Meaningful Grading? An oxymoronic dilemma.

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At the end of the year, I start to think about the next year. I like to have some ideas written down so I can leisurely work out details over the summer so I am ready for the year in August when I return. This coming year, one thing I really want to work on is my grading system. I have been using a “Level of Engagement” system for some years now, but I’ve become disillusioned with it because I feel it is too much like a participation grade and doesn’t really show any sort of progress towards mastery or whatever it is grades are “supposed” to show.

Before I go any further, I want to say that if you are reading this post with the anticipation of some kind of answer to the meaningful grading question, I’m not sure you’re going to find it. In fact, you might end up walking away with more questions. Also, I am writing with high school grading in mind, which is a huge beast that is often wrong in what it represents.

If you Google “purpose of grading in education”, you will find that basically grades are meant to communicate learning progress and achievements. But, as we all know, grades don’t really show that at all…meaning that final number doesn’t actually show progress in learning. Because, if you get a 70 in the first marking period because you are still developing a skill/studio habit, and then you get a 100 in the final marking period because you finally mastered the skill/studio habit, you won’t receive a 100 for the year. Your grade will appear as if you just were average or proficient, even though you did what the point of learning is–you progressed and eventually mastered. Who goes to look at all the grades over the course of the year to see that your grade steadily improved? Only that final number is looked at.

As I have written about in the past, and it has be talked about over and over, grading =/= assessment. And perhaps that is why grading becomes such the dilemma. Should we, under the system we have to use, try to have our grades match our assessments that show actual progress over time, or should we just give out grades for participation? I know this is my dilemma. It’s something I’ve dealt with for years of being a TAB teacher. When I was DBAE, I used rubrics and based grades on students’ artworks having certain elements and principles, depending upon the project, as well as “good” craftsmanship and effort. But now, those things are not as important to me because of the current purpose of my teaching. I am trying to teach my students a way of thinking, a way of behaving, and having a variety of lines in an artwork shouldn’t be up to me, but up to the students. I know that some students will understand the artistic process faster than others. I know that some will demonstrate Studio Habits of Mind easily and others will need more time to develop those habits. I know that all of my student will grow artistically, both in behaviors and skills from where they were when they stepped into the classroom. I know each journey is different. What I don’t know is how to show that in our society’s “beloved” grading hierarchy.

Image credit Katherine Douglas and Clark Fralick

I feel like I am digressing a little here. I was talking about moving on from engagement grading to something more meaningful. I feel like I have figured out what I want to assess my non-first level students on this coming year and beyond. Katherine Douglas shared with me a poster about the things that artists can do in art class. I am in the process of creating an assessment chart for my artists based on this image. I know it was originally meant for elementary, but the behaviors truly span through to any artist at any stage/age. Where I get stuck is the grading part. The chart is easily used as a rubric for assessing students’ artistic thinking processes, but translating that to a numerical grade sucks. There is no other way to say that. I mean, I figured out a point system that makes sense and correlates to emerging, proficient, and mastery levels. But, it does not work well with our antiquated grading system. Their report card just shows some average number that doesn’t accurately show anything meaningful to their learning.

I know that some schools have changed their grading systems, but not mine. And mine isn’t going to change for the foreseeable future. And probably, most schools won’t either. So, in the end, how do we deal with this? How do we use our grading system to truly show growth? I am unsure if it is possible in a system where high school students rely on GPAs for things like scholarships and top % for automatic admission to state schools. Do I just give in and grade on participation, continue with engagement and add in conferences with each student to talk about their growth assessment?

I think this is the hardest part of being a teacher for me. And, the hardest part of being a TAB teacher since I am teaching a way of thinking and not just something that has right/wrong answers. I told you I wasn’t going to make things any clearer in this post. And, I didn’t get any closer to solving my dilemma of how to create a point system for my assessments of artistic growth, thinking, and understanding. But hopefully this post gave you something to think about and discuss. And perhaps, the more we discuss it with each other, the discussion will start to move to those above us teachers that make decisions and we can begin to change the face of education.

I thought I was done, but I think I want to add here that I wrote this post over a week ago, but haven’t published until now because I’ve been going over and over in my head what the purpose of my grading is, and grading in general. At my school, fine arts is a required class to graduate (1 credit worth), but it is not counted towards GPA–something I felt strongly against, but now am not so sure anymore if I want it to count towards GPA. Above you read what Google says the purpose is supposed to be, but that’s not reality. And after reading several posts/conversations this week in both TAB groups and non-TAB groups, the dilemma for me is even worse. I don’t want grades to be punitive. I want my grades to reflect learning and growth, but I can’t figure out a way to where they show growth that isn’t punitive. Assigning lower grade numbers for developing habits/skills and higher grades for mastered skills averages to some number that can seem “negative”. A student that grows over the course of the class should have a 100 for their final grade, right?

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