I had a baby in February and once my maternity leave was up, I was back in my classroom for the last 3.5 weeks of the school year. While I was grateful for the time that I got to spend at home with my son, I grew increasingly excited and ready to be back as my return to the classroom drew closer. I anticipated that my primary challenge would be figuring out how my students were doing with content amid a very tight timeline before state testing. The challenge that I did not expect was in finishing up student grades at the end of the year. The process of having someone else step into my classroom for 13 weeks and giving them grades all along brought into sharp focus some questions that I have had over the past few years.
One was the specific issue of missing assignments. Over the course of the past year and a half, I had been waffling on whether or not to give zeros for missing assignments. I do not assign very much homework and so I was able to argue that the little that I did give was important enough to warrant grading. I understood the cognitive argument about how zeros can disproportionally affect students’ grades, but I tried to check to make sure that no one was failing because of missing work. When I returned, I had an even harder time thinking through this. Did the sub give them clear expectations about turning in work? Did she remind them about their missing work? Was the student even present in class when the assignment was given? While I didn’t know the answers to these questions for the 13 weeks that I was away, initially I was feeling pretty good about the way that I typically run my classroom. I felt like I did give clear expectations about when assignments were to be turned in, reminders about missing work and checking in with absent students, but the more I stumbled through these questions during the last few weeks of the school year, the more I felt like perhaps I need to be doing a better job as well. Ultimately, I am still processing how future me will deal with the missing assignment issue.
Additionally, this new reality changed some of my attitude and conversations with students about their grades. My Honors students especially, are very concerned about the specific letter grade which they earn. In the past, I suppose I would describe my point of view as being mathematical, but hopefully fair. If your grade averages out to be an 89%, that’s what it is, I’m not going to randomly give you some extra work just to you can bring it up to a 90%. I was the one who assigned and graded all of the components of your grade and so it was easier for me to justify why you earned the grade you earned. Students always did have the chance to correct work and receive support in order to improve their understanding (and their grades). When I returned after those 13 weeks away, it was harder to justify an 89% being an 89% when I was not the one who graded all of the pieces that made up that grade. I ended the year at a much more flexible point than I had in the past and had individual conversations with many students about why their grades were what they were. I offered many of them additional chances to demonstrate mastery and it was fascinating to me how few of them followed through on the extra opportunities that I gave them. Ultimately, it seemed that they did feel that their concerns were listened to and respected, which is perhaps what they needed. Some of the questions that were raised for me through this process led me to wonder if I should explore more about standards-based grading.
As I head into another school year, I’m not sure yet how these shifts may translate into another year of teaching (my 10th!). I am also anticipating how new leadership, both at my school and district level, may impact how I think about different grading practices.