One unit into second semester Algebra and only one student has an F. Only one! And he never showed up until the day we started the second unit! Okay, so the seven D’s won’t be enough at the end of the semester to send them along, but we’ve got time. Why is this this so much better than at the end of the semester when I had 18 (yes, 18 out of 35) students with D’s or F’s? This is the part where I either pat myself on the back for getting assessment now, or cringe with guilt for blowing it last semester.

Right now in my classes, everything is about GPA. Assignments are worth 4 points, quiz questions are worth 4 points (each and every one of them), and a 2 out of 4 does not mean 50% (F). Just like on your transcript, 4=A, 3=B, 2=C, and 1=D. I’m sure anyone who’s read any of the “literature” on why a zero is not the way to go can appreciate the basic outline (and by “literature” I mean those op-ed pieces that get photocopied and passed out in credential programs, professional development seminars, and new teacher induction programs as though they represented actual research). But the clincher is in the quizzes. I told my students we would not have any tests this semester (except for the final exam which is department mandated and written – ugh), but to expect frequent quizzes.

My school has developed/is developing/will develop a standard set of learning targets. Like, “I can find the x- and y-intercepts of a line.” I broke those up into different units (I know, not revolutionary, but a very important step), and then broke each of those down into necessary subsets. To use the example above, a student who can find the y-intercept of y=2x+4 demonstrates a different level of skill than a student who can find the x-intercept of the same equation. Each quiz overlaps with similar questions. As students take quizzes (where each question is scored on that 4 point scale), they track their scores. If they receive two 4’s (two perfect scores) on the same subset, I put a stamp on their tracking sheet, and they no longer have to take that part of the quiz. I put the highest two grades a student receives in my gradebook.

Students are starting to dig this. Okay, so I don’t think many of them have internalized that they’ve developed mastery of a certain skill and therefore do not need to continue to demonstrate it to an outside authority, but they are definitely getting the extrinsic incentive and asking for stamps and wanting to show me perfect scores. I’ve even had a student ask me to take a quiz again on a certain skill so they can show me they know it now and therefore raise their grade.

That’s the last key point. If a student can show me now, or if it takes until week 12, I will reward the student with the same 4 points. Not on assignments (I grade those largely on effort as demonstrated by attempting the entire assignment and reward an A grade only for work submitted on time), but on quizzes. The pressure I felt leave my Intermediate ELL students alone would have made that part worthwhile.

I’m loving the overall grading design. It’s much more time consuming, but it feels worth it, so I’m investing the time. There’s still parts of it I’m debating with myself (How much of a grade is about assignments and how much about formal assessment? Should all skills be equally weighted?), but I feel like I can now tell students, parents, other teachers, and anyone else what it means to get an A in my class (students are repeatedly demonstrating mastery of skills) and what it means to get a D (students demonstrate they are thinking about and grappling with the topic, if not always successfully putting the pieces together).

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