Podcast: We Need Professional Development Around Grading - Steve Barkley

Podcast: We Need Professional Development Around Grading

We Need Professional Development Around Grading

Author, teacher, and education policy doctoral candidate, Sarah Morris, explores the research around teachers’ grading decisions. Many teachers have received little if any professional development that produces reflection on the impact of their grading practices. The inequity of some grading practices cannot be decreased without teachers’ realization of the impact of their practices and exploration of possibilities.

Read Sarah’s article, “I Used to Think I Was a Fair Grader. Now, I Look Back and Cringe” here.

Contact Sarah: srm041@uark.edu

Subscribe to the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast on iTunes or visit BarkleyPD.com to find new episodes!

Podcast Transcript:

[00:00:01.130] – Steve [Intro]

Welcome to the Steve Barkley Ponders out loud podcast. As instructional coaches and school leaders, you have a challenge to guide continuous teacher growth that promotes student success. This podcast looks to support you with strategies from our experienced guests and insights that I’ve gathered across many years. I’m thrilled you’re here. Thanks for listening.

[00:00:29.250] – Steve

We need professional development around grading. Sarah Morris is returning to our podcast to explore her research around grading. Sarah is a third year education policy doctoral candidate at the University of Arkansas. She previously shared her findings around teachers’ views on best practice research. I’m pleased to have her join me for a conversation around grading.

[00:00:56.640] – Steve

Welcome, Sarah.

[00:00:59.290] – Sarah

Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to be back.

[00:01:01.690] – Steve

So I’m going to jump right in with a statement that I pulled from your recent article in Education Week. You said, “the traditional grade, which includes non-academic measures like participation or effort, can inadvertently perpetuate inequities.” You want to talk a little bit about what the research found around that concept of inequality?

[00:01:41.290] – Sarah

Yeah, I would love to. So Joe Feldman is the great grading for equity guy. I’m sure your listeners have read his really great book, “Grading For Equity” and He digs through the theory behind why, if you included non-academic measures like participation or effort, or did Johnny take his hat off in class when he was directed to by his teacher? If you take these things out of the grade, that’s more accurately measuring students’ abilities. My own research from the University of Arkansas, where I used a sample of all 9th graders in Arkansas, showed this inequity.

[00:02:16.340] – Sarah

So yes, in theory, we can say that using these non-academic measures is going to harm these students that are normally traditionally disadvantaged. But I actually found this in some findings. We found that with 9th grade students, if you measure students that look the same, attend similar districts, have all of these same sorts of qualities about each other, except there’s only one difference between them. One of them is receiving free or reduced lunch services and the other one is not.

[00:02:53.600] – Sarah

That student with free or reduced lunch services is twice as likely to fail even after controlling for their prior achievement, their prior academic abilities. So when I first tell teachers this, they go, “well, yeah, of course that student with a worse off socioeconomic status is going to be more likely to fail compared to their more advantaged peer.” But then trace it back. Trace that thought back.

[00:03:30.170] – Sarah

We are measuring students that have the same prior academic abilities. So if these students that are on the same levels, attend these same districts or similar districts, they should not be twice as likely to fail. So if students that have the same academic abilities, but just are maybe showing not pleasing behaviors to their teachers are twice as likely to fail, that’s telling us something is going on with our grades, and that’s not good.

[00:03:59.570] – Steve

So can you describe some of the things that are generally guiding teachers decisions then around grading?

[00:04:09.990] – Sarah

Yeah. So again, referring back to my own research for a different project that we did in Arkansas, using Arkansas teachers as our sample, we found that teachers generally use four major things around their grading.

[00:04:28.130] – Sarah

So about a quarter of teachers actually try and think about students and what’s equitable for them. Like, this is our “yay, great for teachers” moment. Like, good for them for considering students. They try and think about what’s equitable for the students. They allow students to have work that’s turned in late, and they don’t take off late points because they know that their grades should reflect their content knowledge, not necessarily what pleasing behaviors they’re doing.

[00:04:55.750] – Sarah

Another theme that was a big “yay” was that teachers use scholarly evidence or professional development to guide their grading practices. So they’re trying to be consumers of what they are being told or what they’re reading, and they’re trying to adapt their grading practices to that.

[00:05:20.900] – Sarah

On the other hand, we have two not so great themes for how teachers kind of develop their grading practices or fall back on is, 16% of the sample was like, I’m going to do what’s always been done. I think one of them directly referred back to, “We’ve always graded this way. Why would we change it at all?” Brooke Hart calls this hodgepodge grading, but it’s always been this way. It’s what parents understand.

[00:05:44.790] – Sarah

And this is my punchline for anytime I’m working with teachers – one teacher even typed in, “I grade however I want. My administrator doesn’t care how I grade.”

[00:05:59.530] – Steve

[laughter] That’s why I became a teacher.

[00:06:01.540] – Sarah

Right. I grade however I want to, which is not great to see, but they were truthful. And then the last theme that we found for Arkansas teachers was that about 15% of them wanted to utilize that grade as, I hate using the word “weapon,” but kind of a weapon that they use to control their students.

[00:06:28.720] – Sarah

They wanted to use it to focus on molding the student into being a good citizen. So if you were late to class or if you were turning in a super important assignment late, then I should adjust your grade to try and grip you and make you a better student, make you a better citizen for what’s coming. And these teachers referenced future job markets and making sure that that student was going to be prepared because they had learned at some point in their life that if they mess up, they are going to be punished for it.

[00:07:05.620] – Sarah

So those are the four major themes that we find, and I’ll just add this, that something that wasn’t really a theme but kept popping up in some of our answers is, a lot of the teachers are actually trying to implement things that are fairer, what they believe is good for students, but they also in that same sentence, will say something like super inequitable. Like they’ll still not let the newest grades replace previous grades. And this happened with about 12% of the responses. So it’s like we see progress, we see that teachers obviously are trying, it’s just they are still doing things that are inequitable for our students.

[00:07:56.030] – Steve

It reminds me of the first time that I read a piece from John Hattie on the fact that growth mindset doesn’t show up in the research as an indicator, and it like broke my heart. I fortunately read a little bit further to say, well, the reason it doesn’t show up, is because it doesn’t get implemented. In other words, we’re doing sessions for kids about growth mindset. We have teachers saying to you that the speed at which you learn this doesn’t matter. But then the way we did the grading, by averaging in the scores from the first quiz into the final grade for the unit, really undid everything we.

[00:08:46.050] – Sarah

Oh yeah, for sure.

[00:08:53.090] – Steve

The behaviors that many of the teachers want to focus on are good behaviors for students to develop. They’re good attributes for kids to have of perseverance, effort, collaboration. How important is it that we find a way to give feedback to kids and to parents on those items without it being part of the grade for a course?

[00:09:17.450] – Sarah

I insist that it’s very important. I believe that education is about molding good citizens. I keep referring back to good citizens with those teachers from theme four, because, yes, I agree with them that raising kids and training kids to be good adults and be good humans in our society is super important. I disagree, though, that it needs to be utilized through the grade, though.

[00:09:47.440] – Sarah

When I was in my fifth year of teaching and I’ve gotten a little flak for this since the Education Week article has been posted, but I would have unit conferences with my students, so I would place them in group work in the classroom and they would be working with their partners or just one partner, and I would call them up to my desk and communicate with them about what were their behaviors like or what kinds of things fid they do that was making them a better person for their tomorrow or their high school years or their college years and what kinds of conversations I could be having with them or with their parents and guardians about how they were doing as a human, because being a human and being a good human is important.

[00:10:29.020] – Sarah

And the flak that I’ve received is, “what school did this teacher teach in that they had time to have these conferences, unit wise conferences.” And I’m like, I get you, but my classroom management from the beginning of the year set it up for me to be able to have those conferences. They refer to it as with-itness for teachers. Like, it was a struggle to make sure everybody was on task, but we made it work because this was happening each unit. And it was a priority in my classroom to have those conversations with each one of my students. Even if there was 37 kids in my 90 minutes class period. This was a priority for me. I also would send weekly emails to my students’ parents at the Friday after school – at the end of every Friday, which also sounds a little toxic to some teachers.

[00:11:29.460] – Sarah

So if you’re hearing me say that, just pick a different day, pick a different day, pick a different time. It’s okay. That’s just what worked for me. And some of those parents were really receptive to those emails. Like, “oh, Johnny was really respectful in class this week. Love that for my kid Johnny,” or “oh, Johnny slept a lot in class. Slept three out of the five days.” I should probably talk with my kid about that and about what’s going on.

[00:12:02.580] – Sarah

So I think it’s great to be intentional about communicating to students and parents and guardians about how the child is doing non-academically. I’ve answered this for a few minutes now because I do believe it’s super important. I just don’t think that grade needs to be utilized as a weapon anymore for that.

[00:12:23.530] – Steve

I worked with a district that their career and tech ed center created a career and work readiness list of traits and values. And in each of the kids’ courses, they got a welding grade and then they got comments on the career readiness checklist. And what we really realized is we could use that same list in social studies and science and math classes that they were using at the career and tech center because they were all traits like effort and perseverance and respect for others and critical list.

[00:13:10.550] – Sarah

Yeah, I don’t know how you were graded in elementary school, but hey, that’s how most of us were graded in elementary school. We would get like, it wasn’t an A through F scale, it was some other types of letters, but we would get our letter for where we were on achievement and then we’d always have those comments like, “Sarah talks a whole lot. You need to work on that with her. Sarah will not be quiet in class. Please work on that with her.”

[00:13:35.340] – Steve

We must have had the same teachers there. [laughter]

[00:13:41.310] – Steve

In the article, you make a strong statement about the need for PD around grading, and you add that changes in grading require a deep, reflective journey that can’t be rushed. I just thought those words were really powerful. What role do you think instructional coaches and administrators can play in this process of teachers taking that deep, reflective journey?

[00:14:09.120] – Sarah

Well, I think if instructional coaches and administrators are open to the idea, for lack of a better term, I think they might need to be punching bags, which sounds really sad, but it’s kind of the truth. Anytime you present someone with new information that’s contradictive to their beliefs, it’s not going to process. There’s something about the human brain that’s just immediately going to say no. I think all of us saw it with a whole bunch of 2020 pandemic nonsense.

[00:14:44.610] – Sarah

A whole bunch of people were just, no. Hand up right in other people’s faces. They didn’t want to hear it. But if we keep presenting people with the opportunity to think and reflect on information that’s contradictory to what their beliefs are and allow them to have a safe space to talk about it, I think that’s going to be beneficial.

[00:15:13.600] – Sarah

At my old school in Tennessee, our principals were so intentional to stop by our rooms to schedule meetings with us, for us to go to their office and they would freely allow us to complain about something we were struggling with, about something that we were having a hard time wrapping our minds around. And I know it’s hard for instructional coaches or administrators to take the burden of being a punching bag, but I always come back to, this is for our kids, and if it helps teachers emotionally or mentally process something that’s different than what they’re used to, then I think we need to become that source of letting teachers have a place to decompress an idea.

[00:16:00.400] – Sarah

Like, I know one of the PD’s that I’ve done in Arkansas is I think, the teachers back and forth talked to each other about the zero changing to a 50 for about 30 minutes because they just had to talk about it, they had to release some of that. A lot of them kept going back to I hate giving points for doing nothing, like it was just a back and forth conversation. And you know what? I’m so happy that they had a place to discuss that. But how many grading policies are we shoving down teachers throats without giving them a place to complain about it or whine about it or let them mentally process?

[00:16:47.700] – Sarah

I think schools, it would be great if they could get started on changing some grading practices, but I also don’t think it’s realistic for them to expect everything to be better super quick because teachers need some time to digest.

[00:16:55.530] – Steve

Well, I think as I’ve been listening to you, the statement that I’d written down that I wanted to run by you has been said. But check me on it. As I ponder this, I’m sensing that it’s really more about getting teachers engaged in understanding and exploring the possibilities of communicating student growth, student progress than it is around policies. I kind of got a sense any policy can be wound around and defeated.

[00:17:42.190] – Sarah

For sure, we did not have a hard policy at my school, about a 50 being the zero, but it was something that our principals encouraged us to think about, to reflect on. Like, I had one assistant principal that constantly said, don’t bury a kid in a 50, especially if this kid has always turned in their work and knows what the content knowledge is. And just giving teachers an opportunity to think about something that they are doing. Like, I just hopped off a meeting with somebody, another school who said a really great place for my teachers to start would just to think about exploring not giving extra credit for tissue boxes. And I’m like, we’re still talking about this? It’s 2023 and we’re still talking about that. And they were like, yes, I think that’d be a great place to start. And I’m like, yeah, you’re not going to find that in policies where public schools are doing much more immediate things than adhering to grading policies. But just taking one spark and one teacher, just giving them a second to think and understand. Like, hey, my grading needs to be about what my students know and not what is academically or behaviorally pleasing to me as their teacher.

[00:18:59.010] – Steve

Yeah, I just continue to go around that. The question I have to ask is, what does the student and what does the parent learn – I’m going to say by the grade, but actually grade is the wrong word. In my head, it’s information. So I need information that tells me I’ve learned the standard, I’ve mastered the standard. I haven’t learned the standard. I’m close to the standard, but once it’s a grade, then my finding is that we’ve buried parents with information that wasn’t accurate for so long that we’re assuming that it is.

[00:19:40.440] – Sarah

Oh, yeah. Big time.

[00:19:59.180] – Sarah

And there’s a paper that just came out about the great inflation tha happened after Covid and how many false signals we are sending parents because a student will get an A at the end of a term for content knowledge on math and then yet they go to college and they can’t even get through college algebra. But hey, my kid got an A in their high school math class. But because we’re sending all of these false signals like that student who got an A, maybe they were a grade grubber and probably more academically suited for a C or a B, but because we include things like pleasing behaviors like oh my gosh, susie was so quiet when she needed to be and she raises her hand just like she’s supposed to, that’s how we can inflate grades.

[00:20:31.010] – Steve

I know the first time it hit me was actually studying learning styles. And I realized that kids whose learning styles matched mine, ended up with higher grades because I recognized their engagement in the learning process. When kids whose styles were different than mine, I didn’t recognize their engagement in the learning process. And when I discovered that, it really set me and mine was grad school. I was teaching graduate classes and I realized it was influenced my grades going to the graduate students by the difference in styles.

[00:21:12.590] – Sarah

Yeah. When I read Joe Feldman’s book, he referenced doodling, like students doodling during taking. That is not my learning preference at all, but maybe I as a teacher didn’t see that as a teacher pleasing behavior and I thought they were not paying attention, but students could pay attention more through doodling. So yeah, totally agree.

[00:21:34.950] – Steve

Being a high auditory talker, those people, I always lean that they’re stronger students because of everything they shared in class and missed that quiet, reflective student whose learning was there, I just missed it.

[00:21:58.190] – Steve

Well, I knew this was going to be good. I’ve been in this so long, I just figure we have to get a change. It was 40 years ago, I was working in a non-graded school dealing with all the struggles of sharing information and gosh, this change has been so slow.

[00:22:24.380] – Sarah

Yeah, and I don’t know how much faster it’s going to be. I think grading the last few months has been a very hot topic for ed researchers and ed policy folks. But it might not be a hot topic with schools. And that’s the irony about doing educational research is might be super buzzy to us, but what’s important to schools right now? So always lacing that back through that context.

[00:22:47.950] – Steve

I’m going to ask all the coaches and administrators listening in on this to find ways to bring this into the conversation, and it’s going to have to be ongoing, continuous. And I’m also thinking we got to really make sure with new teachers, that we get into the conversation with new teachers before they pick up the existing bad habits that perhaps they dealt with as students themselves.

[00:23:21.030] – Sarah

Yeah, for sure.

[00:23:24.390] – Steve

Well, thanks, Sarah. I’m wondering what’s the best way if listeners want to check in with you, maybe raise some questions?

[00:23:44.130] – Sarah

Yeah, of course. My email is srm41@uark.edu. And you can email me. I am one of the best emailers I know, so I would definitely reply back if I got your email.

[00:23:52.210] – Steve

I’ll make sure that we post that in the lead-in to this podcast, and we’ll also post the link to your article.

[00:24:01.160] – Sarah


[00:24:01.750] – Steve

Thanks for joining us.

[00:24:02.920] – Sarah

Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

[00:24:06.530] – Steve [Outro]

Thanks for listening, folks. I’d love to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on Twitter or LinkedIn @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com

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