I love the newspaper. Not that ridiculous e-paper. The big, inky version where above
the fold means something. I like to spread it out on the floor and read it in its entirety. I
teach English, and that’s why I only get the paper on the weekends. Through the week,
there are always other papers to read and grade.
One Sunday in the fall, I was reading the comics, and found this terrific strip in which a
young man argued with his father that his current C work would actually be much higher
in a short time given grade inflation. I promptly cut it out, hustled to the computer and
fashioned a writing assignment based on reaction to the cartoon. I gave them some
statistics on grade point averages and honors designations awarded to high school
students since 1990 along with a copy of the cartoon and asked them to respond first to
whether they felt that the course grades on their transcript accurately reflect what they
know and if they felt that grades were artificially inflated. It sparked a great discussion
with my seniors who have revisited throughout the year their ideas about grades, GPA,
class rank, the whole mess on which their academic futures hinge.
Their responses to the cartoon about grades reinforced what I most feared. . As a
student, my work was never graded with a rubric. My writing was returned to me with
lots of proofreaders marks, some commentary and then a letter, which translated into a
number into a column in a gradebook that eventually became a permanent part not just
of my academic history, but part of what I believed about my own intellectual potential or
lack of it. As a teacher, I was surely better. I used marker papers. I made detailed
rubrics to illustrate the expectations. I spent hours upon hours of my Saturdays and
Sundays writing insightful comments designed to help them rewrite. Yet, my students
have no more confidence in the A or B or C or D that I give them than I did in the
alphabet soup of my high school.
At least they had the grace to tell me that the comments always helped and that they
enjoyed reading my thoughts. I’m pretty skeptical, but we all need something to hold
onto so that’s what I’ve got, for now. Their insight into course grades was more
interesting than their ideas on my evaluations of their writings. My students will tell you
that I give a lot of “padding” grades and a heavy dose of optional grades. I was often a
B+ kid. I loved projects especially creative ones. I loved to draw posters, construct
dioramas and conduct science experiments. I worked really hard on those and often
had the help of my very creative and talented father. Those extras often helped push
me up to the A. So, I try to give meaningful assignments that are extensions of our
class topics and that allow students to showcase their talents and explore their
passions. Is that fair? If a student cannot score above an 88 on an assessment, does
that student deserve an A? What about the student who cannot pass a test, but will do
every assignment offered? Does that student deserve to earn a credit?
Buoyed by my students’ frank assessments, I dipped my toe into the Standards Based
Grading water. Everyone needs something to hold onto so given that my school
requires that I give a numerical grade, the SBG waters may be cold or warm, shallow or
deep, placid or shark infested. It didn’t matter, I had a 100 year old life ring, the letter
I started reading everything I could find on SBG. Truthfully, high schools are struggling.
We are firmly ensconced in the letter grade. Not just Somerset High School. Across
the nation, we need GPAs. We need class rank. We determine whether students will
receive free education or consign themselves to student loan debt on an arbitrary set of
numbers designed to indicate how much a student knows. In Kentucky, we offer the
very attractive KEES scholarships, but yet we have to way to assure that a 3.2 in
Paducah would be a 3.2 in Pine Knot or Prestonsburg. What if a 4.0 in Pee Wee Valley
is only a 2.8 in Possum Trot?
But we are preparing students to exist in a global community, right? So what if my Pine
Knot 3.2 is a 1.0 in Prague?
Thus began my students and I exploring Standards Based Grading.