Grading Policies Prompt Questions

Joshua Geaughan, News Editor

Each and every student in West Springfield high school has two univoidable things about their time here, school work and grades. While having school work is an absolute definite, how that work gets graded has changed a lot over the years, and for many people who deal with those changes, a single question comes to mind, “Why do we have grades?” 

The textbook importance of grades in the modern education system is apparent from miles away. Ever since we were in elementary school we have been constantly reminded that grades exist to get into college or to have any higher education. Although that is mostly true, it doesn’t explain why we hold the percentage-based grading system that we do. When we think about why college wants students with good grades it makes sense, in a lot of ways colleges need to see before you come into their school that you can manage the work that they are going to give to you, one easy way of doing that is putting you on a numerical scale of worth. The GPA is more often than not going to be your biggest achievement in high school simply because of how much data it holds. It takes everything from each class, each semester, and each year of high school you have taken and it puts you on a ranked scale of effort. 

Then again, even though the system works that way, it isn’t the only grading system available. Mr. Brown, an English teacher here in the school, shared his thoughts on grades and different grading systems:

 “Standards-based grading means grading kids according to how well they have mastered certain specific state standards.  Narrative grading is just writing a reflection about what the student has learned, and how they’ve performed.  Interesting, but not feasible if you teach 80 or 100 kids at a time.  And, not quantifiable into a GPA for college,” he explained.

  Mr. Brown is not alone in his speculation on an alternative grading system. Even if a standard or written evaluation would be more personal to each student, we come across the greatest benefit of numerical grading systems, they are easy to grade. With everything being based on percentages, teachers’ jobs are made easier by assigning a google form or worksheet and grading on accuracy gives an easy fraction that could be factored into the larger percentage. The convenience of the numerical grading system is simply too great as teachers can worry less about grades and think of the numbers as more of a checkpoint as they focus on teaching. 

With that in mind though, a common criticism of numerical grading systems echoed throughout the school is that they don’t give an accurate representation of effort, nor do they give an accurate representation of a student’s growth. As one student reported, “There are a lot of other determining factors around grades other than ‘do you know how to do this?’I have a lot of stuff going on in my life and when I get home I can’t really think about homework, but homework is a big part of my grade.” The current way that schoolwork and homework are most often graded is less on intelligence or someone’s aptitude and mostly on completing work on time in reasonable quality, and for a lot of students, that’s where the numerical grading system fails. 

On the other end of the spectrum, though, you have students that might not have an aptitude for a class and if you graded completely on the skill someone has, the kid would instantly fail out of the class. So numerical grading systems can work if teachers can strike the perfect balance between grading aptitude or grading effort.  Although numerical grading systems in the hand of a careful teacher work just fine, it has tendencies to slip into “compliance grading” or half of the students fail out because of the high skill required by the grading systems of the class.  

“At one end of the scale you don’t reward effort no matter what and on the other end, you have participation trophies. You have what’s in the business called ‘compliance grading’, the kid did everything I asked him to do therefore he gets a 100,” Mr.Brown explained. In a total point or free category system that we had precovid where teachers could mostly do what they want free-reign with the grades balancing those philosophies can come to mixed results.

”If the grades are weighted correctly they can actually be reflective of genuine performance,” one sophomore said, and their comment was echoed by many students interviewed. When numerical grading systems are balanced correctly, they work very well. This also leads into our current structure of grades as the very end of 2020’s school year became a scrambling mess to try to implement grading systems remotely, going into the 2020-2021 school year school administration needed to figure out a solution. 

Taking away the free rein style of letting each teacher choose for themselves how to balance grades was a controversial move, to say the least. Some teachers didn’t mind the new version of the category weight system (a system I’ve started to refer to as the “bucket grading system”) and thought that in a year of uncertainty it provided kids with the certainty of knowing how their grades would be balanced. On the other hand, there was a loud minority that felt like the bucket grading system was more of a hindrance than a help. 

There are a few distinct differences between a traditional category weight system of the old and the new one. First is that there are only three categories that every teacher can have, before they could make whatever they want a weighted part of their grade, sometimes having projects being the majority on percentage, other times classwork took up most of the final grade, but the bucket grading system simplified it to three buckets. Now whatever class you walk into has participation, formative, and summative. The other difference is that each department (or subject) gets to choose how much each bucket is worth, making sure that each teacher grades the same in a department, putting another check on teachers for consistency. 

“The thing with grades is that there are a lot of different ways to do it, there isn’t one system, vice principal Mr.Girardin explained. “What we did in the past, historically, is that we said the teacher can decide how they want to do it, but what happened was when we went remote we just needed to simplify things to make it consistent and easier to understand because that environment was way different than anything we’ve ever done. And what we found was it worked really well for a lot of teachers and kids. So when we came back we just said, ‘let’s just keep it.’”   

Everything about this new grading system was designed to emphasize consistency. When a student walks into a class now they have a good idea of how each class is grading, taking much of the mystery out of the final grade. This also attempts to fix the balancing problems of not having a school-wide standard for grades, with tests usually making up the most in summative, schoolwork next with formative, and homework and class participation being well… participation. In theory, this serves to reward doing work and effort but also puts a little bit of emphasis on accuracy and talent. 

Although it is not without its flaws, most of the time the complaints come from teachers who miss the freedom of having their own grading systems in place. Mostly the teachers who used to use the “total points system” feel the most convicted about the change. The total points system gives each piece of work, from participation to big topic tests, a total number of points that can be achieved, from there those possible points are added up with all the other possible points to create the total points a student can achieve, and by adding up all the points a student has achieved and dividing them, you can get an easy and clear numerical grade. But with the bucket system being in place, most of the teachers who used to use total points simply try to convert their previous grading system to the new one, leading to an interesting balancing of grades. 

Even after all that, grades are only an abstraction of skill and effort so it makes sense to implement them into a class that has correct answers and objective facts and to turn those facts into binary “yes” and “no” to get a number, but what happens if you try to grade something as subjective as art classes? 

Art classes try not to grade effort directly, as the school band director Mr.Holesovsky said, “Self-assessment is a thing that I think a lot of my colleagues in the art department, especially in the visual arts, are always asking for. Grading somebody’s art is always very subjective. Especially for beginning artists, in the beginning, you are always copying and observing examples trying to recreate those examples. You really haven’t established your own voice yet, but usually, everyone’s trying to figure this thing out and it’s very easy to grade that process.” 

Grading art classes comes down to grading progress and growth. Even as the elements of a binary can be graded, as you can be tested on a certain understanding of technical elements, most of the grade should not be grading the art, and instead of grading the students. Each element of the numerical grading system then gets repurposed as both the student and the teacher have to assess progress in a class and not correct answers. Some teachers go about this in different ways, certain art teachers like Mr.H himself, grade more on focus and participation in a piece, and others grade on self-reflection, how a student was able to comprehend the rules and the ideas of a project over the final piece.

Again, this begs the question, why grades at all? Especially in an art class, not having the pressure of numerical abstractions would most likely do wonders for the student, but it’s a question that everyone seems to have a different answer to. Some people think grading is like racing or competing in athletics, times and scores are abstractions of skill, but in a way, they motivate athletes to try their best. Others figure that grades are more of a test for teachers instead of students, as having numerical proof of their job can tell them where and how they can improve. And still, others think that grades measure not only their aptitude but their personal growth in a subject. With a subject as wide and complex as grading and teaching, will there ever really be an objective answer to any questions we ask? Grades are as important as they are meaningless, just like high school and life at large, grades are what you make of them. And as long as these questions are still asked, grades will keep evolving, changing their form to represent a student body the best.