Grading and Teacher Autonomy

I've known some teachers that probably wish they had the freedoms teachers enjoyed in the one-room schoolhouse days, but in the modern context of standards-based education that just isn't a reality. Standards, for better or worse, shape our curriculum, choice of texts, long and short-term unit/lesson planning, instruction, and seemingly every level of assessment. Could there possibly be a significant daily teacher practice not guided by standards?

Sure there is: grading.

There are no national or state standards to tell you what a "B" means, no standards to tell you if you should use a weighted grading system, and no standards to tell you if habitual tardiness to class should result in a grading penalty. I know of no set of classroom grading standards published by any major educational organization at any level. Teachers are left to figure out grading for themselves. As a math teacher I put extra pressure on myself to develop the best possible grading system, and over six years I tried all sorts of variations, none of them perfect.

My general philosophy was to grade on the mastery of the content described by the standards, and leave out as much extraneous stuff as possible. (Like deducting points for tardiness, for example.) Even on that task I know I failed, because the vast majority of student homework was graded for completion, not correctness. Still, I felt I had a principle for grading and I tried to stick to it. I actively resisted meaningless grade inflation and expected grades to usefully measure what students knew and could do. I felt it was reasonable in Colorado, where more than 60% of high school students score partially proficient or below on the CSAP, for Cs and lower scores to be an acceptable reality. Also, I hoped my students' grades would have a strong positive correlation to their CSAP scores. (Sadly, I never tested this.) Grades that failed to correlate would have indicated problems with my grading system and been a disservice to my students. I was miles away from having this vision be true for all students all the time, but it was a goal nonetheless.

I hope you can get a feeling for the amount of thought I invested in my grading, and realize that teachers all do this to some degree as a result of the autonomy we have over grading. The autonomy isn't total, however. If I had given 95% of my students As and Bs, I probably wouldn't have had much reason to continually re-examine my grading practices. In most schools, a teacher who gives that many high scores will certainly avoid negative attention, or perhaps even be praised for being such a good teacher. Low grades, on the other hand, attract plenty of attention from students, parents, and administrators. You can get many interesting suggestions from all involved, including grade curving (which means raising in this context, trust me), extra credit, and throwing out low test scores. Most of this is based on appeasing students and parents, not the development of intelligence, but it happens in schools large and small.

So, with no grading standards, to whom does a teacher surrender their grading autonomy and to what degree? The ethical quandaries can build extremely quickly, and several such cases will be topics here on this site in the near future. One of those cases will present a situation where some might argue the teacher got total autonomy and used it to be purposely unfair to a student. Another will present a teacher being pressured to change a grade for non-academic reasons. Hopefully these cases will challenge you to think about your own classroom, and good reasons to either defend or change your own grading practices.

Lastly, I want to pose a question about a possible influence on our grading systems. This is not a who, but a what: How does your gradebook itself influence your grading? Most schools use a system like Powerschool or Infinite Campus. (I've used Goedustar and Integrade Pro.) How do the capabilities of the program, including calculation methods and input limitations, affect the way you grade? Do you find technical limitations an acceptable influence on your grading practices? Also, how do you feel about parents essentially having real-time, 24/7 access to their child's grades? Is this an unreasonable or unhealthy demand? I'd love to hear your thoughts!