My final grade for this semester is an 89.41%

At the end of this short post is an email exchange over the last few days between me and a student of mine about his final grade in my biology class. I post this, not to make fun of the student, or to celebrate our traditional grading practices, or to showcase my skills at making an evidence-based argument. I post this because we are prisoners of the letter grade model. Both I and the student were stuck talking about the grade. This entire conversation, indeed, the focus for the entire course the student had just completed should have been about learning, not grading.

I have begun moving away from grading and toward learning in my Science Research Seminar course. In the course, students receive no grades, but only written and oral feedback on their science methodology, their understanding of statistics, their class presentations, and their overall science communication and literacy skills until the end of each semester (The District still requires that I post a letter grade of some sort). The letter grade is agreed upon by way of a conversation between each student and me. It is astonishing how hard each student works throughout the two semesters. At the same time, it is equally as astonishing how hard I work at giving feedback. This mostly gradeless model works in this nontraditional course, but I have yet to come to a sophisticated understanding of how to move away from traditional grading in my more traditional courses.

Other teachers are way ahead of me.

Three of my colleagues (not in science, but in my school’s Language Arts Department) blog as The Paper Graders. These teachers have been writing about grades for the last three years. One of The Paper Graders, Mr. S., began the dialogue three years ago when he wrote about changing the conversation with parents from grades to learning. Another Paper Grader, Doc Z, began experimenting with going gradeless in her classroom two years ago. She has written about her gradeless experiment here. Her course is standards based and because ultimately a grade must be submitted for each student, she and the students come to an agreement about what an A, B, C, etc. should look like. Indeed, Doc Z argues

“No more grades on writing. No more grades on any individual tasks. Feedback only. Keep students focused on the work and the learning and the process and not the grade. Enter one grade–the one that’s necessary for the transcript at the end of the semester, but negotiate with each student individually to determine what that will be. And that’s it.”

I need to move in the direction that she is going in my other courses, but the conversation below kept both the student and me, the teacher, from seeing beyond the As, Bs, and Cs. I failed and the student continues to argue for an A, “If nothing else, simply based on the numbers.”

Why did I fail?

We cannot blame the student for focusing on the numbers and these big bins into which we put our students’ entire experiences in our courses. In the case illustrated below, much of the blame is on me. Not only did I fail to steer the conversation away from the grade, I must have failed to make it clear to all of my students in this course that focus was on learning and understanding the content and learning and understanding how the science of biology works. If there was no letter grade, would the student have been satisfied with the still imperfect but a little more precise (yet still burdened with an unknown margin of error) 89.41%?

In the end, the student emerges from the conversation as a winner, not satisfied but perhaps with a smile on his face as he writes, “I wish you a great summer! I really did get a lot out of your class.” Indeed, I commend the student for advocating for himself and for forcing this larger conversation, even though that was not his original intention.

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Dr. Strode,

My final grade for this semester is an 89.41% and I know the science department is usually very strict about rounding up grades, but I feel that I worked extremely hard this year and deserve that extra 0.6%.

Thanks for a great year,

Student

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Hi Student:

I appreciate that this email came from you and not a parent. I also appreciate the role you played in the class and I agree that you did work hard. However, simply saying “[I] deserve that extra 0.6%” is not the kind of evidence based argument that is required in this case.

The Final Exam is a summary of your overall knowledge of the material from the semester. Your score of 48/60 is an 80%–the lowest B you can get–and two points below the mean for both of my Pre-IB Biology sections. Your Unit Exam scores sit at a mean of 86%, and include two As, three Bs, and a C. These exam scores are 65% of your total grade in the course.

The score we put forward for you in any course must be accurate, not inflated, and backed by evidence.

Now, if you did indeed arrive at your final percent in the course with maximum effort, which is what I interpret your email to imply, then a B in the course is accurate. If the B was not our best work, then this should be great motivation for the fall as you move into your next set of courses.

If you would like to discuss this further and in person, I will be at school on Tuesday.

I appreciate the contributions you made in class this year.

Sincerely,

Dr. Strode

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Dr. Strode,

I look forward to chatting with you on Tuesday! What time will you be able to meet? I just want to clarify that I completely understand why you would be hesitant to give me the bump, but also please consider that the grade I have right now will go in on my transcript as a B and in the big picture, it is actually so close to an A. As a B on my transcript, it could appear that I had received as low as an 80% in the class, and that is obviously not true and not an accurate reflection on my hard work in this difficult class.

Thanks,

Student

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Hi Student:

You’re still welcome to come in, but I think we can save us both some time. You’ve got an impossible sell on your hands and there is no way I could justify to my colleagues inflating your second semester grade grade to an A. Here is why:

1) You walked the A-B line at 91% all Semester.

2) You did not pass (earned a 55%) one of the Unit 7 Human Physiology quizzes.

3) You earned a C on the Unit 7 Human Physiology Exam

4) You and your group chose not to rewrite your Final Project Design.

5) You chose not to retake your Unit 5 Multiple Choice Exam, on which you earned an 80%.

6) You earned an 80% (48/60) on the Final Exam, two points below the mean of 50.2 for the 61 students in my two Pre-IB Biology Sections.

7) Your overall exam score (Unit Exams and Final) is 83%. This means that 100% of your summative assessments, the work you did alone with no assistance from others and 65% of your grade, is a B-.

Number 4, 5, and 6 above are probably the three most important learning experiences you can take forward into your Junior Year:

  • Always take advantage of rewriting your work.
  • Always take advantage of retaking exams when the opportunity is provided.
  • Always bring your best effort to final exams. This is your opportunity to show that you have learned the material and that your final grade in a course is accurate.

I think you can be proud of the contributions you made in my class and the excellent work you did in your group.

Sincerely,

Dr. Strode

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Dr. Strode,

I understand what you are saying and I am fully aware that I’m not going to get this bump but I just wanted you to know that my group and I DID rewrite our final project design. We had originally received an 18/20 (an A) and during class work time, I came to your desk multiple times to ask you how to fix the errors that you had commented on. After that class period, we had addressed and revised all of the comments you made that were in need of improvement and I specifically told you we had done so for you to go back and regrade it accordingly but you never did. I just wanted to make sure you knew that I know it is important to seize the opportunities for rewriting work. I would never leave a grade at which I know I can do better.

Just a thought… If you had actually gone back and given us the 20/20 on the final project design since we actually did revise it to where you told us it was good in class, would my grade be an A?

Thanks,

Student

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Hi Student:

I do see that you last modified your Design on May 17th, but only now have you indicated that I never rescored it. I honestly don’t remember you telling me that you had made any improvements. I asked everyone who did a rewrite to either send me an email or re-share the Google Document with me. I have changed your score to a 20/20.

At this point, this conversation needs to end. The end of the semester is just not the time to be arguing with a teacher about a grade in a course when a student has had ample time to have that dialogue. This conversation should have occurred after Unit 7 when keeping your A in the class started looking bleak… and then there was the final exam.

You really need to move on from this and focus on having a good summer.

Sincerely,

Dr. Strode

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Dr. Strode,

This will be the last email I write to you regarding this matter but now that my grade is an 89.55%, wouldn’t it be logically implied that the decimals round up to 90%? I’m not trying to be annoying but this is important to me, and I believe that the accurate representation of my work merits an A. If nothing else, simply based on the numbers. And I would like you to think about at what point you would ever round up to the nearest whole number. You do not need to respond, I wish you a great summer! I really did get a lot out of your class.

Sincerely,

Student

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15 Comments

  1. I love this post. I especially like the student-teacher e-mail exchange because it illustrates a problematic situation that is misunderstood by both students and faculty at the high school and university level. It seems like most students simply want a good grade. A minority might also be deeply into learning as much as they can. This is not necessarily their fault, given how saturated we all are with the cultural and societal messages and expectations about grades. On the other hand, most faculty want authentic learning to happen for its own sake, not for attainment of a good grade. In our fantasy world, students would know that the knowledge, skills and effort they put forth will make them proud, happy and successful (in future classes, professions and life).

    What I tell my students is that I want them to
    1) master the material,
    2) become creative scientific problem-solvers, and
    3) be able to apply their skills to new scenarios.
    The difficulty Dr. Strode points out is that a letter grade is a crude and awkward instrument for assessment. As I ruminate on this post, it occurs to me how nice it would be to evaluate a student thus: “Margaret mastered 87% of the topics in the course. She was able to consistently solve straightforward problems involving single concepts. She solved difficult problems involving the synthesis of several concepts but usually needed modest assistance. Margaret had an excellent attitude and a determined work ethic. When working as a member of a group in the laboratory and in study sessions, she was a solid contributor and worked well as a team member.”

    But instead, I dealt this semester with two students who asked for a higher grade than they had earned. The first said something like, “But I am not a B student!” The second said, “But I worked so hard!” Many of my colleagues “round up” in dealing with students who barely missed a numerical benchmark in the rubric for final semester grading. So the student with 89.55% gets an A. I hate the conversion of percent to a letter grade, so I don’t know why this drives me so crazy, but it does. Why advertise that 90% is an A when in reality, you intend to award an A at 89.5%?! Why not just advertise your benchmarks as 69.5%, 79.5% and 89.5%? Of course, students with 89.1% would then be the ones writing us e-mails. It’s just like the high jump – when the bar is set at 5′ 8″ and the athlete clears 5′ 7-1/2″, the jump is still counted as a miss.

    Ultimately, most good teachers don’t “award” grades. As Dr. Strode points out in his e-mail responses, students earn their grades all semester long by choosing to take advantage of extra help, unlimited mastery opportunities and how they prioritize their time and activities.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. paul: you spent a ton of time responding to this student. I applaud your efforts, and your logic/evidence based argument is spot on. Upon the second reading of the exchange, I like how you focused on learning/contributions/productivity. Your student missed that point (almost) entirely…it was all about the grade. Your insights were worth writing down…and you should continue to develop your thinking about grading.

    I am toying with the idea of making summative assessments “game-like” where there is a challenge by choice in terms of which questions students attempt. For me, I want students to focus on articulating their understanding (=learning, in your example above) I’ll be developing that idea over the summer.

    Finally, I like your differentiation between learning and understanding. I need to be more cognizant, and appreciative of, student learning…not just understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. One sad point to make is the extent that teachers need to go to justify their grades. I met any potentially contentious situation with lots of data and the mindset of a defense attorney. I can see how teachers with less data would fold in the face of parent or student objections (hence grade inflation). I like Ryan’s idea of having choice on summative assessments, so that the grade is a combination of the level of challenge accepted and quality of work.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Unfortunately, our kids/students know their access to college is linked to grades. I’ll never forget when my daughter wished she’d worked harder as a freshman, and as a senior remarked that “I’ve been in classes for four years with kids who are now headed to Harvard, Brown and Stanford. Why all of a sudden do grades from my freshman year make it impossible for me to continue learning with the same group of kids?” We are a stratified society in so many ways. Kudos for helping kids work toward conceptual understanding all year long. I wonder when the ‘trickle down effect’ will end?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right, but I bet (or at least hope) that your daughter found “the same group of kids” at the college she eventually chose to attend. Many students get into these “reach” schools and then get buried because they’ve never had to work so hard, while others soar at state schools and little no-names, like my alma mater.

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  5. Thank you very much for this great blog. In my district we have percent averages, and decimal points are automatically rounded up or down by the computer. But I do have this conversation (almost exactly the same) several times a year (for instance for grades of 89.45- to be rounded up to 89.50- so it makes the 90), and very often with parents as well. I work in very high profile district, where the expectation for students is to go to Ivy League colleges and/or top tier colleges. The race for grades overcomes everything else and that is very sad. I think the whole system of highly competitive college entry is definitely responsible for a lot of what I see happening at the high school level. In my science research class (which I also teach, as you do), I have a much easier time than in AP Biology, because the grading is based on effort, paper and presentations, as well as self-reflection and self-evaluations. I am now following your blog and I am looking forward to reading more of your entries.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It sounds like we teach at similar schools. However, at my school the push to go to those dream schools is coming more from the students (by way of their parents and the “coaches” the parents hire) and less, if at all, from teachers. The greatest proportion of our students go to state schools, but enough go to the likes of Berkeley, Yale, Harvard, MIT, Brown, Stanford, Cal Poly, Cal Tech, etc. that there is that pressure. the paradigm shift may need to come from both directions. We need high profile schools to refuse to use the letter grade bin model and colleges to design more sophisticated methods for choosing students that fit what they have to offer.

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  7. So much justification on the part of the teacher! If less than 90 is a B, then scores on particular assignments should not matter towards this discussion. Since the teacher used them as evidence (beyond the final score), then the student had more items to debate.

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  8. My district has talked about this very subject. We looked at all the ways an average grade can be misleading. This is what convinced, at least the math department understanding the need for SBRC.

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  9. This is a refreshing blog. Thanks for writing it and to those who responded. A colleague of mine shared it with me as she knows how I feel about grading children and how that crushes their spirit to learn and explore. I cannot imagine as an adult being graded on my daily attitude, work production and knowledge of complex materials. We give ourselves room to learn, discuss, practice, reread and confer with colleagues, all without a grade. That said, it’s an important skill to be able to assess oneself and identify the need for one’s attitude, motivation, or knowledge base to bump up a few notches. Therefore, I appreciate your comments even more about conferring with students and the routine feedback given them in the classes that lend themselves to that kind of assessment. I do applaud the move towards this kind of assessment and hope to see it expand across our nation. I appreciate Fred’s comments and expectations for his students. When educators LEAD, and have these discussions with the powers that be and boldly steer the ship (institutions) to the type of thinking you all discuss above, the right thing will happen – our kids will engage, lead their own education, learn more and be able to contribute more to our nation.

    This generation has information at their finger tips. If guided to use the internet to obtain information that interests them, and apply it to problem solve, they will go far.

    I am a parent of three children at the middle and high school levels. All 3 of them are identified gifted and talented, 2 of them have ADHD and 1 is LD/dyslexic. Or are they? Another topic for another day, but an important one as I try to frame my remarks. Because our nation’s current focus on chasing grades, rather than chasing an education, establishes an environment in which children must behave in such a way that often times diminishes their creativity, innovated problem solving and love of learning. They are told if they “are good enough” from daily electronic PowerSchool grades and daily assessments on class work, homework, quizzes, tests, exams, or projects, even “participation” which is typically defined as raising one’s hand and speaking.

    I am a former educator and would love to be back working with students in an environment that is not obsessed with grades, but one focused on learning and chasing an education.

    Thanks to you all for your focus on educating and guiding our young people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “I cannot imagine as an adult being graded on my daily attitude, work production and knowledge of complex materials.”

      Unfortunately, that is exactly what my school does to teachers. We are given a complex rubric of standards to meet that look just like the rubrics I give my students for a major science report. We are required to have very specific items posted on the board everyday, very specific activities performed everyday, and very specific tools used everyday. We must show evidence of participation in leadership committees, professional learning, and knowledge of the subject on our own time. We must show evidence of student success in the classroom and on standardized tests. All of this so that we can receive the “extra” pay that only goes to the “A” and “B” teachers. That extra pay amounts to $750 a year before taxes. The really ridiculous part is that the district started the year with a conference on going gradeless! We can’t possibly, as a nation, expect our students to focus on learning when we assess our teachers the same way as we do our students.

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      1. Wow. How stressful! I feel fortunate that all we have to do is pick a couple of areas we want to work on and then show evidence of improvement. One of my areas is self reflection, and this blog takes care of that. Another is reducing stress in the classroom, and going point-less on all assignments, which takes the focus off of grades, is doing the trick.

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