EDTECH 531: Blow up the gradebook

In 1996 I was a first year teacher for the second time (long story). Being the new teacher, I was given the classes that nobody else could teach or wanted to teach. This means I think I had 5 preps that year. One thing that I learned about the kids at this school was how thick the fear of failure was for them. They would rather fail because they did not try at all than to try even a little and fail, or possibly not fail. So many students just accepted they were going to fail no matter what they did. The system socially promoted them for 8 years so for many of them, in the 9th grade, they were actually being held accountable for their actions or inaction. I forget how many students failed the 9th grade and had to repeat it, but it was a high percentage. I did not want to see students who had been channeled into the non-college-prep track get stuck in classes with the unmotivated teachers. You see, if they failed my 9th grade physical science class, it was very unlikely I would ever see them as a chemistry student. Without taking chemistry in high school, the chances of getting into a public 4 year college in CA are very slim. Where am I going with this? I had to find a way to stop kids from giving up even before they had a clue how much cool stuff they could do, if only they would let themselves do some work.

I admit that I was the worst physical science teacher on earth my first semester (year on a 4×4) teaching it. I have the credential for it because I took physics  and chemistry in college, but at that time I completely stunk with explaining physics without equations. Physical science was pretty much non-math based physics. Putting numbers on the board shut down so many kids that I had to be very careful with how and when we did math in class. I had zero support from my teaching colleagues. They did not want me to be there, plus rarely did a science teacher last past one year so why would they want to invest any time, energy, or equipment in me. Pretty much for the first couple years of teaching, if I could find the items we needed for a lab at Home Depot or the grocery store, we were good for the lab. eBay did not exist yet.

When I was getting my teaching credential, one of my professors suggested that we do a grading system where everything was based on the lowest possible task we could ask students to do. For me, that was homework. Homework was always an effort grade. They got credit whether they did it correctly or not. It was a part of the learning process. I also put up signs celebrating mistakes, but that does not necessarily belong in this thread. For me, homework was weighted as 1x. Labs were weighted as 2x through 4x depending on how difficult they were and how much work was involved. Quizzes were usually 2x, and tests were often 8x or 10x depending on how much homework had been assigned. After about 5 years of teaching, I figured out how to map questions directly to content standards so sometimes the grading had content standards weighted instead of questions.

This sounds very confusing, doesn’t it? That was my point. I loved the way this grading system worked because the kids could not figure it out. To calculate a final grade, you add up all the points and divide by the number of x values you have. So final grades ranged from 0 to 4.0.  OH, I forgot to mention, with this grading, if students did A work, they got a 4 on the assignment. B work was a 3. C work was a 2. D work was a 1. F work or nothing turned in was a 0. As long as something intelligent was turned in, the student automatically earned a 1 for the assignment. With homework, the stamp for completeness was worth 4 points. If they did not complete it on time to earn the stamp, they could earn 2 points by doing the homework and turning it in on the day of the test. Earning 2 of 4 points seemed much nicer (?) than earning a 50%. There is more to this system, but I don’t want to go off topic of the prompt too much.

Why change the numbering system? These numbers don’t look at all like percentages so the students don’t know what to do with them. They would, however, see they had a 1.7 which was a D, but because 1.7 is so close to 2, they would not automatically shut down. They still thought they could get to where they wanted to be. It was possible. On a percentage scale, the 1.7 could have been a 40%.  Seeing 40% for a grade often shut down the students. Even if they only had 3 assignments turned in out of possibly 20 or 30 they would have during the quarter, seeing the 40% they decided they were failures and it would not be worth their time to even try. Going to what I referred to as a rubric based system, they were too confused to know if they should give up. Fortunately many students who otherwise would have given up seeing a 42% did not give up when they saw 1.7.

What Dr. Haskell does with quests is somewhat similar. It is a new numbering system that does not align directly to percentages. I do not know how he determines his breaking points for classification of status or for final grades, but it does not really matter. As his student, I know there have to be opportunities for me to earn more points because there are more levels of recognition I can gain. I pretty much know my status at any given time so how much I have progressed is obvious. Nothing tells me I’m at an F and have to work up to an A. I’ve been tricked into thinking I can move up the ranks as if I’m in the military. With hard work and determination, I can easily earn more points.

I have been in favor of destroying the percentage based grading system ever since I had the students who reeked with the odor of fear of failure. The logic of 60% being passing just makes no sense to me. I would love to see quest-like grading continue because the system I did is too complicated for most people to understand or accept it. Several years ago I heard Robert Marzano talk at ASCD, and was surprised to see his break offs for final grades are similar to mine. It turns out the system I developed is very close to what he promotes in his work. I can’t even take full credit for this idea because it was given to me as a student teacher. It was not my original idea.

I don’t know what type of system I will develop with my quests. For continuity sake, I may adopt a hierarchy similar to what Dr. Haskell does. On the other hand, maybe I will come up with science critters to represent various levels of evolving through a course. I’m not at that point yet with my thinking, so you’ll have to keep track of me to see what I eventually end out doing.

As for how quest based grading or my grading system would mesh with PowerSchool or any of those parent-friendly technology-based communication systems, I have no clue.

About Melissa

I am a former high school science teacher and recently completed a MET degree at Boise State

Posted on October 6, 2014, in EDTECH 531 and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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