Kleenex© is not proficiency (AKA: It is time to burst the grading bubble)

At the most recent ACTFL convention in San Diego, I had the opportunity to give a small talk. Actually six of us each gave a talk in the style of a TED Talk. They were called “TOY Talks,” with TOY standing for Teacher of the Year. I was joined by five other former ACTFL National Language Teachers of the Year and each of us prepared and delivered our version of a TED Talk. Challenging. Inspiring. The choice (or the combination) was up to us. After we talked ourselves off the ceiling due to our uncertainty about doing this kind of speaking, we each set about to decide what we wanted to share. Our talks are all very different. You can find all six on the ACTFL YouTube channel.

I wanted to talk about grading. Yup. Grading. And why we are doing it wrong.

I opened my talk with three statements and l instructed the audience to close their eyes for each one and raise their hand at the statement was true for them personally. And of course I had planned my statements purposefully, fully expecting almost everyone’s hands to go up for the first two statements and significantly fewer hands to go up for the third. And so we set off. I told the audience to close their eyes for the first statement which was “raise your hand if your primary goal is to develop your students’ proficiency in the language you teach.” Nearly 100% of the audience raised their hand. This did not surprise me. In fact, I was expecting that and I believe that this is true of the language teachers in our country: we all aspire to prepare our students to be able to interact with other speakers of the language in a variety of contexts with in and beyond the classroom. The audience keep their hands up, opened their eyes and looked around. Heads nodded as they saw that their peers felt the same way they did.

OK, time for statement two. I instructed the audience to lower their hands and close their eyes again. This time the statement was, “Raise your hand if your instruction, practice and assessment are all designed to help develop that proficiency.” Again, almost 100% of hands went up. I had the audience keep their hands up, open their eyes and look around. And again, I believe that this is true. I think that most teachers really do feel that the lessons they design, the practice activities and opportunities they provide, and even the assessments that they administer work together to help develop students’ proficiency.

On to the third statement. “Close your eyes and raise your hand if the grades your students earn absolutely and accurately reflect their ability to use the language outside of your class.” I fully expected fewer hands to go up for this statement. I planned it that way. But even I was not prepared for what I saw. “Keep your hands up, open your eyes, and look around.” One hand was up. One. In an audience of well over 100 educators, only one person felt that the grades his or her students received accurately reflected the degree to which students could use the material they learned outside of class. Something is wrong and I don’t think it’s entirely due  to the teachers, the lessons, the practice, or even the assessments. Our grades are broken. The way many of us grade is broken. And the saddest thing is, our grading system is so institutionalized that most teachers use it without even giving it a second thought.

I would submit that traditional grading systems–with a 100% scale and traditional grade book categories do NOT value proficiency and that we are losing students–sometimes proficient students–as a result. So if traditional gradebook categories and the 100% scale do not value proficiency, what DO they value?

They value points. And points and proficiency aren’t the same thing.

In American education, we often do things the way they have always been done. For example, gradebook categories whose sections have names such as “homework,” “tests,” “quizzes,” and “participation.” And, of course, “extra credit.”And each of those sections is often assigned a percentage value (or a “weight”). All the assignments the students complete receive points and the points are input into the correct category. Math is done and the whole thing adds up to a score out of a possible 100%. There is conversion to a letter grade using the 100% scale and that letter grade gets reported to parents, students, and others. There is some variation to this conversion, but most scales go something like this:

  • 90-100 = A
  • 80-89 = B
  • 70-79 = C
  • 60-69 = D
  • 0-59 = F

That’s not proficiency. That’s 100 shades of grey. What real difference is there between the demonstrated proficiency of a student “earning” 89% and that of one who earned 90%? Almost no one can tell you anything substantive about how their skills and knowledge differ in meaningful ways. But those two students will get two different grades. Two different GPAs. The implications are huge. And what about for the student who earns 59% vs. the one who earns 60%? One will fail the course. The other will “pass” (although I would also argue that a D is a meaningless grade).  And that’s not even considering what these grades are comprised of–often, activities such as bringing in tissues for “extra credit” are used to add points to the academic grade. What does that have to do with the students’ academic skills? Nothing. But now those tissues and similar “points” are muddying the grading waters.

We have done this in education for a long time and the system works great…if the accumulation and reporting of points is your primary objective. But I don’t think any of us see that as our primary objective. So, click here to see my “TOY Talk” where I break down why this system is actually less fair to all of our learners and what I (and a growing number of teachers in all subjects, including ours) believe may be a better way.

I also highly recommend you check out the works of Myron Dueck, Tom Schimmer, Jan Chappuis and Rick Wormeli (books and video), all of whom have greatly inspired and shaped my thinking on this subject and the changes I have made in my approach to grading and assessment over the past few years.


3 thoughts on “Kleenex© is not proficiency (AKA: It is time to burst the grading bubble)

    1. Thanks for you comment, Erica. In my case, it has helped to be in a school and a district that has shown some support for moving in this direction. We have received funding to attend the Assessment Training Institute in Oregon (a program that I highly recommend, by the way), and they also brought Myron Dueck (a recognized expert in assessment and grading practices) to our district for a series of professional development. The hardest aspect has actually been “tweaking” our required online gradebook’s settings since it is currently only designed to work within the traditional 100% scale.

      In your case, I would recommend starting the conversation about blending benchmark testing (for comparison purposes) with classroom-based (and teacher-designed) assessments that are evaluated using standards-aligned proficiency rubrics. Over time, it may even be possible to design performance assessments (and rubrics) that can be used for your district benchmarking needs once you and your colleagues have had a chance to norm your grading practices.


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