Since when is the gradebook a weapon of mass destruction?

I am not sure why it happens — but as a new teacher your thoughts are centered on three main items for the most part — Content, Classroom Management, and Lesson Design/Delivery.  At least for me the whole idea of grades and grading was more of an afterthought and not something I was terribly worried about.  I had this erroneous notion that smart kids would just do better regardless of the assessment or assessment design.  I never remotely considered that my grades were or could be grossly unfair, run afoul of basic mathematics and could actually be doing more harm than good.

I, of course simply adopted the same horrible methods of grading my teachers who taught me used.  I had these hard and fast rules about how strict I would be about rounding.  For example, I can vividly remember my protracted debate as a teenager with a teacher who taught me Algebra II that my 89.5% should be an A on this 10-point scale and her terse response was “that after 2,000 plus points, test, quizzes and homework my 89.5% was amazingly accurate of my performance.”  No rounding up.  I received a B for the nine weeks.  I, of course adopted this erroneous thinking as a teacher that if I had plenty of points my grade somehow was more accurate?  I can barely type that without smirking about how silly that line of thinking is — yet at one point in my career I really believed that to be true.

I happily and almost in a sick sort of way entered a big fat ZERO for missed assignments and homework.  It just felt good to punish the little devils for not completing my every homework assignment or project. It never occurred to me that this ZERO was dragging down the grades of even my best students or the usage of the ZERO was inflating the grades of the students who dutifully turned in everything despite mediocre or poor performance on test and quizzes.

Worse yet — I saw nothing wrong with allowing some kids I.E. athletes or parents that complained enough to make-up all kinds of work at the last minute and count it as full credit to raise the grade to either make them eligible or satisfy that squeaky wheel parent.

Yes…I was a terrible grader and it is possible that my misguided ideas may have done more harm than good.  I am now reformed and as an administrator went to battle with teachers over the usage of the ever powerful gradebook as a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) on kids and I have compiled my short list of pet peeves about grading.

1.  Failure of teachers to understand the statistical concept of Confidence Interval.

Mathematics is not one of my strong points, but even I can understand that when dealing with averages the confidence interval should be employed and even if you fail to calculate the actual interval we can apply this logic to the 89.5% dilemma.  It is likely in the range of A or a B and we should simply error by giving the student the higher grade.  No questions — no debate — we are simply not that accurate when judging student performance and we should give kids the benefit of the doubt and boost their grade accordingly.  I am inclined even with an 89% it is likely an A and not a B.

2.  Usage of ZERO.

Whenever you’re using an average to determine a students grade Zeros in place of any assignment is simply unfair.  It penalizes kids and drags grades downward.  It is a simple but amazingly difficult concept for teachers to get and understand.  In a 10 point scale the difference between all other grades besides “F” is 10 percentage points. So the difference between and A and B is 10%, B and C is 10% but F and D is 50%!  So it’s simple in order to maintain some integrity in your grading ZERO’s for failure to complete or turn in an assignment should be entered at 50% not ZERO…it is still a failing grade.  It is a simple understanding of intervals and averages.

BUT —– When you tell this to a group of educators and unfortunately,  math teachers included. they immediately fire back with…I am not about to give kids 50% when they did nothing. They will vehemently fight against giving kids anything in the gradebook other than a ZERO.  Logic nor math can sway some of the more entrenched and stubborn of those who refuse to even consider this idea. In the end, it hurts all kids in the classroom and is not an accurate reflection of performance.

3. Using behavior in grades.

We do this all the time in school.  Kids who might get suspended for a fight will be given no credit for work completed while on suspension.  Or classroom rules that use behavior as a grade like those who give daily points for good behavior over inflate or deflate a grade based on behavior not performance.  If at all possible we need to remove behavior from grades.  I even get crazy when we use GPA to determine if kids can participate in sports or extracurricular activities.  Again, how does a grade have any impact on whether or not a student can participate in something they are interested in or excel? These are just some examples, behavior in grades is entrenched  and rampant in the milieu of schooling.

4. Usage of Extra-Credit.

I loved the parents and/or kids who would look at me in the midnight hour before grades are due and beg for extra-credit.   Extra-Credit is grade inflation plain and simple!  The word should be stricken from the school vernacular.

The worst abuse of this practice is when teachers give extra-credit for bringing in can goods, or wearing the school colors on spirit day, or bringing in classroom supplies it completely diminishes the meaning of a grade and its ability to measure performance with the content.

5.  Usage of attendance in grades.

For all of my former students they might remember me saying “I don’t give points for jumping on the big yellow taxi every morning.”  Yet many of my colleagues did just that — gave points for showing up. I know your sensing the theme… is not related to performance or understanding of the content therefore it has no business being included into a course grade.

6.  Participation points

Another example of what should not be counted, kids should participate and if they are not participating, I as a teacher would look in the mirror and ask why is it that my kids are not participating …. could it be me?  Yes it is likely you…..if your class is dull and boring  — you will likely have low participation and behavior issues in the classroom.  Kids who are engaged not only participate willingly they are less likely to cause problems in the classroom.

This is my short list of pet peeves.  Students deserve our best not only with lesson design, and content delivery, but also in assessment of performance.  I want to know that my “A” in the classroom had to do with my understanding of the content not my behavior or compliance.  Teachers have been using the power of the gradebook to control, monitor and shape behavior with the belief that grades motivate kids. Newsflash….kids are not motivated by grades so stop using that gradebook as a WMD and focus on what is important — a students understanding of the content, acquisition of the needed skills you are teaching…leave the behavior out of it — our kids deserve honesty and integrity around classroom performance.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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