The importance of appropriate grading

11 Jan

Education is a partnership between the student, parent(s) or guardian(s), teacher(s), and school. Standards are a benchmark, but students and families need to prepare for and support student education success. Teachers must be prepared and supported in meeting the standards adopted by the schools. Schools must be learning environments which support and mentor teachers and keep children safe. Otherwise, standards are simply a nice goal.

A report, Standing On the Shoulders of Giants by Mark S. Tucker examines high performing education systems. Among the recommendations are:

What follows is a new agenda for recasting the structure of the preceding section, derived from the experience of the countries that have consistently outperformed the United States. It was constructed simply by taking the subsection headings and reframing the language of the preceding sections in the form of an action agenda. To be clear, this is not an agenda for the United States; it is an agenda for individual states:

Benchmark the Education Systems of the Top-Performing Countries

  • Make sure you know what the leaders are trying to achieve, the extent to which they achieve it and how they do on common measures

  • Compare your state to the best performers, with particular attention to countries that share your goals

  • Conduct careful research on the policies and practices of the best performing nations to understand how they get the results they get

  • Benchmark often, because the best never stand still

Design for Quality

  • Get your goals clear, and get public and professional consensus on them

  • Create world-class instructional systems and gateways

  • Define a limited number of gateways — not more than the end of basic education, end of lower secondary and end of upper secondary (matched up to college entrance and work-ready requirements)

  • Create standards for each gateway, making sure they are properly nested and are world class

  • Create logically ordered curriculum frameworks (topics for each year or each subject) for the basic education sequence

  • Create curriculum (broad guidelines, not lesson plans) for each school level leading up to the gateway exams (the level of detail at which this is done should be inversely related to the quality of your teachers)

  • Create exams for each gateway, based on standards and curricula

  • Train teachers to teach those curricula well to students from many different backgrounds….

Appropriate use of grading and testing are methods to determine whether the education system is meeting stated goals.

University of Michigan Center For Research On Learning and Teaching suggests in Best Practices for Designing and Grading Exams, adapted from M.E. Piontek (2008) :

The most obvious function of assessment methods (such as exams, quizzes, papers, and presentations) is to enable instructors to make judgments about the quality of student learning  (i.e., assign grades). However, the method of assessment also can have a direct impact on the quality of student learning. Students assume that the focus of exams and assignments reflects the educational goals most valued by an instructor, and they direct their learning and studying accordingly  (McKeachie  & Svinicki, 2006).  General grading systems can have an impact as well.  For example, a strict bell curve (i.e., norm-reference grading) has the potential to dampen motivation and cooperation in a classroom, while a system that strictly rewards proficiency (i.e., criterion-referenced grading) could be perceived as contributing to grade inflation. Given the importance of assessment for both faculty and student interactions about learning, how can instructors develop exams that provide useful and relevant data about their students’ learning and also direct students to spend their time on the important aspects of a course or course unit? How do grading practices further influence this process?

Guidelines for Designing Valid and Reliable Exams

Ideally, effective exams have four characteristics. They are:

  • Valid, (providing useful information about the concepts they were designed to test),
  • Reliable (allowing consistent measurement and discriminating between different levels of performance),
  • Recognizable  (instruction has prepared students for the assessment), and
  • Realistic (concerning time and effort required to complete the assignment)  (Svinicki, 1999). 

Most importantly, exams and assignments should focus on the most important content and behaviors emphasized during the course (or particular section of the course). What are the primary ideas, issues, and skills you hope students learn during a particular course/unit/module? These are the learning outcomes you wish to measure. For example, if your learning outcome involves memorization, then you should assess for memorization or classification; if you hope students will develop problem-solving capacities, your exams should focus on assessing students’ application and analysis skills.  As a general rule, assessments that focus too heavily on details (e.g., isolated facts, figures, etc.) “will probably lead to better student retention of the footnotes at the cost of the main points” (Halpern & Hakel, 2003, p. 40). As noted in Table 1, each type of exam item may be better suited to measuring some learning outcomes than others, and each has its advantages and disadvantages in terms of ease of design, implementation, and scoring.

Table 1: Advantages and Disadvantages of Commonly Used Types of Achievement Test Items

Type of Item Advantages Disadvantages
True-False Many items can be administered in a relatively short time. Moderately easy to write; easily scored. Limited primarily to testing knowledge of information.  Easy to guess correctly on many items, even if material has not been mastered.
Multiple-Choice Can be used to assess broad range of content in a brief period. Skillfully written items can measure higher order cognitive skills. Can be scored quickly. Difficult and time consuming to write good items. Possible to assess higher order cognitive skills, but most items assess only knowledge.  Some correct answers can be guesses.
Matching Items can be written quickly. A broad range of content can be assessed. Scoring can be done efficiently. Higher order cognitive skills are difficult to assess.
Short Answer or Completion Many can be administered in a brief amount of time. Relatively efficient to score. Moderately easy to write. Difficult to identify defensible criteria for correct answers. Limited to questions that can be answered or completed in very few words.
Essay Can be used to measure higher order cognitive skills. Relatively easy to write questions. Difficult for respondent to get correct answer by guessing. Time consuming to administer and score. Difficult to identify reliable criteria for scoring. Only a limited range of content can be sampled during any one testing period.

Adapted from Table 10.1 of Worthen, et al., 1993, p. 261.

Choosing the appropriate measurement is important for accurate evaluation.

Education Research reports in the article, Teachers so focused on fairness issues they overlook best practices in grading:

The 77 teachers who participated in the study completed questionnaires asking them to rate their awareness of 4 grading principles and to provide information about their own grading practices.  Among the results:

  • 29% reported considerable awareness of recommended grading principles
  • 40 % reported some degree of awareness of grading principles 
  • 17% of teachers said they had only very little awareness
  • 13% said they had no awareness of the grading principles.

When asked how much they used these principles in their grading practices, 

  • 23% of teachers agreed that they followed the principles
  • 43% somewhat agreed that they followed   the principles
  • 10% said the principles did not apply to them
  • 13% somewhat disagreed that they fol- lowed the principles
  • 3% disagreed that they followed the prin ciples and 10% felt they did not apply to them.

In a standards-based system,  it’s important for teachers to stay focused on assessing a student’s achievement against standards, the study says.  However, teachers persist in taking into account a hodgepodge of other factors such as student effort  or whether the student hands in work on time, according to the study on the grading beliefs and practices of 10th-grade math teachers in Ontario….

The 4 principles that formed the framework for the study were:

  1. Grades should be referenced to the curriculum objectives or learning expectations (criterion referenced)
  2. A grade should be an accurate representation of achievement and non-achievement factors should be reported separately 
  3. Results from multiple assessments should be combined carefully with weighting that reflects learning expectations 
  4. Information about grading should be clearly communicated so that grades are justified and their meaning is understood by students, parents, and other teachers. 

The study was part of a larger nationally funded study on teachers’ grading practices in the provinces of Saskatchewan and Ontario. One goal of the study was to determine how teachers calculated students’ final report card grades in 2 educational systems with differing assessment policies.

Appropriate grading practices is an important component of ensuring that an education system is using best practices.

Dr. Wilda says this about that ©

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