Monday, October 15, 2012

Zero is not a grade. Or is it?

My colleague, Jim, is a guidance counselor at my school.  From him I learned a few simple lessons about education.  I came to him with concern for a student who was unable to come to class on time or finish classwork. This student was refusing to learn or to pass.  Jim came to the classroom door and asked the student for a hall meeting.  The three of us stood there, Jim led the short conversation with three question, "Are you coming in late? Can you pass if you do the minimum in class? Do you want to graduate?"  
That student mumbled yes and yes and yes.  Jim said, Now repeat for Ms. Kaulbach what you will promise to do."  
The student looked at me, and repeated that he would come on time, he could do the classwork and that he wanted to pass. Jim looked him in the eye and reminded him that he said this in his own words, the responsibility was his and he would let himself down if he didn't do these three things.
The student did graduate, he was on time every day after that and he worked towards the minimum every day.  What I learned from my colleague was that simple tasks yield great rewards, making kids repeat what they learn is essential to not only learning but owning this education.

I have learned valuable, practical lessons from my colleagues over the years and now I am discovering the science to back the prevention of failure and repetitive opportunity for student ownership in learning. A retired colleague used to ask his class "how do we learn?" and in eery unison they answered, "by the miracle of repetition".  He always put an agenda on the board,  hand wrote his notes on the board for copying and kept a very simple grading system in his notebook.  His students always passed the unofficial standards based exam for economics.  All of his students passed.

The miracle of repetition, repeat, redoing assignments or tests are all opportunities for application of a just learned concept or new material (The Cognitive Scientist). Building background knowledge allows for more room in the working memory, which makes synthesis and analysis likely. Practice,  establishes minimum competence which is why even the student who copies someone else's answers should receive some reward. If we don't want students to value copying alone, it is up to teachers to include a second tier of application. All copied answers are a base knowledge to be used to solve puzzles or problems that has the possibility of more than one right answer.  

Failure is 50% not zero.  I still have a difficult time accepting this policy. My Vermont school is adjusting to schoolwide, mandatory reforms dividing our faculty as much as it brings us together.  Common grading polices especially concerning definition of failure is our current, divisive issue. Nationwide school systems struggle with discrepancies between actual and recommended practice. (Cox,2011). Grading policies have been individualized in education for so long that research matching methodology and student development are not well documented over time.  Google and  EBSCO Host search engines did present for me both the media storms and the science behind the practice. It is conclusive throughout most sources that grading practices are individualized and highly subjective. Most grades carry the weight of more than just mastery of a standard  and this shouldn't be. (Wormeli R, 2006). Grades should not embed an array of indicators such as ethics, discipline and responsibility. Nor should grades reflect all of the above and or reward, behavioral contracts etc. 
What should grades convey? This is the question that drew my research together. It should convey accountability which does not mean blame. Values, meaning and benefit to others form as a result of interaction (Wormeli). Grades are supposed to motivate students, keep them from failing often and early. (Cox,K. 2011). They should provide feedback, document progress or inform instructional decisions. Nothing else. Graded work should have a proportionate influence on an overall grade meaning that all grade intervals should be equal, failure should be 50%.  (Reeve,2004)

Links to more research:

Middle level Education- no zero           Video:  Tim Brown & assessment

                                                          video- What's Wrong with Traditional Grading?

As strong as the case against zeroes & grading is, practical application is difficult for teachers. I discovered a case study of a school similar to my own school. The study focused on interviews of reformers and resistors and why there were excellent leaders in teaching in both of those groups. By charting pieces of grading reform it was easy to isolate and discuss the areas with the greatest discrepancies. I wish our school had done this... I guess there is still time. 

 Field of teacher
Grade agreement / same course


minimum on tests

of late work
 no penalty





does not grade hw
total for actual study
A sample of 9 teachers resistant to reform out of 500 districtwide (Cox, 2011).

Identifying course or field for each teacher was useful to group discussion. Some courses have embedded mandates because they follow an administered program, ie- Collegeboard, Driver's Ed, etc.  Grade agreement for same course referred to the framework of a course being taught and graded the same by various teachers. The greatest objection focused on 50% testing and all of those in opposition were in agreement that "giving students 50% when they achieved a lower score does not prepare them for the real world."  One teacher did not grade homework (Biology teacher) and indicated that on the chart. While this teacher refused to reform, it was discovered that his own grading policies were in line with the intent of the reform, not allowing students to fail.  He replaced infrequent testing and homework with daily starters: opened ended short answer question/ tests that were reviewed, rewritten and used for study purposes on tests & exams. So, this study presented the question , what does a grade convey? Consistently, even the biology teacher was able to agree that grades need to reflect knowing, nothing more.  

Is 50% a real world value? There are many arguments in the media, on the internet over what is a real world connections.  It is impossible to determine what jobs, careers, futures our students will actually have so I eliminated this conflict from my study. It is self defeating to give all students the work  to match their future real world, it is self defeating to give all students the same assignment. The Cognitive Scientist also points out that it is "naive to think that students come to class equally prepared to excel."  Vygotsky, long ago, proved that not all children learn in the same amount of time but all are capable of learning either towards a minimum or to a specialized field or somewhere in between. Many variables affect learning and this is why repeat opportunity for success will reach all or most children.  My own daughter has progressed through 2nd grade without any failing labels but does know her limits.  If elementary teachers can teach students without (F)  Why can't we?

My role in literacy enables me to work individually and in groups.  The school practices enable us to pinpoint issues preventing student progress and work on them repeatedly until there is mastery.  Every student is self paced. Every student is self reliant,working on routine lessons until mentor/educators notice improvement. There is no grade nor failure. We promise progress at differentiated levels.  Teachers are able to let go of the responsibility of some learning and all of that failure. Students know that they are excelling and that overall grades will reflect this.  Because we work with students who would be failing and students who have accelerated beyond their peers we have to have uniform systems schoolwide. We take 92 students daily and could not do so if we had to create 6-8 separate plans for each student and each of their teacher's instructional methods. Students procure individualized results when schoolwide practices insists on repeat opportunity to develop and do not allow students to get away with not learning.  

The major benefit despite all of my own arguments for schoolwide agreement on grading is this.  It is easier to explain one policy to parents, it is easier for parents to explain or promote one policy to children than it is for everyone to understand everyone's best intentions.  There will be discrepancies even within one policy.  I learned this from working with AP and other scripted programs. I learned from our guidance counselor, less is more. I am learning now, 16 years into teaching that I can give up a great deal of my own practice for the good of the whole.  I can't have people belittle or find fault with what I have always done, that is not fair.  But I can come together if it individualized learning, this I learned from special educators.  They literally run around from classroom to classroom trying to meet one student's needs for each classroom teacher.  They have  accommodated each student and each teacher for years, balancing student's needs with perceived values of motivation, discipline etc.  My brief study of special ed law, and my attempt to move toward consistent practice has made me very sensitive to the nature of their work and the nature of child development which is still not fully understood.  One schoolwide policy would allow these educators more time to focus on students.

The greatest argument again redo/retake/ 50% failure is that the burden of work shifts to the teacher.  "I would have to grade more papers, write more tests, accept answers that were copied from others." I did offer retake, redo, 50% minimum failure over the last two years and I discovered how well it worked.
First- I did grade more because every student had to hand in work.  I always benefitted from teaching students who did no homework.  On those nights, I watched more tv.  I had created a policy that benefited me, not the students.  Students who did redo or do work late had to receive credit.  More students did work. I was busier, but not more than I should have been.  I should have policies that expect 100% return from each class.  If this burden of grading is too great, it is my own fault for trying to grade more than the mastery of the standard. (this I learned eventually)
After working for the collegeboard and learning to grade 200 essays per day, following the same rubric, I guess grading workloads are relative.
Second- some students waited for the repeat opportunity and some did copy my answers or friend's answers for full credit. It made me change the nature of the homework.  I discovered that by setting point values for total accomplishment per week, I could offer fewer points for tasks that build repetition and fluency and greater point values for concept understanding, in depth exploration and open ended questions (Danielson, Strom, &Kramer,2011).  I changed the classroom activity to focus on synthesis of those copied notes. Pick any 5 concepts from a list and group similar outcomes, competing perspectives, causation, etc. I could walk around the room and give some students 4 more concepts to integrate for homework, other students 2 concepts, other students redo with more meaning.  If they wrote this on the assignment and I gave my initials, it became a contract of learning, differentiated, reasonable, relevant. I discovered that common practice for types of homework looks like this:
elementary- 96% practice, 41% prep, 16% integration
high school- 92% practice, 41% prep, 29% integration

The research has benefits and it has costs.  There is no doubt that excellent teachers will sacrifice a great deal of time or tradition in order to make these reforms.  But what I have realized working on a literacy team in a school that is in its third year of schoolwide initiative is that All our standards and tests mean nothing unless the failure constructs a "ladder that extends to that student needing to crawl out of the hole" (Biology teacher from a case study by Cox, 2011).

Cox,K., (2011). Putting classroom grading on the table: a reform in progress. American Secondary 
         Education, 40(1), 67-87.

Reeves,D. (2004)The case against the Zero, Phi Delta Kappan, 86(4),  324-325.

Danielson, M., Strom,B., &Kramer,K. (2011). Real homework tasks: a pilot study of types, values, 
         and resource requirements. Educational Research Quarterly, 35(1), 17-32.

Wormeli, R.(2006). Accountability: teaching through assessment and feedback, not grading. 
         American Secondary Education, 34(3), 14-27.

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