How complicated CAN we make grades?

Had a long conversation with a curriculum specialist today about grading. I


get a bit nervous now when someone asks me about grading in middle schools or high schools. Our department hasn’t been involved in grading conversations for a while in secondary school because, I think, our contributions annoyed people after a while.

The curriculum specialist asked me about some questions he heard from teachers about some of the grading categories available to them in their online gradebook. They have “summative” and “formative” categories they can use, and the summative categories account for 80% of the grade, and the formative 20%. This curriculum specialist’s teachers weren’t sure how to use the formative 20% category, and the curriculum specialist asked me for advice.

What in the world can I say that’s useful about this? The phrase “graded formative category” gets thrown around – what the heck? How much time should we spend talking about “fixes” that will help teachers put anything useful into a category called “formative” that ends up weighing in to 20% of a cumulative grade? I don’t know where to start.

Poor formative assessment. I feel bad for the term, and I wonder how we strayed so far. Originally, all it was supposed to mean was something close to “practice” – an opportunity for students and teachers to USE some assessment information to change something about their teaching or student learning. Teachers figure out what to work on next (or what other experiences or practice students need), and/or students figure out what they should study more or differently, or use feedback to improve.

How does that fairly simple idea of formative assessment combine with the idea of a category that “counts” for 20% of your grade? How should teachers decipher a requirement that they record “scores” for some assessments, put them in the 20% formative category, and then explain what that all means in terms of learning and the final cumulative grade?

I don’t even know where to start.

2 thoughts on “How complicated CAN we make grades?

  1. We have something similar, ours is just called performance and practice. We are very standards-focused, so I use the performance category for summative assessments and then use the practice part to give students a grade on each of the standards for the unit (or sometimes skills if it’s a big standard). Basically every assignment that we do is a formative assessment for me, so I use that to assess if students are proficient on the standard. As we move through the unit students have multiple opportunities to show proficiency on the standard and improve the grade. I sometimes even use the final assessment to adjust these grades so that they reflect student skill by the end of the unit. We also only give grades as 1, 2, 3 or 4. I don’t know if that addresses your point at all, but it’s one strategy.

    1. I think I like the terms “performance and practice” better than Summative and Formative (we often talk about formative as “practice” anyway). It would make sense if teachers here could enter everything as “formative” for a while, then change the “final” grade for a unit/standard/etc. as summative when appropriate, but that’s not how it’s set up. Our conversation got stuck in the “how much should homework count toward the grade” zone, and that’s a shame. I like the 1-4 system you have – that takes care of what OConnor and others call the “zero problem”.

      Do you have to translate your 1-4 marks into A-F grades eventually? If so, how do you do that?

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