grade book should reflect the student's mastery of content.
Now, there are probably some readers who are reading this who are saying, "But I have to prepare them for the real world!" First, I refer you to Alice Keeler's post related to this line of reasoning. Despite our jaded cynicism, the world is not nearly as harsh as we make it out to be to our students. There are plenty of second and even third chances in the "real world". If you show up late to an appointment for your driver's license test, you'll probably not be allowed to take it. But you will be allowed to make a new appointment. Having to wait? That's your behavioral consequence.
The last two issues are also related. We want to encourage students to persist in learning until they demonstrate mastery. It takes practice to master concepts. Let's say you scored a 40% on a practice assignment for a concept. By the final assessment for the concept you earn a 90%. A traditional grade book would average those scores together and give you a 65%, which is a D. How fair does that sound? You demonstrated that you mastered 90% of the content, and yet your average grade is a D? I'd argue that you deserve the grade that reflects your most recent understanding, which in this case is probably near the 90% score. By the same token, homework or practice should not be included because it's practice. Only summative scores should be included in your final grade.
Again with the "real world" parallels. They don't average your practice test scores with your final test score for your driver's license test. Likewise, if you fail the first time, they don't average together your failure with your successive scores. Imagine how many times you'd have to retake it to balance out that failing score! Though, that would surely keep the number of drivers down on our busy roads. Sadly, the averaging of grades is the default setting in grade books. And the travesty of the matter is that averaging grades penalizes the students who start the lowerst and demonstrate the most growth. How sad is that and what does that say to our students who worked hard to grow?
I could go on and on with retakes, extra credit, giving points for merely completing work, but I think I'll stop here for now. Instead, I'll leave you with this. You might think that a grading system based on these ideas would never work with real students. I did it for a whole year with middle school students and it worked beautifully. It changed the dynamic of my conversations with students. Class was an opportunity to demonstrate mastery, not a chance to just rack up points. Instead of teaching students that compliance is the expectation, I taught them that what mattered was their understanding. Isn't that the point of grades after all?
PS. My favorite behavioral consequence was having students come to school on Saturday to work. I was already there for Science Olympiad and parents were all too happy to drop their children off at school to get their work done. It worked like a charm!