History of Grading

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83 thoughts on “History of Grading”

  1. …grades above 75 or below 25 were rare….

    I think this reflects the French system where 20’s are unheard of as perfect and completely acceptable work is fixed around a 12 (60%) or so out of the perfect 20 (100%). Is that about right Sabrina or Greg or anyone who knows for sure? Talk about gaming the system against the student in the U.S.! But not in sports, where a major league baseball player can get a hit only 30% of the time and be paid millions.

      1. Robert Harrell

        This is an issue that Standards Based Grading addresses. I find it interesting that so many teachers oppose SBG precisely because it enables a student to get a 1 “for just showing up”. They somehow seem to think that it is unfair to rate a student as “far below basic” and not put him or her into a hole so deep that it is nearly impossible to climb out of. It just shows how ingrained the percentage grading has become in the relatively short time since its inception.

        Thanks, Greg, for asking the question and questioning establishment assumptions.

        1. Robert Harrell

          That should be “enables a student to get a 1 out of 5 ‘for just showing up’.” Somehow evening out those levels seems “unfair” to them. But then James’s question is good: how is 5 levels of F and only 1 level of A fair or equitable?

          1. When teachers give a 1, which Robert explains is “far below basic” work, and think that even that 1 is unfair, a side of them is revealed. There are mean teachers who almost enjoy failing people. I remember one athlete who earned a 69.2 or something in a class and the teacher, knowing that he couldn’t play his sport without a 70, refused to change the grade. To me this is unconscionable and does reveal something about some teachers that may have never been brought to the light of day, how they use grades as part of some agenda that is flatly quite unkind.

      2. Last summer I heard about the 50% f minimum grade and I have tried to stick very close to this. The old way takes away the will to succeed for our students and is unjust and cruel. This year my students don’t even know that I do this but I have seen the difference it makes when a child can succeed even after making unwise decisions. I believe that is part of education. Consequence with redemption.

    1. Everywhere in France 10/20 is passing. 12/20 is a good, reliable student. Only very selective classes ask for more. 12/20 gets you a “mention” : assez bien. 14/20 = bien, 16/20 = Très bien. Anything more seems to speak for itself. Interesting that a 75 in the so-called laxist States gives you a C, and the mathematical equivalent, 15/20 gives you a very honorable and much sought after “bien”.

  2. That is a profound observation, James. It means that there is a big sized hole for our kids to fall into if they don’t obey us. I do not see this as fair. I do not see how trust can abide in a setting that is so dangerous for children, especially when they are growing up and need to find all the people they can whom they can trust.

      1. For that reason, I grade from 50-100. Actually, I don’t really grade, but if I were to grade . . .

        I’ve seen little reason to do the Quick Quizzes in my classes, since I have so much buy-in. And so I opt to continue the CI until the end of the period. As for jGR, it serves more as a way for me to remind students how their communication behavior affects their grade, while never actually giving out those grades. I would only resort to more grading if I had more discipline/motivation concerns.

        Recently, on storyasking days, I’ve paused every 5 sentences or so to give the students all time to write it individually in their notebooks. I do the same on the computer, thus giving me time to create the reading and they have to be attentive in order to be able to write the story. I tell them I will look at their writing, but I don’t.

        1. Robert Harrell

          That’s also why my grade book is organized as follows:
          100% = A+ (If you can keep this the whole semester, then you are definitely super Advanced)
          81-99% = A or Advanced
          61-80% = B or Proficient
          41-60% = C or Basic
          21-40% = D or Below Basic
          0-20% = F or Name on Roll Sheet
          Every grade has equal weight.

          For individual assignments, I give a “grade” of 5 = Advanced; 4 = Proficient; 3 = Basic; 2 = Below Basic; 1 = Far Below Basic; 0 = Didn’t even show up. The computer program calculates percentages for the letter grade. (A student who shows up, puts a name on the quiz/test paper and either leaves everything blank or gets everything wrong will still get a 1.)

          This is so far the most I have been able to do to subvert the system. Of course, it still does nothing to reveal what the student truly knows, how he laughs at the word play in the language, how she uses the language in a way that encourages others, how they develop deep relationships through shared language – so sometimes I decide what grade a student really has and adjust individual assignment grades to reflect that at the end of the semester.

          The longer I do this the more I recognize the gross inadequacy of letter and percentage grades as well as the arbitrary nature of the “traditional” (since 1900s) grading scale. My first year in college, the university I attended was founding a new college that would be using descriptions of work done rather than letter grades. This was hailed as new and innovative. Now I know that it was simply a return to what universities used to do before they became “education factories”.

          Imagine how people would view traditional foreign language instruction if grades were done descriptively.
          TCI: Joe understands simple spoken and written language and responds appropriately, either providing an insightful answer or indicating the need to negotiate meaning. He is beginning to initiate and sustain conversation. Even without knowing the technical terms or reciting conjugations by rote, Joe effectively communicates his needs, desires and ideas in the target language.
          Traditional: Joe can conjugate all of the regular land irregular -ar verbs in the present tense but is unable to understand spoken or written language; nor can he respond to it appropriately. He does not know how to negotiate meaning. He can explain in English the different uses of “por” and “para” as well “ser” and “estar” even though he is unable to use them in actual speech or writing.

          Which teacher would need to justify his or her method?

          1. As always, you’re right on the mark, Robert!

            Last year, with several other teachers in our district, I changed my grading system on our district’s Zangle Gradebook to the one you describe–unfortunately, not the descriptive one, but the numerical one. I could put in numbers and the system would accurately reflect the range. Unfortunately, despite a lot of parent education, it was still hard for people to wrap their minds around the “20%=D,” and, worse, when kids transferred out of my class, the percentage went with them to other schools, where 40% (my C) meant an F. Now I put in grades (A/B/C/D/F) along standards-based ideas, but have set the scale to register that an F is 55%. Lots of folks think that is not “fair,” as we’ve discussed, because it “gives” the kids a big step up for not doing anything, (The 55% is because I have to set a bottom and top for each grade. Zangle allows either grade or number input, not both. If I choose grade entry, it will take the middle score between the top and bottom; kids can therefore get a 55% lowest and 94% highest.)

            A 55% is still an F, but it makes things so much more fair for kids who miss an occasional assignment, as 55% is averaged with other grades, rather than 0 being averaged with other grades. And when they transfer, a common occurrence in our school, the grades match other systems.

            I still hate grades, and love the idea of not using them until the end of the semester or year. In our district, though, we are expected to have at least two grades in the gradebook every week. Other teachers have come up with complex adaptations; I just make all the little weekly grades worth five points and the semester final reading and listening (interpretive) grades worth 100 points. I also weight the interpersonal and interpretive categories much higher than the presentational, participation, and culture categories. (In advanced classes, the presentational category is weighted higher.)

            My best semester ever was the one in which I did an experiment we talked about here some years ago: kids signed a contract with me that they would get an A or a B with me if they had no fewer than three absences and were consistently getting top scores on a rubric similar to jGR. It was completely relaxed! A problem emerged when two or three kids who signed the contract and didn’t stick to it got their parents to fight the grades that I’d entered. Although their grades were reflective of what they could demonstrate in class, I had to start posting grades for everyone on quizzes and writing the following semester to appease the gods of administration.

            Now that I’m writing this, I think that what I could have done was explain to kids that I would ignore the actual scores of those who were sticking to the contract, putting in the same grade as their jGR, thus limiting grading to the few who didn’t “cooperate.” (I would still give them feedback, of course.) Hmm…maybe I’ll try that again next year. It’s going to be the year in which I might retire, so any backlash won’t hurt me at all…

            AND…it’s to be our first year of Danielson implementation, and I don’t intend to change my style to fit Danielson (another experiment). I may be doubling my chances of getting encouraged to retire.

          2. How I handle missing assignments (mainly homework that was never done), which would be a zero, is just not to count all the zeros that I could. I do not tell them what level of non-punishment I’ve allowed, and it varies from child to child, but I don’t have an open grade book so this works. That is, my school doesn’t have graded posted where parents can check on them every week.

          3. Robert, I’ll play devil’s advocate here: How is it fair that a student can be “proficient” and get only a B? When others look at the B on a transcript, they will think the student isn’t able to do something he or she is supposed to be able to do.

          4. Robert Harrell

            James, please define “fair”. Your statement implies that an “A” represents merely meeting the standard. As generally defined, though not necessarily followed, an “A” represents outstanding work above and beyond the standard. A “B” represents excellence in execution of the standard, i.e. proficiency. It is therefore equitable (the term I prefer for its connotation of “justness”) to receive a grade that indicates excellence in execution of the standard but not mastery beyond the standard. “Advanced” indicates mastery beyond the standards. Part of the problem and part of the reason why a descriptive grading system would be better than what we have now is that there is little to no consistency among graders as to what the grades mean. I cannot control what others mean by a term and refuse to try. I can, however, indicate what I mean (i.e. “B” = proficient).

            Furthermore, the perceived issue is offset by the fact that a “B” begins with 61%. Does anyone raise a question about “fairness” with this? Wouldn’t a 61% indicate that the student is highly lacking in the ability to do something that he or she is supposed to be able to do? Whenever I receive a student during the school year, I am provided with a letter grade, and I incorporate that into my grading scheme in a way that is just and equitable, then allow the student to prove his or her ability according to my understanding of the standards. Once again, I cannot be responsible for the way that others address the issues, nor should I be.

          5. James, please define “fair”. Your statement implies that an “A” represents merely meeting the standard. As generally defined, though not necessarily followed, an “A” represents outstanding work above and beyond the standard. A “B” represents excellence in execution of the standard, i.e. proficiency.

            Yes, for me an A is “meeting the standard.” You say an A as “generally defined” is only for above-and-beyond work. No teacher in my experience actually grades that way and no college or set of administrators views grades in that way. An A means they got it and anything less implies something less.

            If I had more courage, though, I might do as you describe.

          6. Robert Harrell

            Unfortunately, the standard that is generally met this way is simply an accumulation of points and expressed as a percentage of possible points. When a grade represents an accumulation of points, then the game becomes accumulating points in any way possible, whether that is getting points on an “assessment” or through “Extra Credit”; true proficiency or mastery is seldom even in the picture.

  3. The amount of totally wrong ideas about grading out there is staggering.

    Our school is on a huge assessment for learning, Wormelli kick and I got 2 things out of it:

    a) give feedback along the way and assign Numberz only at the end

    b) grades should only reflect skill in subject area, not attitude, behaviour, citizenship or whatnot.


    1. Chris, has you school addressed the influence of what happens before they reach school age that affects skill in subject area, or what happens outside of the school building (hunger, home stress, sleep, etc), and if it is thus unfair to grade on ability because of these huge factors?

    2. Robert Harrell

      The amount of totally wrong ideas about grading out there is staggering.

      You’ve got that right. Could you or James provide some more information on Wormelli? How does he differ from Marzano? My district has pushed Marzano for a couple of years (though I haven’t heard much this year).

  4. Thanks for these finds, Robert. I’m looking forward to reading these two articles (although, like Ben said, the whole thing doesn’t really matter for those who already aren’t fans of grades).

  5. He has a book called “Fair Doesn’t Mean Equal” (I think). Basically, it’s all about evaluation, and the gist of it is

    A) along the way– while learning– people need feedback to improve.

    B) research shows that Numberz are demotivating feedback. Most people like/do better with descriptive feedback (e.g. “Look at ____” or “try ____” or “clarify____”) so they can improve performance.

    C) Numberz should be assigned in relation to final learning outcomes only. So if criteria says “Johnny should be able to _____” his mark should reflect to what extent he can do ____.

    1. Maybe this is the title: Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. ??

      This is an eye-opening discussion. Thanks.

  6. Can someone educated about SGB (I’m not really) address for me the influence of what happens before they reach school age that affects ultimate skill in subject area, or what happens outside of the school building (hunger, home stress, sleep, etc), and if it is thus unfair to grade on ability because of these huge factors?

    Is this where differentiation comes in per Wormelli? How would that look in a FL classroom with grading?

    1. Perhaps this partly answers your question, Jim: I have one student, Terrance, who’s literacy skills are very low (a junior in high school). His other teachers agree. He’d probably have an IEP if he were in any affluent school district (or white school district). The thing is, he often gets a 9/10 on my jGR/ICSR grade because he sits up/ square shoulders/ clear eyes, and when I throw him a comprehension question he may not be able to answer it at first, but tries, and will answer after I repeat or modify the question. He certainly does not voluntarily give output.

      So, I’m not grading Terrance based on ability, I’m grading Terrance based on his demonstration of those ‘habits of mind’ (Dewey); those character traits; those citizenship qualities; those learning behaviors that we so very much want our students to demonstrate.

      If Terrance isn’t absent much for the rest of the school year, I anticipating giving him an A-.

      Meanwhile, those handful of higher ability but needy, attention seeking, disrupters… many of them I anticipate giving Cs. I can get away with this because my gradebook is full of grades. I give a jGR/ ICSR grade almost everyday (I’m on a block schedule).

      1. Bravo Sean. I will resist the old way of grading based on “how much was learned” (now there is a bogus term) in favor of how you describe Terrance above. That Terrance might get an A- speaks to my hope for the world.

      2. Dewey more or less articulated jGR as “habits of mind”? Where can I read about this Sean?

        I agree that a kid like Terrance should not be punished for having poor biology or upbringing (I supposing that one or both of these are reason for low literacy levels). And others would say that a kid who excels in the language but does not support the learning community or demostrate positive interpersonal communication skills does not deserve to be punished (given a lower grade). Is this the main rub in others’ minds between philosophies behind traditional grading (including participation/citizenship) and SBG?

        1. Oh, and John Dewey titled a book on education philosophy Habits of Mind and used the term to emphasize what we should concern ourselves with in our students: developing the habits of mind to be life-long learners.

          So, since you’re talking about Standards Based Grading (SBG), yes you can itemize your standards with acquisition levels, but you could also itemize your standards with character-trait levels, or, if I may, “habits of mind” levels. No? There have been tons of schools lately that have experimented with giving students character grades along with academic grades (eg KIPP schools). And I know that the term “grit” has been kicked around a lot lately as a character trait schools are advertising they want their students to develop.

          I am drawn to James’s description of how he uses SBG so that he can throw out a few bad grades and give students multiple chances to perform well.

          I personally really like jGR/ ICSR. It can provoke a lot of healthy conversation with students who may be failing but don’t agree as to why. If I had to give description grade instead of a letter grade, jGR sets me up nicely to do so.

          1. “Standards Based Grading (SBG), …acquisition levels, but you could also itemize your standards with character-trait levels,”

            This whole discussion (including James’ recommendation to see Wormeli, which I did) has helped me to look at jGR from another perspective.

            Wormeli, alluding to Animal Farm, says that “some standards are more equal than others.” He divides the standards into Primary (non-negotiables), Secondary (fill in where you can), and Tertiary (nice if you can get to them). At our beginning levels of teaching (say first 400 hours), we might say that Connections and Communities are tertiary, Comparisons and Culture are secondary, and Communication is primary.

            In the primary standard (Communication), the point of departure is the interpersonal mode. This grows into the Interpretive mode, and eventually the Presentational mode.

            From this point of view, jGR is not a measure of practice and process (which Wormeli says is irrelevant to whether or not one meets the standard), but rather of degree of ability to meet the criteria of the interpersonal mode. The criteria include negotiation of meaning, listening to understand, reacting appropriately, responding to questions, looking like you are interested in what the speaker has to say, staying in the agreed-upon language, and adding something relevant to the conversation, according to one’s ability to do so.

            This may not be characteristic of all interpersonal exchanges, but it is pertinent to the nurturing interpersonal context.

            Interpersonal is both a goal and the means to said goal.

    2. “if it is thus unfair to grade on ability because of these huge factors?”

      This is the problem with any grades, period. SBG will still treat these kids unfairly because life itself is treating them unfairly. Nevertheless, SBG does give the teacher more flexibility than traditional grading to give make-ups, etc., to help kids like those out as much as possible. But the real solution is simply not to grade at all.

      1. “SBG will still treat these kids unfairly because life itself is treating them unfairly.”

        Thanks James, this does reinforce what I would have anticipated. But it is better than traditional 100% grade scale grading? My admin is wanting to explore the idea, but so far teachers are not too excited about it. I’m probably one of the most receptive. Still, I have a hard time working on and learning about something that is not what is best for students, but simply what is a bit “better”. That’s my stubborn-ness.

        And I’m not so sure SGB is even better. With SGB, I can only grade my kids on final performance outcomes (correct?), despite the amount of front-loading some kids are given as a younger child in their first language by their parents and other caregivers via read-alouds and modeling. I agree with James, “the real solution is simply not to grade at all.”

        And perhaps I just need a better SGB commercial to sell me on it…

        1. I use SBG but it’s not like I weight everything on an end-of-semester exam. I give little mini-assessment all along (like we all do here) that line up with the standards. So at the end of the year I have real good picture of where each student is. The final exam is just a restatement of what I already know from my year-long data collection process (I like to word it like that because it sounds so fancy).

          So if I want to know if Johnny can understand L2 spoken Q&A, what better than a quick quiz? If a student does really well on most but bombs a few, I can just ignore the few they failed because the OVERALL picture is that he/she knows it. SBG gives me the flexibility to do that because it’s not about percentages.

          Also SBG lets student re-do stuff however often they need to. Lower SES students like that.

  7. Here’s a genuine question for the tribe here:

    Do you guys pass students who are excessively absent but perform very well when in class? I have one student who is absent more often than not, but is super attentive and receptive when she’s in class.

    1. Robert Harrell

      Same here. When I know that a student has been absent because of illness (e.g. I have a student this year who missed several weeks because of a surgery that went wrong; a couple of years ago I had a student whose appendix burst), I assure both student and parent that grading is based on performance when present. I can see the anxiety flow out of them as they realize there is at least one class that is salvageable.

      Students who miss because they are playing hooky generally aren’t top performers anyway, so the “danger” of giving away a grade is minimal. For them I simply emphasize that they won’t acquire the language if they aren’t exposed to comprehensible input, which is what they get in the classroom, so attendance is very important. On the grade report I then mark “absences affect grade”; if asked about that, I simply point out that the student’s absences prevent the student from getting the necessary comprehensible input, so of course they affect the grade.

  8. James said, “But the real solution is simply not to grade at all.”

    This IS the only real solution, isn’t it?

    I just can’t let this idea go. I was thinking about it yet again on the way to school this morning…a public school that does not offer grades. Public schools that do not offer grades.

    I am very tempted to try this one semester soon, although it wouldn’t be in a pure way of no grades at all, but just giving everyone 100’s on every single assignment, no matter how they “do.” Every kid literally gets full credit on every single thing that we do (Lacking the freedom to simply not assign grades, my grades would be fake).

    The only place this would be tricky is with behaviors, which we currently have leverage with if we’re able to use jGR to reward or to insist on effective language acquisition behaviors. But, in my view this is the bad apple that makes grading a sham in the first place: it feeds the circle of approval-giving and approval-seeking.

    I truly think that problem behavior in schools exists in large part (or maybe completely) because schools are a place of judgement…places where the “undesirable” and “bad” get stacked up against the ones teachers label as “desirable” or “good” either tacitly through our facial expressions, body language, etc. or overtly through grading, etc. What if the worst behaviors reside in those kids who are most hurt and angry, or at least not content with this reality?

    Kids who have managed to keep curiosity alive and come to school motivated to learn, at least in some subjects, could probably be motivated just fine without grades. And the kids who need to rediscover their curiosity and natural desire to learn aren’t motivated by grades anyway, SO WHY DO WE GIVE THEM???

    The more I think about grading, the more I never want to assign a grade EVER again. But I’m just thinking out loud here…I don’t have any answers…

  9. The next time I have to send home progress reports, maybe I’ll title every assingment “Sham.”

    Sham 1: 100
    Sham 2: 100
    Sham 3: 100
    Sham 4: 100

    Because the only real evaluation, learning, and “grading” happens in real time, during class, as my kids interact with each other and as they and I interact with each other.

    1. Some of this discussion is happening in 2 places. . . Greg, if you haven’t check out what was posted to “Another hundred years of sadness?”

      Evaluation/feedback can be FOR learning and not OF learning. I agree that in the daily interaction with students that happens in TCI instruction, we see and the students see what they can and cannot do. They do get instant feedback. I’ve seen recently that SSR can’t work for some students unless there is some accountability, but I think that should come in the most non-threatening, easiest way possible: informal conferences/discussion about books with the teacher. Grades no, but evaluation/feedback yes and include feedback on how to improve.

      Still, I see the importance of evaluating student proficiency – their ability to spontaneously apply language to new contexts. TPRS doesn’t do that per se. Asking students to do fluency writes on undiscussed topics, like journal entries (rather than rewrite stories), as suggested in the mid-year of LICT I, may be one way to do this. I am thinking that some PQA should be done at the end of the 3 TPRS steps. It is at the end that the students will be most ready (and they need to do it if they are to fully acquire the vocabulary!) to apply the language to new contexts. Maybe every few classes, you post the structures from the previous weeks/months and have PQA discussions that recycle and apply to new contexts.

    2. Greg, I totally agree with all of this. As in, I have the same exact thoughts.

      And…one of my best friends is an art teacher. She and I collaborated for so many years, mostly on this type of discussion. Since we both taught “peripheral subjects” we could remain largely under the radar and test things out. For years and years, I used versions of her critique process / evaluations, and then when I joined this group I passed on a ton of stuff to her that she modified for her classes. We both were obsessed with engaging kids in face to face conversation, the skill of self-reflection, and the skill of honest specifc feedback rather than “that sucks / that’s awesome.”

      What Eric brings up, about evaluation reminded my of this. Ann’s whole focus was on the process, and what the student was learning…not just about art but about themselves as people. She taught them to ask questions, to question assumptions, to dig in to where they felt stuck, to be brave and bold with their marks on the page or their medium on 3d work. She just mentioned 2 days ago that she was watching (???eek can’t remember which one) one of those shows like american idol but not sure if it was that one…anyway, she REALLY loved the critiquing process that they were using on this TV show, precisely because the critiques were honest and helpful…not judging, but genuinely geared to help each performer push her limits. This is what she taught her art students. She did not care if student x could draw or not. Wherever the kids was, that was where he worked. She taught them how to have conversations about their work. Not “oh that is awesome,” but real, specific helpful feedback even if it was uncomfortable. Many of her students comment that their college art classes have a lot of kids in them who “can’t critique,” and/or “can’t receive critique.” This is such an important life skill.

      Sorry, kinda went off on a tangent, but I thing that evaluation is “where are you right now?” “What is flowing for you?” What feels stuck?” “What factors outside of school are affecting your work / ability to focus?” “What makes you frustrated and why?” “What are you proud of and why?” What is exciting? That kind of stuff. It opens really honest dialogue.

      1. Thanks, jen….it’s nice to know I’m not crazy….or at least that I have company in my craziness 🙂

        I love the process-oriented feedback you mention above which you and your art teacher friend collaborated on. Especially the idea of not providing “that sucks/that’s awesome” type of feedback and working to open honest dialogue (which is hard because so many kids are programmed to want to just do the work and get the grade…they’re programmed to not even be interested in dialogue about their progress).

        According to Wikipedia:

        “Splitting (also called all-or-nothing thinking) is the failure in a person’s thinking to bring together both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole.”

        Incidentally, this type of thinking leads to depression. Hmmm….that explains some things about a lot of kids in schools…not to even mention teachers.

        Aren’t so many kids programmed to think in terms of fail/pass? Especially with the focus put on “A” as the holy grail of grades and that anything less than 100 is actually a failure in some way (mentioned above in a few people’s comments). This is why I’m really interested in more process-oriented evaluation -evaluation that truly furthers a student’s progress and informs them (not us) about what areas they can improve in.

  10. Thanks, Eric…I’m just getting started on reading that post/comments.

    And thanks for the helpful difference between evaluation FOR learning and evaluation OF learning. I often forget about that and bash grading in my moments of disgust at the grading system. I.e., when I wrote my comments this morning 🙂 It’s good for me to be reminded that “grading” in the sense of evaluating FOR learning is a good and necessary thing. You allude to what I personally think is the single biggest problem with grades: not just the fact that they don’t really mean anything, but that they don’t provide any kind of feedback. Grading OF learning doesn’t benefit kids in any way at all.

    I like the idea of posting structures from previous weeks and chatting with those structures in new contexts. A nice and simple way to recycle structures with almost zero planning on my part, which I’m all about! All it would take would be to write the structures from the previous 2 or 3 stories up on the board to start class and have a chat using them. I plan on using this for those structures that for one reason or another were lacking on reps during the three steps…and also just to get reps on all structures in new contexts like you said. Good stuff!

    1. I think it is fair for us to make a dichotomy between grading and assessing. I really like the way it has been described here a couple times now: Evaluating OF learning vs Evaluating FOR learning. That’s a nice talking point for sure. If we are expected as professionals to do both, I ask why? Can not the people who need the evaluation of a kids’ cumulative abilities assess that? That’s what entrance exams are for. That’s what real-world travel experiences are for. (And Robert, I hope that you keep throwing out brainstorms like the one you had about how to make our feedback more real-worldish (i.e. feedback that is immediate and instructs the student in a real way if they are performing proficiently; e.g. “no hablo ingles, ¿Qué quieres decir?”.

      Grading is old hat. I think most smart people get that now. But as Eric pointed out very well, the rub lies in the distrust that parents/admin may have that teachers are doing their job, so they pick the easy route of proof (e.g. grades), that are not really effective at doing what WE as teachers want to accomplish, imo.

      I’m so grateful for this conversation. It is giving me more confidence to broach the subject with other teachers and admin at my school. Just this morning I marked a couple pages from Punished by Rewards and handed it to the school counselor. He had remarked during a staff meeting that “like it or not folks, incentives work”. Work they do, but to what end? It is a hard line to walk, between not offending folks who’ve been part of the system for so long and never questioned it, and not allowing bad practices to go unquestioned and unchecked.

  11. Not that it’s a newsflash, but can I just say that Eric Herman is an indefatigable questioning, beast? A glance at the ACTFL site discussion area shows YET ANOTHER post by Eric, complete with biting questions demanding explanations in the interest of children, entitled “Change the Tests!” Complete with a very clear example of a discrete grammar question and its problems and even a reference to the Natural Order and late-acquired tenses. Hello!

    First, “Why Thematic Units? Why Authentic Resources? Show me the Research”
    Then, “What is Comprehensible Input really?”

    And now, “Change the Tests!”

    He’s hitting THE important questions that need to be addressed on the website of the organization who needs to address them.

    Thank you Eric for leading us in getting this conversation started with ACTFL (While we keep pounding on the door waiting for it to open and get some real dialogue started).

    1. Thanks, Greg! That recent post took me all day to write and research! It describes what I am hearing in my district, that the high school will keep on with the grammar-orientation, because that is what colleges test.

      It’s a big door isn’t it?! Makes me think of Jack knocking on the door of the Giant.

      We need a lot more dialogue between teachers, org. leaders, and researchers and now with online communities and social media, this should be happening!

    1. Eric, you said “It describes what I am hearing in my district, that the high school will keep on with the grammar-orientation, because that is what colleges test.”

      So true and sad.

      But what would happen if almost every public/private school in the nation began saying, “Sorry, Dear Universties, but we will no longer be feeding you with students trained in discreet grammar and conjugation knowledge.” That would be a problem for universities, wouldn’t it? And if ACTFL gets their act together and takes a stand, that’s not too far-fetched of a situation to imagine.

      Are we as a profession so dumbed down into submission to the powers that be that we don’t question this insane spiral of “We have to make sure students do X, because Y requires it, and because Z requires it after Y”?

      I will be eternally grateful to my senior year English teacher because we started the year studying and learning to recognize and name different types of fallacious reasoning (post hoc, ergo propter hoc; appeal to authority; ad hominem; etc.) This unit on fallacies is one of the very few things I remember learning in high school.

      Fitting that I’m writing this comment on the post entitled “History of Grading” because today I applied my high school fallacy lessons to my gradebook, after detecting the fallacy “appeal to authority.” I’ll briefly explain:

      I’m two weeks into a maternity leave replacement (at what is considered one of the best public high schools in the state of New Jersey, whatever that means) and grades are due today for the first two months of school. This means I’m only submitting a couple of my own grades today, along with a dozen or so grades from the substitute who started the year. The grades for one class in particular were pretty low. So, I went through the gradebook and found a quiz entitled “Articles and Prepositions Quiz.” Here are the grades the teacher had given the students on this quiz, out of 100 points, French 4 students:


      Maybe not terrible, ignoring the 4 kids who failed. But, when I saw those grades I spotted the fallacy of appeal to authority. Universities say that grammar counts for placement exams, which makes the College Board say that grammar must count on the AP exam, which makes WL department heads say that grammar must count, with the support of admins who like high AP scores, which in turn makes grammar count for every single level of the language right on down to level 1. But just because the authorities -Universities, the College board, Admins, and Department Heads -say grammar counts does not mean that it should.

      So, here is a side by side comparison showing the changes that I made in my gradebook after catching an instance of the “appeal to authority” fallacy. These grades get submitted today as final first quarter grades:


      Yes, each grade has been change to a “100.” Why? Because I still understand these kids if they use an incorrect article or preposition. Because eventually, with enough time and good input, their article and preposition mistakes will disappear. Because the previous teacher testing students, and penalizing them, on articles and prepositions is, in my opinion, shaming, and has no place in a school, which is where hearts should be opened, not closed. Because changing their grades to 100’s is the right thing to do, or maybe the only thing I could think to do given this evil situation.

      I also changed grades on two other assignments to 100’s. One is a beginning of the year test on verb conjugations for present, passé composé, imperfect, and future. The other is a vocab test on vocabulary from the book Le Petit Prince. Grades changed to 100 for everyone on all three assignments, because none of the three assignments had anything to do with language learning, even though the authorities will say they do. Those three assignments have to do with inflated egos who are light years out of touch with what is happening in the hearts of their students as they slam down their grammar-laden grade gavels. Again, no judgement, as I was once arrogantly and happily marching in their band.

      1. I wanted to repeat: Just because the authorities say grammar counts, does not mean it should.

        The problem is that until those college tests change, until college professors throw out the grammar and incomprehensible instruction, it makes it a lot harder to convince high school textbook teachers to change. I see this as a big obstacle to our bottom-up movement. Some things at the top need to give.

        Alisa wrote me another great point, one that could make another good thread: teacher preparation. I don’t know enough to write that one.

        To clarify: the AP exam does not test explicit grammar. The problem I have with the AP exam is that it is like taking an SAT in the target language.

      2. This morning was a departmental collaboration day at my school. We talked about several things, and one of them was assessment and pacing. One of the complaints by several teachers was that they do not have time to cover everything they are supposed to cover in level 2 because they have to review from level 1, and so the pacing guide is out the window. My comment was, “That’s one of the reasons why using a textbook to drive instruction is a problem.” Another teacher immediately said, “As long as colleges use textbooks, then we need to as well.” She got immediate support from another teacher. AGH!

        1. I think Eric may have brought up the most important questions yet: entrance exams (and by extension how colleges teach). I think this may be the biggest, if not the only, reason why some parents/colleagues/students may look back at my class as not serving students’ needs sufficiently. As Robert said, “AGH!”

          I almost want to do a side-by-side comparison sometime of a CI student in a MS or HS and throw them into a room with some traditionally taught college students. Give them each 3 months of instruction, then throw them in the room with a person who will speak to them in TL. If I ever hear any of the local professors poopooing what I do in my CI classroom (which I suspect may happen from time to time???), I would probably not be able to contain myself from throwing out that challenge to them.

  12. Why It’s Time to Give Up Grades
    By Starr Sackstein on November 11, 2014
    In: Education Week

    What does 100 mean? Is there such a thing as perfect in the learning sense? Or does that communicate a misnomer about how much any person can really know and do? Doesn’t it make more sense to talk with students in terms of skills and standards?


    It’s a sound. A feeling. It’s the color red.

    It’s the best word to describe how I used to feel about having to grade piles of students’ writing or carefully crafted student projects. (I gave up on testing a long time ago, but that’s a topic for another post sometime in the future).

    It isn’t the reading part that frustrates me or the feedback, it’s the unnecessary practice of having to quantify what their writing is worth in a language that doesn’t make sense.

    How could I possibly put a number or letter value that starts to communicate with any kind of precision what the students know and can do?

    The bottom line is that the grading systems that currently exist are imperfect and so are the teachers who use them (Myself included).

    Given the amount of subjectivity inherent in this process, labeling any piece of student work with a grade is completely arbitrary. So that’s why we need to consider our options on behalf of the students.

    As it is, we have already beat students into a grading stupor that they don’t even realize they’re in. They have been trained into the idea that learning can only be validated by a high grade placed on a test, assignment or report card and the bottom line is “What’d I get?”

    This is the biggest travesty currently happening in education (this tied to the testing that also kills curiosity and a love of learning).

    Students, parents and teachers need to understand that if we disassociate learning with a grade, we are free to discuss the real nature of learning and how to improve the experience for everyone involved.

    Here are some benefits of giving up grades:

    -a more precise system of communicating learning – conversations that come through written feedback and formative assessment with regular conferences.
    -an opportunity to teach students to track their skill progress against standards instead of giving one grade that is an average of many things
    -students become metacognitively aware of their strengths and challenges and more importantly work with them on strategies for improving on both
    -since there is no terminus like a grade, learning is on-going and mastery is always the goal
    better relationships are developed because communication about learning becomes more meaningful – there’s more investment
    -the absence of the agony of trying to determine the appropriate grade to communicate

    Grades have long since been a part of our system, albeit a broken part. Let’s help the stakeholders understand the power of formative feedback and standards based conversations and let go of what is not working.

    Are you willing to give up grades? What will be your first step?

  13. I know this is an old thread, but I was looking at it in preparation for presenting at a workshop and also doing some further research. In my research I came across a comparison of US universities and Oxford. To get a degree from Oxford, a student must pass a final examination – not achieve a particular grade point average. Students must achieve a certain number of points out 0f 100 to pass this exam. Here’s the scale:
    70-100: First-Class
    60-69: Upper Second (2:1)
    50-59: Lower Second (2:2)
    40-49: Third
    30-39: Pass (w/o Honours)
    Below 30: Fail
    You can score a 30/100 and still get a degree from Oxford, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. You can score 70 and still receive First-Class Honours on your degree.

    (It’s actually slightly more complicated than this, but the only way not to get a degree is to score lower than 30 over a series of exam sessions that constitute the final exam.)

    What does this say about the artificiality of a 60? At Oxford, that’s an Upper Second, the second highest designation possible.

  14. Reading over this, I want to also add that I’ve changed lately again…listening to BVP on grades has had a huge effect on me. I am giving grades on assignments that I hope resemble his tasks (that kids can actually practice), and giving them feedback on their speaking and writing assessments. The tasks are graded with A, B, or D/F: did it easily, did it with some struggle, struggled mightily or didn’t complete. An example: We talked about Shostakovich for several days. Students call my google voice and tell me three things they’ve learned about him, after doing a few retells at home and in the classroom, with kids picking the stuff they find most interesting to talk about. It takes five minutes of class time for everyone to call, and in the meantime, we’ve done a lot of input about famous people and found out who likes classical music/avant garde/etc. Everyone typically gets an A or B because they’re ready and because it’s a task they knew was coming.

    The assessment is for them to do something with that information, either in written or oral form. I check off where they are on a novice/intermediate rubric that Scott created, but I leave off the grades. As he suggested, I check off or fill in the areas in which I see strength and growth, as well as what I’d like the students to concentrate on for the next time. No grades, only assessment.

    My kids are loving this. It means that I am not assessing how fast they learn language, but they have mini goals to aim for the next time: “Use more dialogue,” or “Keep supporting with evidence.” As Bill said at our conference, we don’t grade two-year-olds (who have a lot more input than any of our students) on their output. They are highly variable as to when they start talking. However, we do say, “Say goodbye to Daddy!” or “Tell Sarah about the monkey!”

    I’m still working on this. I clawed my way into NTPRS offering a session about this very topic, so if you’re going, join me! I’m hoping it’s going to be more of a two-way discussion than a strict presentation.

  15. “…we don’t grade two year olds…” and yet we live in an era of data obsession.
    Luckily I work in a progressive district an we don’t give grades (at all) until like 6th grade. Before that, reporting is in long narrative form. In the past few years, we’ve had to incorporate (add on) checklists in the gen-ed classroom. Also there’s more sharing of standardized data, but the focus is on the narrative and the in-depth discussion at conferences. (Gen ed)
    As far as elem world language is concerned, I do only the minimum required. 2x yr cornerstone: a short appropriate comprehension-based ‘test’ that we (the 3 elem teachers in the district) write together based on the common structures we’ve taught (we have a common target structures list by grade – 1st through 4th) that we loosely follow). We only have to proctor these to a sampling – so one section per grade (I teach 3-4 sections of each grade). 80% of Ss are supposed to earn 80% or better. No one checks (yet) but we were told that these were to prepare us for the upcoming state PERA law, linking teacher evals to student ‘achievement.’ Don’t even get me started on that evil and misguided crap…How this PERA stuff will shake out for us elementary WL teachers isn’t clear…
    I report on student progress once per year: 3rd and 4th grades in February; 1st and 2nds in May. At the top of the page is an overview of the program and brief explanation of T/CI; below is a simple rubric with 2 checkmark columns only: Emerging or Practicing.
    BTW if anyone wants to see our current cornerstones by grade and/or my report cards let me know and I’ll send a link.

    1. Alisa wrote:
      Luckily I work in a progressive district an we don’t give grades (at all) until like 6th grade. Before that, reporting is in long narrative form.

      Actually, Alisa, you work in a traditional district without knowing it. Yale University was the first university in the US to give grades, and they didn’t do that until the late 1800s. It didn’t catch on until the 1900s, and the 100-point scale didn’t become common until the 1950s.

      Before the 1900s, evaluations were all in narrative form. This continued in England long after it was abandoned in the US.

      Letter and numerical grading is less than 150 years old and has been commonly accepted for less than 100 years. From the very beginning, its shortcomings have been pointed out. So why do we continue to do it? Because it’s convenient for the teacher or professor.

  16. Eric, our school is not clear on anything about grading. The district is getting into common assessments, but all we have to do, according to my principal, is to update grades at least every two weeks.

    My kids keep web-based portfolios, in which they store one written and one oral “benchmark” each quarter now. They participate in both the annual national Russian essay contest and the yearly state oral Russian competition, so we have the ability to compare their results in those two areas.

    This year, every teacher has to comply with SGOs–student growth objectives–by giving specific tests in the beginning of the year and at the end. Those were to figure 50% into our teacher evaluations, in concert with a computer-based system. The computer-based system (AMP, a little test company out of Kentucky) proved unable to provide any useful results to teachers, and last week the governor threw out the evaluation connection (citing the research on poverty, yeah Governor Walker!!), so who knows what will happen.

    In the meantime, my “regular” Russian kids will take the AAPPL (ACTFL-connected) test this year with the Russian immersion kids. Then we’ll switch to the STAMP next year. Makes comparison and growth measurement impossible, but at least we’re spending lots of money to show we’re evaluating.

    That was way too long an answer that needed a simple “no.” I just wanted a way to post grades that didn’t measure proficiency any more. I felt it unfair to ding my sweet fourth-year kid who’s just getting full sentences now. This new system gives him credit for tasks he can fulfill, while informing him about growth in proficiency.

    Does your school require specific output?

    Alisa, I love what you’re doing. Maybe your governor will see the dark emerging and be like ours.

    1. Michele, I wonder if you need to assign tasks at all. Of course, if you like your system, by all means, continue. You produce fantastic results. Didn’t BvP metion that they have a high grade weight on attendence? If you’re sick of creating (and grading/monitoring) tasks, you have options.

      I think you can grade on proficiency without dinging anyone. Just set a proficiency level that all students can achieve. Eric is right when he says the only way to get an ACTFL Proficiency level rating is to take an official OPI or WPI, but we can certainly use their terms to assess students and report progress. I like to think that I’ve developed the least restrictive grading system that appeals to people who want ACTFL alignment. I call it Proficiency grading because I’m never concerned with student performance, which suggests they have to practice something in order to acquire language.

    2. Michele, I appreciate the detail. I like hearing what others do.

      My school doesn’t require anything, which has allowed me freedom to experiment and implement exactly what I want. I gave my thoughts recently on assessment here on this blog (also shared on ACTFL’s listserv). I included what I do in terms of assessment. And I’ve also voiced my critiques of the AAPPL and other tests here and there.

      Fact: a good comprehension-based fluency test of levels 1-4 of a FL program does not exist.

      I am critical of BVP’s MSU system
      and I wrote him to voice my critiques, hoping to get him thinking. He never gave me much of a response.

      The foremost, contemporary, input-based researcher should have the most input-based program, including assessment. Instead, they allot 20% to practiced, presentational speaking tasks. Yuck. Another 25% to online vocabulary and grammar and 25% paper-and-pen converted to online test. Double yuck.

      I asked him where the comprehension-based tasks are – why not comprehension Can-Dos? . . . I believe a comprehension-based program should have comprehension-based assessments – philosophy alignment. Even if you are going to assess output, it should be tied to input (e.g. they read and then rewrite, they listen and then retell). Otherwise, you send mixed messages and some students will understand the output assessments to mean that they will acquire language by practicing output and that’s how they’ll prepare, rather than getting themselves more input.

      1. Surprising to hear about MSU’s assessment. I’ve begun to think of them as the closest to input-based people that there are at a university.

        Eric, I am curious if you are going to be studying there next year. You’d mentioned applying. Please ignore the question if it’s not appealing to tell us about it in the PLC (or not yet).

          1. I applied to the Second Language Studies Ph.D. program. I was not accepted.

            I inquired as for the reason and Director Susan Gass (an “interactionist” – someone who likes her output and correction, in addition to input) told me it was because I did not have an undergrad-related major nor a Masters degree.

            I hoped my experiences, grades, scores, and recommendations would more than make up for that. Apparently not. I wonder if that stuff even got looked at or whether they threw my application out as soon as it didn’t pass the check for a related degree & Masters.

            I also wonder whether any politics were involved – after all, I had recommendations from Krashen and Ben and made clear my open embracement of comprehension-based pedagogy. I’ll never know.

            BVP told me he was not part of the admissions committee.

            Truth be told, even if I had been accepted, it would have been hard for me to accept 4 years of debts while my wife and I think about starting a family.

            A consolation is that my goal is to make the largest impact on instructional practices and with the rise of TPRS it is teachers who are leading the way, not researchers!

          2. Zing, Eric, they missed a great opportunity by not accepting you. I assumed you had an MA of some type; you are so extremely well-read.

            But you are correct, it’s among teachers (I think K-12 teachers) where positive changes are happening.

          3. I realized my comment about “well-read” could sound snobby — like it takes an MA to be well-read. I meant the reverse. In my experience, many of those who obviously like to read, research, think, then talk and write about it (like our Eric) tend to end up studying in graduate programs. Pretty much the whole PLC fits that profile…

          4. It’s selfish, but the world doesn’t need more researchers. You have a far greater impact on students and the rest of us.

            Besides, I want more magic tricks.

          5. Universities can be quite elitist. Many years ago, I was looking at being a professor at a seminary / school of theology and needed to get a PhD for that. I went to UCLA, and they would not even accept me into the MA program because my BA was from an unaccredited school. Never mind that this particular school had accrediting associations asking them to join. Never mind that I held not only the BA but also the MA in music from this school. Never mind that I held both the MDiv and ThM from an accredited school of theology (those were “professional degrees” not “academic degrees”). Nope, no accredited BA, so no acceptance. The advice was to go and get a degree that “meant something”.

            So, I went to Cal State Long Beach, which accepted me provisionally into the MA program in German and got that degree. Then UCLA accepted me into the MA program for Near Eastern Languages and Literature in preparation for entering their doctoral program. Through a number of circumstances, I became convinced that this was not the path for me to be on, so I returned to CSULB and got my teaching credential in Foreign Language: German.

            And that, boys and girls, is the short story of how I became a high school German teacher.

            Not accepting you, Eric, is still MSU’s loss.

          6. Reading this Robert, and also Eric’s experience, makes me proud that I did not get accepted into Univ of Iowa’s Linguistics program back in 2007. That was my only attempt at M.A. Teaching is challenging and accrediting (IMO) enough.

          7. Oh my Eric, how how how sad that an individual of your intellectual caliber and curiosity does not get accepted, without hesitation. I laughed a sad incredulous laugh upon reading your news.

            (Can I secretly say that I too am, as a consolation, happy nonetheless that you’ll still be here with us in the trenches, where we will work to bring light to all trenches. Anyways, it can be real cozy here. 🙂

          8. Eric, your impact is huge for those of us who have been your students and colleagues. I bet that when the time is right you’ll get some more letters after your name, but in the meantime your valuable work will continue to have effect and you will do your part to change the course of language education.

      2. Awww man! Like everyone says MSU’s loss. And, as a very wise woman (none other than Dedé Mirabal, of the Mirabal sisters!) said to me about something very close to my heart that did not manifest…”es que no te conviene ahora.” Clearly there is another mission for you. Doesn’t make it easy, I know. I’m grateful for everything you do to keep us on our SLA toes and still be real live teachers face to face with real live kids. It is a unique quality that you have.

        Ánimo amigo 🙂

  17. Alisa Shapiro-Rosenberg

    It’s not just teachers, parents and students have begun to clamor for it too. This simplistic, one-dimensional, limiting, flattening designation. Depressing.

  18. Have you thought about doing a degree abroad? I was accepted into the French university at the master’s level merely by taking a translation test which proved that I adequately mastered French. In general they expect you to work on your own and pass exams, so it was possible for me to get a master’s and a DEA (first part of the doctorate) while working full time and raising four kids.

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