What We Can Learn About Both Student Engagement and Grading Systems from Current Failure Rates
EducationWeek recently printed a terrific summary by Stephen Sawchuk about the number of students receiving failing grades this year. He asks, “Should schools be giving so many failing grades this year?” The answer is most likely no. The article reveals many current issues with school grading but also exposes several of the long-standing problems with grades and grading practices.
One thing we can infer from the increase in failing grades is that many more students are disengaged from school. Most school districts already have a good sense of this problem based on enrollment and attendance data; the reports of failing grades provide additional documentation. I am not arguing for students to receive passing grades when they have not demonstrated the required learning. However, issuing failing first term grades to students for circumstances beyond their control (e.g., internet access) is not appropriate, especially considering that these grades may academically doom the student for the rest of the year or beyond. That said, students’ failing grades, whether due to disengagement or learning struggles, should be a catalyst for intervening with students as quickly as possible.
Exposing Fundamental Problems With School Grading
The massive increase in failure rates highlights many of the underlying problems with school grading practices. These have been well-documented by authors such as Tom Guskey, Robert Marzano, and others. I focus on two of these problems here: the use of indefensible grading scales and the obstacles caused by digital grading programs.
What’s The Scale?
A deep-seated misunderstanding of score scales compounds the current failing grades problem. While there are certainly exceptions, most grading systems, especially at the high school level, rely on a putative 100-point scale. Whether schools use a 93%=A or 90%=A grading scale, all grades between A and D are routinely squeezed between 60 or 65 and 100; in other words, they are only using 30 or 40 of the alleged 100 points to account for all of the passing grades. It makes no quantitative sense that all of the grades have a 7- or 10- point interval, except F, which has a 60- or 70- point range. A little thought experiment should help. What is the average of the grades of A and F? A “C” of course. Unfortunately, far too many teachers and schools justify giving students a 0 for a missed assignment or test. What is the average of the scores 100 and 0? Again, easy answer, 50, but a 50 is still an F. In other words, giving students a score of 0 on what is really a 40-point scale puts them in a deep hole. With these sorts of practices, it’s no wonder that we are witnessing an increase in failing grades this year.
The “Grading Industrial Complex”
In case the problems with grading scales were not bad enough, the now ubiquitous online grading and learning management systems (LMS) have tied the hands of teachers who might otherwise recognize the problems with zeroes and other grading practices. Colorado English teacher, James MacIndoe, as reported by Sawchuk, captured it perfectly, “… We are falling victim to the ‘grading industrial complex’ of online gradebook programs.” These systems are programmed to convert rubric scores to percentages such that a score of 3 on a 4-point rubric (a good score) becomes 75% or a C. These programs also force teachers to give numerical scores for essentially every assignment, which limits any potential formative use and exacerbates the zero problem. Finally, it is inexcusable that most of these digital grading systems make it impossible, or at least exceptionally difficult, to give students “incomplete” designations for missing work.
Some Sensible Fixes To Flawed Grading Practices
My colleague, Carla Evans, wrote a series of CenterLine posts about competency-based grading, noting that both standards-based and competency-based grading systems grew out of a frustration with the sloppiness of typical grading approaches. Both of these systems tend to employ a four- or five-point scale (e.g., 1-4, 0-4), which, in quantitative terms, is not that different from a traditional A-F or GPA-type approach. This four- or five-point scale avoids the zero problem by making the interval between each score value relatively the same.
For those who worry such approaches are not fine-grained enough to distinguish meaningful differences in student performance, one can simply include +/- grades (e.g., B+). No classroom-based assessments are precise enough to warrant any finer-grained reporting (e.g., 92 vs. 93). If educators and parents want to cling to a pseudo-100-point scale, they should still give no grades lower than 50 or 60, depending on the particular scale. I can already hear the concerns, “but how can I give students 50 points for not turning in work?” You’re not! Think of a number line. The scale really runs from 50 to 100. If zeros are important to you, simply shift the scale to 0-50, but one cannot stretch the scale to 0-100 without altering the meaning of the scores.
Learning management systems must be designed so it is easier for teachers to customize the system so the LMS supports the intended scoring and grading approach, rather than allowing the LMS to dictate how scores are converted to grades. The first step is to allow teachers to designate assignments as missing or in progress without automatically converting them to zeroes when computing some sort of total or average grade.
Further, the push within these systems to score essentially everything appears to be based on a notion that it is better to report everything to parents. That’s an admirable intention from a transparency perspective, but I question (as a parent and measurement specialist) the value of excessive reporting. The LMS would do better by making it easier to upload and share student work—even work in progress—so parents can gain a better understanding of what their students are actually doing.
Current Grading Systems Are Failing Students
Nevertheless, there is little doubt that many more students are disengaged or performing poorly in this pandemic school year, which is being reflected, in part, in an increase in failing grades. We must act on this information as soon as possible to support these students. However, we must not stop there.
Lorrie Shepard has written extensively about the pernicious effects of typical grading practices on students’ intrinsic motivation. Unfortunately, the focus on extrinsic motivation inherent in most grading systems establishes an implied agreement between teachers and students where grades are exchanged for compliant behavior. The pandemic has left many students struggling with basic economic and educational needs. As a result, students are not complying with turning in assignments and/or completing other course requirements. Giving zeroes never helped students’ intrinsic motivation to learn and this unsound practice is just making things worse this year.
Shepard emphasized in an earlier article that “grading requirements are an obstacle for every teacher hoping to develop a learning-focused classroom culture.” In the vein of not letting a crisis go to waste, we need to take this opportunity to examine and reform these intersecting and foundational problems with most grading practices and policies so that we may establish more learning-focused school and classroom cultures.
Thanks to Lorrie Shepard and Carla Evans for very helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this post.