Fingerprints in red ink

I was confronted with this comment recently: teachers don’t give grades, students earn the grades. It is a pretty logical statement and I am sure that every individual teacher believes that. However, when we look at the entire field -in the same discipline, in the same school, even in the same course-the individual teacher inconsistency causes different outcomes based on slightly different grading practices.

Some of you may think this is a lie, but it is not. There are a number of small decisions that each teacher makes in their grade set up that can have a significant impact on the student’s overall grade. These decisions include; weighted grades or total points, 20 point assignments or 50 point assignments, 20 point tests or 100 point tests, including a major project worth substantial points or adding “participation” points, and grading everything or only important things.

Here is a simple process to determine how much grades can vary based on teacher grade-book differences. It all starts with two main archetypes. The first archetype is the super responsible student who doesn’t always perform well on tests (we will call this type A). The other archetype is the brilliant student that is often lazy or irresponsible with assignments (we will call this type B).

For the type A student-every assignment and project will get the highest scores (100%) for being correctly completed and on time. For tests, an average of a 70% will be entered. These are the assumptions we are making for this archetypical student.

For the type B student-every assignment will get a 50% for being late, totally missing, or incomplete. For tests, an average of 90% will be entered. These are the assumptions we are making for this other type of student.

Now, go to your gradebook and enter in these archetypical percentages for every assignment and test. Be consistent. Any projects or participation points should get the assignment score-not the test score. You will get an overall average for the type A student and a different overall average for the type B student. At this point, the numbers should not shock you-this is how those typical performers score in a single class. This is not exciting or controversial. In many ways, this should follow the trend you have been seen in your gradebook. It is consistent within your class.

However, it gets more crazy when you ask a colleague to do the same process with their gradebook! The archetypical student should get a final grade that’s very similar even in two different classes with two different teachers, right? Whether you are type A or type B-you should fare about the same no matter which teacher you get.

Try it, I dare you. I have found that in the best situations there is a 3 to 5% difference for the same type of performance in two different classes. In the worst-case example, I have seen differences of over 20% for the same student performance in the same course just with different teachers. The fingerprint of the teacher makes a big difference on the gradebook when there is literally no difference in the students performance.

Do teachers give the grade? No, the student earns the grade. Do teacher grading practices exaggerate/distort student performance? Yes when comparing different teachers, courses – even when comparing the same “types” of students.

Try it in your school. Remember no single grading system is right or wrong – the system represents the rules of the point game. The goal of this exercise is to look at how consistently grades will match based off the same type of student performance. Before we can have a thoughtful conversation about student grades – we need to be aware of limitations and shortcomings of our current practices. At a minimum, I hope this question brings about a discussion between teachers and colleagues about making grades more meaningful and consistent for students – no matter which teacher you get.


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