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Why Traditional Grade Book Programs Fail

I have looked at dozens of technology tools. I try to find just the right one to solve whatever classroom problem I have.

Master Yoda Grade Book Fail
Even Master Yoda Has Teacher Problems

Yet, one problem is difficult to solve: grades, grading, and grade books. One reason for this is that most traditional grade book programs fail to make grades represent anything more than numbers.

The Trouble With Grades

Every teacher can focus more time on students if they can change the conversation about grades. I find that grades, in general, are an unfortunate part of teaching. It might be because grading quickly is my weakest skill in teaching. I think the problem is bigger than the time it takes me to grade assignments.

For some students, my grades and feedback are guides to help them improve. However, for many students grades are simply numbers. Everyone wants above a 90% and anything below 70% could mean losing a cell phone or Xbox in the near future.

There is a lot of focus in education on grades as numbers. As unforgivable, unchangeable numbers. There are a couple reasons for this belief. Tradition, bureaucracy, and ideology to name three. Which of the three is most responsible? If we were to look at grades as more than numbers, how would we make that switch? Which one of the three influences could we change first?

I looked at using standards-based grading in my classroom last spring. I first changed my basic assumptions about what grades meant. I was excited at the possibility of students revising their work and having conversations about learning, not just the grades as numbers. There is one thing holding me back from completely adopting this new ideology.

Why Traditional Grade Book Programs Fail Teachers And Students

Many of the grade book programs schools use are meant to be simple. Simple to use and simple to understand. There is a danger in simplicity. It is simple to focus on grades as numbers. Grades should represent what students actually think students know about a topic. Most traditional grade book programs only offer 3 different types of grade entry/reporting:

  1. Points
  2. Percentages
  3. Letters

 

Yet none of these types serve to change the conversation about what grades actually mean! These three types of grades only report out a holistic, omnibus grade for an assignment. The danger is that what skills/knowledge students have is clouded over by other skills within the assignment. I have broken down every assignment/test into its different standards for clarity of what the assignment was trying to measure.

My school uses PowerTeacher Grade Book. I am one of the few at my school using a standards-based approach so the grade book is still set up traditionally. Therefore, I am stuck trying to fit a standards-based grading approach into a traditional grade book. Hence, grade book fail.

Here is a screenshot of how I have tried to Frankenstein my standards-based grading to work with PowerTeacher.

My Powerschool Standards Based [Annotated]
My Powerschool Standards Based [Annotated]
  1. Came up with a list of standards
  2. Assignments are each assigned a standard
  3. Reporting is done manually by me<—inefficient

My Powerschool Standards Based [Annotated]Basically, if talking with a student, parent, or administrator I quickly scan the grade printout and see where the lowest scores are. If there are a lot of 50s or 70s for #1s, then I know student X has a problem with Argument/Thesis creation. That is what the #1 represents in my standards list.

This whole system brings me back to my point. Grade book programs are holding teachers back and they are continuing this negative, distracting conversation about grades as numbers. Teachers need to tell everyone more loudly, grades are not just numbers. Grades represent our evaluation of a student knowledge/skill.

Whatever system we use should be communicating that. Teachers need more control over their choice of grade book programs to find a better way of teaching students. Teachers with more control can change the conversation from grades as numbers to grades as conversation starters.

Which Would You Rather Hear?

Last year I had one of the greatest conversations with a student about grades. It was one of those awesome moments we sometimes get. I just began including a rubric with every assignment. No matter how small.

This particular assignment looked at 4 standards. One of which was making a thesis/argument. The rubric had 4 levels ranging from Needs Improvement [50], Approaching Proficiency[70], Proficiency[85], to Advanced[100].

When I gave this student the score of Approaching Proficiency on her thesis, she came back to me and asked me “what can I do to write a better thesis?” That was May, and I think she was the first one all year to ask me that question. The question was not “why did I get a 70?” or “can you just give me a 75 on this? Her question fully convinced me of the value of a standards-based system.

Ever since, I have wanted to recreate that experience for both the students and myself. I want ever student to stop asking “why did you give me a 78?” Instead, imagine how better education would be students they asked, “how could I do better on _____”?

Why should a grading program hold teachers and students hostage to a harmful and outdated grading system? My advice to you, find the grading system that works for you. Then find a grading program to match. Or if you are stuck like me, just Frankenstein your solution!

 
Question: What frustrates you about grades, grading, and grade books?

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