Letting go of “We’ve always done it this way” (Part 2 of 3)

July 5, 2016

If you want to start with Part One in this series of blog posts, here’s the link, though the sequencing is not essential.

Being a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) is a source of pride for me, providing both a sense of professional accomplishment and sense of professional companionship with leaders in my field. The certification process provides us with a shared set of concepts and terms we can use to guide our ongoing learning and the improvement of our practices.

Sometimes, the quest for improvement keeps us in comfortable territory, eager to try new materials and lessons that fit certain preconceptions about what we do. Sometimes, however, we back away from more challenging but necessary conversations about shifting paradigms. In this three-part blog series for The Standard, I’m asking NBCTs and teachers in general if we can’t find the will to push ourselves further in these challenging areas. In my last post, I suggested that technology has changed the way all of us think about information and communication, and that even if some of those changes have negative potential, teachers must adapt to the changes in society rather than use the negative potential as an excuse to resist change.

In this blog post, I’m stepping into debates that inspire strong feelings all around, and often divide teachers. If we are truly accomplished teachers who value analysis and reflection for the improvement of teaching, it’s time to accelerate changes in our assessment and grading practices. At the end of this piece, I’ll suggest ways to extend the learning and the dialogue around these issues.

Let’s start with homework

Or rather, let’s stop giving so much homework. We all know, as parents if not as teachers, that there’s a lot of busy work out there, packets and worksheets that aren’t really accomplishing much. Alfie Kohn, a well-known proponent of abolishing most homework, has suggested that we should think of “no homework” as the default position, and then expect a clear rationale for homework if assigned. I agree with that position, though I won’t go so far as to say no homework, period. In addition to the questionable academic benefits, I think there are important considerations summed up in this quote from Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering (“The Case For and Against Homework”), offering their take on key findings in Kralovec and Buell (2000):

[Homework] overvalues work to the detriment of personal and familial well-being. The authors focused particularly on the harm to economically disadvantaged students, who are unintentionally penalized because their environments often make it almost impossible to complete assignments at home.

I have seen plenty of examples of unnecessary and excessive homework, and admit that earlier in my career, I assigned some of that unnecessary homework; I reasoned that a steady amount of homework would create a level expectation and prevent students from seeing the valuable homework as something above the accustomed baseline. Now, I would prefer to engage my students and their families in some discussion about homework, so that they understand why it’s sometimes necessary, and why there may be periods of time where the load vacillates. As a high school English teacher, I still believe that students need to do course reading outside of class time. In a sense, it’s the original “flipped instruction” – take in the content between classes, then come to class to practice using the content. Beyond reading and writing, I’ve eliminated almost all other homework from my teaching. In any given subject area, teachers in secondary grades should be well-versed in the arguments against homework if they’re going to justify giving any.

Assess your assessment practices

We need to have more conversations about how we assess student learning as well. Too many teachers are still grading work and moving on, without giving students chances to develop mastery when the graded work indicates the need for more practice. We short-circuit this conversation sometimes by defaulting to the ideas of formative and summative assessment, without teasing apart our assumptions about summative assessment and grading. As my friend Jason Buell suggested in his former blog title, our teaching should be “Always Formative.”

I understand there are practical limits to this idea, that depending on the grade level and subject there’s a time to move on to new material. I also understand that revisions and multiple chances present logistical challenges for the teacher work-flow; that’s an argument for changing the work-flow. If we’re analytical and reflective about doing what’s best for student learning, we need to consider how we can change our way of working to accommodate students’ learning needs. Here’s one quick thought: why do we have to have every student complete the same assignments, or same number of assignments? If some of my students demonstrate mastery of oral presentations early on, maybe they should show their content knowledge in another format next time, while students who would benefit from another oral presentation experience prepare for that.

Antiquated grading practices detract from learning

There are some common grading practices that are among the most entrenched and poorly conceived things that we do in education. Again, I understand it may be challenging to change. The obstacles are real. Settling for inferior, even damaging practices, because change is difficult, should be inexcusable among accomplished professionals. If you’re averaging all student grades, and especially if you’re doing that including the use of zeroes on a 100-point scale where only the top 50 points are “grades,” my aim is to convince you it’s time to adopt a new approach. I’m not claiming to have all the answers here, but I haven’t shied away from the work of making needed changes.

Have you ever been asked to rate something on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is the best and 5 is the worst? Of course not. You’d laugh at the idea. So stop using a grading scale that gives equal proportionality to something that would be like “negative worst” on that scale of 1 to 10. It’s illogical from any informed pedagogical or numerical standpoint. Students who are sufficiently motivated to avoid low grades will be motivated in more logical systems, while students who don’t respond to the negative motivator of harsh grading penalties will at least have a mathematical chance of recovery if they become motivated later. If you assign a student a single grade of zero on a 100-point scale, it takes 14 (equally weighted) grades of 85 to move that student’s average up to 80. Should a student with one zero need 14 Bs to convince us their level of understanding translates to “B”? And if the idea is to penalize lack of preparation, or cheating, why should it take that long to make up for the mistake? Play with the numbers yourself. There is no pedagogical justification for grading with zeroes on a 100-point scale that typically only “counts” grades above 59. If you feel strongly that zero is the appropriate mark for “no work” done, then your scale shouldn’t go up to 100, and the gap between zero and “D” shouldn’t be comparable to the gap between “F” and “A.”

From a measurement standpoint, there’s no particular need for a 100-point scale. We can’t meaningfully judge 100 levels of skill or achievement. If we use letter grades A-F (without “E” of course), including plusses and minuses for A-D, that’s 13 levels. I use a 4-point grading scale, using half-point intervals, yielding 9 possible grades (see: Marzano). I’ve never heard a compelling argument for assessing student learning to a finer scale than either of these options. No one can argue that they understand a meaningful difference among grades of 83, 84, 85, 86… Does any teacher need a B+- or an A-+? And the issue is compounded if you think there’s a meaningful difference in the broad ranges we reserve for “F.” We all seem to agree about the difference between a 75 and 90, so if we have a useful scale, the gap between grades of 23 and 38 should be just as meaningful.

We also need some critical examination of the practice of averaging in grades. Why do we penalize some students for not having mastered their learning earlier? We don’t withhold a black-belt from a martial arts student based on the prior inability to perform at a black-belt level. We don’t listen at a recital and judge the pianists’ skills less favorably because they couldn’t play these pieces a month ago. Averages can also mask glaring flaws; we should not give a driver’s license to someone whose array of skills average out quite well, despite an inability to drive in reverse or park a car. For the sake of brevity, I’ll direct readers to additional resources to learn about standards-based grading.

I know that on my personal website, blog posts about grading draw continual interest and frequent visits; this related blog post by NBCT Brianna Crowley elicited 47 comments at last count. I hope readers of this blog post will follow-up by doing additional reading and research, and extend the dialogue through other blogs or on Twitter. Check out the hashtags for standards-based grading chat – #SBGchat – and teachers throwing out grades – #TTOG. (More here re: teachers throwing out grades).

In Part 3 of this series, I’ll suggest that we need to give up some preconceived notions about roles and responsibilities in school leadership, professional development, and evaluation.

David B. Cohen, NBCT

David B. Cohen is a National Board Certified English Teacher and the Blog Editor of The Standard. Cohen taught high school English for 12 years in Palo Alto, Ca. For several years, Cohen co-directed a teacher leadership network called Accomplished California Teachers (ACT). That experience gave him opportunities to learn about and work with teachers from all over California. Having worked with a variety of other networks and organizations, and having built relationships with individuals and groups around the state, Cohen is currently working on a book about excellence in California public education. Follow him on twitter @CohenD.