Today I spent about 5 hours designing my grading system for the school year. Well, it was a rainy day anyway.... That's on top of various times in the past few weeks when the kids were in camp and I plunked myself in a Starbucks with a laptop and notebook for general pedagogical research (and sometimes a little Facebook). Behold all the sheets of paper I have scrawled on the past several days:
You might wonder why I would spend so much time and effort on the grading system, instead of true lesson planning. This will be my 15th year of teaching, and in at least half the previous years I found myself re-designing my grading system halfway through the school year, or I had to choose to NOT do a really cool project or assessment because it just wouldn't fit my term-grade categories. Has that ever happened to anyone else??
Also, there are several special considerations/complications in my teaching situation, some of which might be true for you:
- I tend to have an extremely heterogeneous group of students. I get at least a handful of high-flying 'genius' children, and about 20-30 students with IEPs for learning disabilities, plus everybody in between. Therefore I need to ensure some flexibility in my grading practices, so I can differentiate by stretching some items farther for some students, and modifying the criteria or content for other students.
- Selfishly, I do not want to be a Grading Machine. I have lived that life before: constantly receiving and scoring all kinds of assignments and quizzes so I can "respond to students' needs through formative assessment results." That's a nice idea, but if you're not careful then you get stuck on a treadmill/hamster-wheel of neverending collecting and grading. When you have to set your alarm clock for 5:15 AM so you can finish scoring one class's set of quizzes.... something is seriously wrong. So I must establish a system which spreads out the teacher-centered assessments.
- At the same time, I believe I must have an answer to the interminable question, "Does this count?" It's in the top 10 of Annoying Student Questions (another example: "Did we do anything when I was absent yesterday?"), but it is fairly reasonable. I'm just one of many teachers they have, and an important skill for everybody is prioritization. There are many great learning activities that I want students to do, which I don't necessarily want to grade (see #2 above); however, what carrots or sticks will motivate them to take it seriously? A successful grading system leaves space for those ungraded activities to 'count' in some way. I think I solved that problem today....
- I'm not the only teacher of my subject in the 8th grade, and I don't want my system to be too different from my counterpart: we should have some consistency between colleagues. If we have wildly different systems, then that may limit our ability to share resources and to merge our groups sometimes. For instance, if my grading system has no space for quizzes, then we can't help each other to develop that kind of assessment. We don't need to be identical, but still I don't want to completely go rogue.
- In social studies we strive for balance between emphasizing factual knowledge vs. applicable skills. It's tempting to focus on teaching important facts, with a grading system of quizzes and tests (and maybe projects) to check their understanding of those facts. That would be much simpler, but I don't think I would be an effective teacher. No independent research? No attention to discussion skills, or how historians evaluate primary sources, or finding connections between the past and present? In some way, other subjects must have this problem too. A solid grading system needs to find some balance between acknowledging the facts that students acquired and the skills they absorbed and practiced.
Okay, here is where I must stop this entry and write (part one) in the title.
In part two I will describe the grading system that I ended up developing. It's not really revolutionary, but I think that's a good thing. Maybe. We'll see. You can judge....