Awkward Conversations about Grading

Have you ever brought up religion on a first date?  Or politics at the Thanksgiving table? How about comparing salaries with a total stranger in the grocery line?  You probably haven’t, because those that do rarely live to tell the tale. If the conversation even makes it past the initial awkwardness, these topics are intensely personal and emotionally charged, and it can be hard to come to an agreement that fits everyone. Bringing up grading philosophies in a group of teachers tends to generate a similar response.  We all have deeply held beliefs about what grades should communicate and, dare I say, we are all deeply convinced that our way of grading is the best.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t do it that way.

However, to students and families, grades are the primary source of communication about how a student is performing academically.  Grades are viewed as a measure of students’ progress, work ethic, and even ability all rolled into one little number. If my grades as a teacher are meant to communicate all of that, I’d better find a way to ensure that number is accurate!  Therefore, as a professional, I need to find a way to examine my own grading philosophies to determine if my practices live up to my beliefs. This probably entails some awkward and convicting moments and a good hard look at what current best practices are in the field of grading.

At our middle school, we set out to do exactly that: openly communicate about our deeply held grading beliefs and compare them to research in order to develop school-wide grading procedures.  (Did you feel your blood pressure go up just a little? I know I did!) It was an enormous undertaking with mountains of research to sift through along with many personal conversations that needed delicate handling.  However, our staff believed in doing what is best for kids above preserving teacher ego. And what’s best for kids is consistency, structure, and clear communication about expectations and their progress as a student.  While our school has not made the jump to standards-based report cards, we have gotten much closer on ensuring that our numerical grades represent standards mastery. And nothing else.  

Here are some specifics of the process that worked well for us:

  1. Honestly establish the current grading situation.  In order to know where you’re going, you must first have a sense of where you are.  Within just a few months of the new school year, our principal sought to establish our current grading situation. He started with a grades analysis where each teacher tallied the percentages of As, Bs, Cs, Ds, and Fs for each class period’s first quarter grades.  Based on this information, teachers then answered questions like, “how is your gradebook currently set up (total points, weighted categories, etc.),” “how do you handle late work?” and “when do you put a zero in for a grade?”  Teachers completed the reflection and then met with the principal and instructional coach in five-minute increments to discuss the reflection and any realizations the teachers came to. Ultimately, these meetings revealed our current situation: teachers were all across the board in terms of grading practices, and this lead to tremendous confusion for students with eight different teachers and expectations throughout the day.  Therefore, there was a need for us to better align our practices.
  2. Keep conversations safe and reflective.  A school-wide grades analysis can either be a “gotcha” moment or a powerful professional learning experience.  It all depends on how follow-up conversations are handled. In the five minute meetings, our principal created a low-stakes environment for teachers that focused on what they learned as a result of the grades analysis. Teachers were in a safe environment to open up about personal revelations, the origin of their grading beliefs, and areas of grading that they were unsure about.  When teachers were not afraid of being “right” or “wrong” in their practice, they were able to be open-minded and vulnerable: the perfect environment for growth!
  3. Adopt a growth mindset.  All professionals want to be the experts in their field and teachers, as experts in their own classrooms, are no different.  Therefore, it can be hard to discover we still have much to learn, even if we’ve been in the classroom for decades. But just as we encourage our students to learn from mistakes and grow, we need to forgive ourselves for mistakes made along the course of our careers and use them as growth opportunities.
  4. Give it time.  No impactful, lasting change happens overnight.  Sweeping, top-down mandates will produce compliance, at best, and outright rebellion at worst.  The key to lasting change and buy-in from stakeholders is to take small steps over a long time period.  Some small steps we took on the path to creating school-wide grading changes were: initial grades analysis and conversations, assessment analysis to determine if our assessments measured anything other than standards mastery, professional development on current research in grading, and open invitations to all staff members to be a part of the procedure writing team.  These countless conversations allowed teachers to evaluate their own beliefs and have their voices heard in the new grading procedures. It took a full school year to reflect on our practice and officially write the procedures. It wasn’t always easy, but it was absolutely worth it.

While it may seem like our work is done now that we have consistent grading procedures throughout our school, the implementation is still a growing and reflective process.  As situations arise, our teachers and administrators talk through these unique scenarios to continually refine our practice. But as teachers, we commit to being lifelong learners: we are in the business of change and growth.  And thanks to this process, we are now also in the business of awkward conversations!

Alicia Melton is the Academic Specialist at Pelham Park Middle School in Pelham, AL. She loves getting to work alongside teachers to provide students with the amazing instruction they deserve!

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