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Using Grades to Reflect Values

When determining a grading system, teachers need to think about what they value and want to emphasize. In my classes, student grades reflect the following three criteria: performance, effort, and citizenship. The students' academic performance constitutes roughly 70% of their final grade, whereas effort and citizenship combine for roughly 30%. We will look at each criteria individually:


Performance


By performance, I mean assignments that are evaluated on the academic quality of the work produced, which should measure the mastery of knowledge and skill that students have acquired over the course of the unit. Some assessments—like exams and quizzes—can be objectively measured; others—like essays, discussions, and presentations—cannot. In the latter type of assessments, teachers need to establish objective criteria through rubrics to ensure that students understand the criteria by which they will be evaluated. Students need to understand, however, that rubrics provide objective criteria that must be subjectively evaluated. For that reason, all subjective evaluations in my classes are a combination of peer, self, and teacher assessment concerning the perceived quality of a student's work.


There are three types of objective assessments that I use in every unit: AP Reading Quizzes, Vocabulary Quizzes, and Final Exams. To designate their relative level of importance, each assessment is given a different point value: final exams are worth 50 points, vocabulary quizzes are worth 20 points, and reading quizzes are worth 10 points.


In addition to the three types of objective assessments, I also have a variety of subjective assessments in every unit: three AP essay drafts (an AP Poetry Analysis, an AP Passage Analysis, and an AP Literary Argument), a Journal Discussion, a Socratic seminar (based on the unit's Essential Questions), an Authentic Assessment, and a final revision of one of their AP essay drafts. Again, to designate the relative value of each assessment, different point values are assigned: final revisions are worth 100 points; authentic assessments are worth 20 points; and journal discussion boards, Socratic seminars, and AP essay drafts are worth 10 points.


Based on the points given to each assessment, students should understand that the revision of the final essay is the most important assignment in every unit, worth almost as much as all the other assessments combined. It should also be evident that essay drafts, journal discussion boards, Socratic seminars, and reading quizzes are relatively minor assessments in comparison. It's not that those assessments lack value, since every point counts, but students should understand that the most important aspect of the class is putting in the effort necessary to produce a high-quality final draft.


At the end of every unit, students generally have had 11 performance assessments, both objective and subjective, which total 260 points, constituting roughly 70% of a student's final grade for the unit.



The performance grade should be a reflection of the student's mastery of knowledge and skill in a variety of areas: reading comprehension, analytical writing, vocabulary development, public speaking, and formal discussion in both written and verbal modes. If students consistently excel on these various performance assessments, they should expect to receive an "A" in the class.


Effort


Effort grades are determined by assignments that students complete in class or at home, in small groups or individually. These assignments are not evaluated on quality, but simply on whether or not students have completed the work. These types of assignments include study guides, graphic organizers, and self/peer evaluations. I rarely collect study guides or graphic organizers; instead, I usually eyeball them as I walk around the room as students work in small groups, giving points to students who have completed them in a satisfactory manner.


At one point in my career I gave scores based on how much of an assignment was completed. For example, if students completed most but not all of an assignment, I might give them a 4/5. If they completed half of an assignment, I would make a judgment call on whether it should receive a 2/5 or a 3/5. Eventually, however, I just gave students full credit if it was completed to my satisfaction or no credit if it was not. I emphasize with students that no credit is not the same as receiving a zero for the assignment. In other words, if students receive no credit, it will not hurt their grade; it is the equivalent of receiving a non-grade, or a 0/0 for the assignment.


The reason for the change in my grading policy towards homework and classwork was that I wanted to reward those students who put in the effort to complete assignments without necessarily penalizing the students who did not complete the assignment—for whatever reason. Since it is not punitive to receive a non-grade, rather than a zero, I can hold students to a higher standard for the quality of work that is deserving of full credit. For instance, if students answer all the questions, but it is clear that they have not put much effort in the process, then I might tell them that it was not an effort worthy of receiving full credit. In such cases, I always give students an opportunity to complete or re-do the assignment, usually within a week's time, which allows me to hold students accountable for subpar work without creating the antagonism that results from giving a poor grade based on a subjective evaluation on the quality of work.


In general, I have roughly 15 assignments over the course of a unit that would be designated as either classwork or homework, each worth 5 points. The students' effort grade in completing these assignments is worth roughly 75 total points, which constitutes roughly 15% of a student's final grade. Here is a list of assignments for a sample unit on Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street:



In general, if students work hard in completing assignments, they should develop sufficient knowledge and skill to perform better on performance assessments than students who do not. There is no guarantee of that outcome, however. We all know students who work hard but still perform poorly on assessments. By earning "free" points on these effort-based assignments, however, students create an insurance policy to help mitigate the consequences of poor performance on assessments.


Even though most students appreciate that safety net, some students are willing to roll the dice and have their final grades be determined solely by performance assessments. I don't encourage this strategy, but often the best lessons are learned when students have the freedom to choose and make mistakes.



Citizenship


Even though homework and classwork may be perceived as "optional" in my class, being a good person is not. If one of the primary goals of public education is to produce engaged and informed citizens, we need to teach values that enable students to participate effectively and productively in our democracy. In other words, we have to hold students accountable for attitudes and behaviors that negatively affect the people around them.


For instance, if students do not want the "free" points that they could gain by filling out the boxes on a graphic organizer during a small-group activity, they will not be penalized because their inactivity does not negatively affect anyone else. If they choose not to participate in the small-group discussions concerning the graphic organizer, however, then they are negatively affecting the group and need to be held accountable.


When I first began teaching, I had a set of "Core Four" violations that would negatively affect a student's civic grade:




After we discussed the definition of an acronym, students enjoyed the classroom motto of "Don't be a TURD." In other words, students were expected to show up on time, bring their stuff, and be a positive member of the class. As years went by, I found that I needed to be more specific about behaviors that I did not want to see in my classroom. My "Core Four" evolved into the "Seven Deadly Sins" and then to the "Dirty Dozen," with each violation represented by a different letter of the alphabet. For example, a "Z" violation was a student putting their head on their desk in the middle of class.


Ultimately, when I arrived at Skyline High School in Salt Lake City in 2005 equipped with my "Dirty Dozen," I had a student who took it upon herself to expand the "Dirty Dozen" to include a violation for every letter in the alphabet. She brought the expanded list to the class one day, and I have used it ever since. The "Civic Code" has evolved somewhat over the years, but this is the latest iteration:



Even though a few violations are somewhat tongue-in-cheek (e.g. "inane questions"), there is a truth contained in all of them about what it means to be a good citizen in class. For instance, we have a discussion on what message you are sending to the teacher and your classmates when you put your head on your desk. Even though students might think that is a personal decision ("I'm tired!"), we discuss how one's individual attitude and behavior affects others—both positively and negatively. The question I want students to ask is whether the class is better or worse because of their presence. If the answer is better, then they should expect a positive civic grade at the end of the unit; if the answer is worse, they should expect a negative civic grade.


The 50-point grading scale that I use for determining civic grades is similar to the one I use for any subjective evaluation—such as the ones I use for evaluating essays, discussions, or presentations. In holistic terms, these are the general parameters:



When students begin any unit, their civic grade resets to a default 40/50, which implies "good." In other words, it is "good" that they showed up. At that point their civic grade will either go up or down depending on their attitude and behavior. It's a constant sliding scale that ultimately leads to final evaluation that will be subjectively determined at the end of the unit.


As with all subjective assessments, I ask for peer and self-evaluations to guide my final evaluation. At the end of a unit, students complete a self-evaluation that asks them to assess their own attitude and behavior and to give themselves a numerical grade out of 50. I also ask them to list three classmates who they think were outstanding as far as attitude and participation during the unit. For purposes of self-evaluation, students should consider the three students that they nominate for "Class MVP" as being worthy of receiving 50/50 scores for their civic grade. Students should then ask themselves what their civic grade should be in comparison.


When I collect self-evaluations, I count up the peer nominations and announce at the beginning of the next class who the finalists are (i.e. the top three vote-getters) and who the "Class MVP" is for the unit (i.e. the top vote-getter). After a student has won a "Class MVP," they cannot win again. They are "retired" into the class "Hall of Fame" to allow other students to win the award. In this way there is always an incentive for new students to step up and distinguish themselves as worthy recipients in the future.


The students who question their civic grades at the end of a unit are often the quiet ones who do not actively participate in class. In general, those students stay around a 40/50 for their civic grades. Even though these students exhibit no negative attitudes or behaviors, which would cause their civic grade to drop to the "fair" or "poor" category, they also do not contribute positively to the class. To be silent is to be "good," but a student cannot be considered "excellent" or "outstanding" if they do not actively participate.


Occasionally, I will have students who receive an "excellent" for their civic grade wonder why they did not receive an "outstanding" instead. For these students, it is helpful to have a record of the peer nominations. If a student receives only a few nominations for Class MVP and is not one of the three finalists, then it is difficult to consider that student as truly "outstanding," meaning the student "stood out" from their peers as far as attitude and behavior are concerned. In other words, students do not need to impress me with their contributions to the class, but their classmates.


The other benefit of conducting self and peer evaluations at the end of a unit is that I can have conversations with individual students when they grossly over- or under-evaluate their own attitude and behavior. There are always a few students who give themselves a 50/50 regardless of how little they participate in class. When I talk to those students individually, I just let them know that they cannot receive an "outstanding" civic grade until they are in the discussion for Class MVP. If students are not receiving nominations for Class MVP, it is pretty clear that their impact on the class is not as positive as they think.


In addition to a student's civic grade, there are three other assignments in every unit that are designed to benefit others and should be thus considered part of a student's citizenship grade—namely, peer responses to AP essay drafts. After each AP essay draft, students are required to work in small groups to read and ask one question in the margin for each paragraph in the two essays they are assigned. After providing those questions, students discuss each essay and offer their feedback on how the writer can improve the draft during the revision process. If students do not complete the requirements for adequate peer response, they have points deducted from their score. In other words, if students choose not to help a classmate with their writing, they will be penalized for not doing the work. [For more information on my writing program, please see the July 2022 Newsletter: "Managing the Paper Load"].


At the end of every unit, there are four evaluations that determine a student's citizenship grade: the civic grade and the peer responses to the three AP essay drafts. To reflect the value and importance of a student's overall attitude and behavior in class, the civic grade is worth 50 points, which is the equivalent to the unit's final exam. To show the value and importance of peer responses, the assignment is worth 10 points, twice as much as an effort-based assignment that benefits a student individually. Overall, a student's citizenship grade is worth 65 points in a unit, which constitutes roughly 15% of a student's final grade.



The use of grades—for assessments, effort, and citizenship—can be an effective tool to help students gauge their own progress from unit to unit. The goal for students should be self-awareness and self-improvement. Our job as teachers is to provide honest feedback to help students maximize their potential not only as learners, but as human beings. The more feedback students receive—through teacher evaluations, peer responses, or self-evaluations—the better students will understand the areas in which they are strong and the areas in which they still need to grow.



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