If a physician combined measures of your height, weight, diet and exercise into a single grade to represent your physical condition, you would consider it laughable. How could the combination of such diverse measures yield anything meaningful?
Yet every day, teachers combine aspects of students’ achievement, attitude, responsibility and behavior into a single grade that is recorded on a report card — and no one questions it.
In determining grades, teachers typically merge academic scores from major exams, compositions, quizzes, projects and reports, with behavioral evidence from homework, punctuality in turning in assignments, class participation and work habits. Computerized grading programs help teachers apply different weights to each of these categories that then are combined in idiosyncratic ways.
The result is a hodgepodge grade that is just as confounded and impossible to interpret as would be a “physical condition” grade that combines height, weight, diet and exercise.
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Recognizing that merging these diverse sources of evidence distorts the meaning of grades, educators at two Lexington high schools are assigning multiple grades. They will distinguish grades based on academic success from grades that reflect students’ behavior, such as responsibility, homework, punctuality in turning in assignments, class participation and work habits. The intent is to provide a more accurate and informative picture of what students’ accomplish.
Since most teachers already gather evidence on these different aspects of students’ performance, reporting multiple grades doesn’t increase teachers’ workload. Offering a “dashboard of evidence” simply relieves teachers’ concerns about how to equitably weigh or combine that evidence in calculating an overall grade. It also avoids irresolvable arguments about the appropriateness or fairness of different weighting strategies.
Teachers who report multiple grades indicate that students take homework, punctuality and class participation more seriously when reported separately. These multiple grades may be recorded on report cards and transcripts as well. Most parents favor the practice, too, because it provides a more comprehensive profile of their child's performance in school.
Business leaders do the same in the “real world” where both work quality and deadlines are important. The employee who does excellent work but always turns it in late would not receive the same evaluation as the one who does poor work but always gets it in on time. Strategies for helping these employees improve their job performance would differ as well.
The same is true in evaluating students’ performance in school. Assigning the same grade to the irresponsible high achiever and to the highly responsible low achiever masks important differences in the performance attributes of both.
To effectively report multiple grades, teachers need to be clear about the criteria they use in evaluating students’ achievement, responsibility, behavior and work habits. They also must directly communicate those criteria to students, parents and others. Most important, they must teach students those things, guide students in making improvements, and then evaluate students’ performance accordingly.
Effective grading is more a challenge in effective communication than simply quantifying evidence on students’ performance. By reporting multiple grades, teachers improve communication between schools and families. They also provide specific direction in shared efforts to help students improve both academically and in other aspects of performance that contribute to school and life success.
Thomas R. Guskey is a professor of education at the University of Kentucky.