A Flexible and Smart Grading System

Tracy Bruno
Tracy Bruno
Chief of Middle Schools; M.Ed. in Administration and Supervision

Why Some Students Benefit from Flexible Grading

If you really want to get a debate going among educators, broach the subject of grading. Grading seems to be a hot button issue for many adults in education. We always talk about making decisions in the best interest of our students, but then we turn around and hand out zeros or “Fs” when our expectations or timelines have not been met. Why do we need flexible grading?

Simply stated, children deserve it. So many educators say they must abide by one-chance testing and deadlines because they are preparing students for “the real world”. The world I live in is full of second chances. Not to mention how we give grades. I have seen grades handed out based on things such as: class participation, attendance, volunteering to lead a small group, and turning in work early. The problem with these practices is that you are really assigning a grade for a behavior, not comprehension of knowledge.

We must learn to separate behavior from knowledge. Is it fair to a shy student that someone in his/her group is going to get bonus points because they are more outgoing? Certainly not. When a student cheats on a test or on a paper, the reaction from the teacher is to give that student a zero. Again, the cheating/plagiarism is a behavior. What are some consequences that would address the behavior and still give the teacher an opportunity to assess the student’s knowledge?

Another reason to adopt a more flexible grading system is the change to online learning due to the pandemic. Many students have had trouble adjusting to online learning. Families may not have the resources to provide consistent internet access for their students. This becomes an equity issue. Teachers often say that if they give one student a chance to turn in work late, they are not being fair to the other students.

When you hold the same expectations for all students, you are practicing equality. Equality means that all students are getting the same. Can we assume that all students have the same resources at home? No, we cannot. Not to mention our students with learning difficulties. Many of these students struggle to show mastery of content when they are physically sitting in the classroom, let alone the distractions and barriers these students experience at home.

Ideas for a Flexible Grading System

Instead of practicing grading in the traditional manner (teacher teaches content, all students take a one-time standardized test), here are some suggestions to be more innovative with your grading system.

Choice Boards

Choice boards are a great way to differentiate activities for students while also assessing content knowledge. Some great choice board ideas I have seen in classrooms include allowing students to create their own graphic novel over content, write a poem or song about a topic, or film a news program focusing on an historical event as if it were a current event. The real ownership comes when you brainstorm board ideas with your students and allow them to help choose the activities. The great thing about choice boards is that students can complete these in a traditional classroom or use a classroom platform like Canvas to submit their work remotely.

Allow Retakes

If a student did not do well on a summative assessment, my school had a system in place to allow students to retake the assessment. Many colleagues have the same reaction when I tell them about this plan: “if students are allowed to retake a summative assessment, they just will not study the first time and bury the teacher in paperwork with retakes”.

To address this issue, we created relearning contracts. If a student wished to retake a summative assignment (we did not allow retakes of formative assignments), they had to fill out a form that outlined the extra work the student would do between the first and second opportunity. The student had their parents/guardians sign the paper, and then the student and teacher reviewed it together.

The idea is that when students realize the extra work they must complete in order to get a retake, they will realize that it is just easier to study/work hard on the first attempt. In a remote learning setting, the parent/guardian signature is a promise that the adults at home will support the student as they complete extra work without doing the work for the student.

Retest Specific Sections of a Test

Another way to avoid an avalanche of paperwork is to allow students to only retake the part of the test on which they performed poorly. An easy way to gauge this is to divide your test into sections. If a teacher gives a test that covers three different standards, it would make sense for three different sections of questions to be included in the assessment. That way, a teacher could spot a section that needed remediation and then give the student a chance to retake only that section. This could also work in conjunction with the retake policy noted above.

Wrong Item Analysis

Instead of allowing students to retake an entire test or even a section, you could implement the practice of “wrong item analysis”. This is much more specific to individual questions a student might miss on a test. Usually analysis sheets provide a space for the student to write their incorrect answer, the new work that shows how they got their new answer, and a section that allows students to self-evaluate what went wrong.

Did the student miss the question because they were rushing through the test? Did the student miss the question because there was some kind of conceptual misunderstanding? These are important questions that get to the root cause of the wrong answer. Say half the class missed a question due to misunderstanding a concept or skill. That would be an issue the teacher might need to address in his/her delivery of the lesson next time.

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