Thinking outside the grade
Mr. Miller and Mr. Eckel, two teachers who employ unconventional grading policies, speak to what makes their policies work
May 8, 2021
Grades. Love them or hate them, they’re a quintessential part of the high school experience. However, though they are an integral part of the school system, research has shown that grades can distract from learning, demotivate students, and have the potential to be detrimental to students’ emotional health.
So, some Jefferson teachers, including Mr. Michael Miller (English Department) and Mr. Malcolm Eckel (Computer Science) have changed their grading policies to something they believe can better evaluate and motivate students at the same time. For Miller, his grading reinvention journey began with inspiration from an article.
“It started in 2005. I was taking a graduate course with the Northern Virginia writing project, and the instructor introduced us to an article, “from degrading to de-Grading” by Alfie Kohn,” Miller said. “It was a powerfully written article, but it basically took all of the a lot of the research we have on grading, and sort of boiled that down and made the argument that we ought not to be giving grades at all. And I think it really resonated with me as a teacher.”
Miller had always felt that grading was a distraction from the true goal of education: learning.
“I’ve been teaching since 1994, and the worst part of my job, at TJ, was grades, because it meant judging work, and I’m not here to judge you, my job is to figure out, ‘How do I make you a better writer?’ And that’s through feedback,” Miller said. “[Grading] took a lot of time and energy away from teaching and learning, time I could have spent planning lessons, reading books, even giving you feedback on your piece.”
Miller detailed the extent of time he’d waste grading papers before he changed his grading system.
“A lot of this I’d spend when I would grade a stack of papers? I would sweat over the process of like, is this a C? Is it a C minus, and then I’ll take all the A’s and put them on the floor together in a pile and all the A minuses together,” Miller said. “And I have to ask myself, are all the A’s similar in quality, and are all the A minuses similar in quality, but not as good as the ones above it. And that’s a lot of time and energy that has nothing to do with teaching.”
But, in Miller’s eyes, grading is not just a distraction for teachers; students also lose sight of education.
“[One] thing that resonated with me was that researchers have demonstrated that the grading orientation, and the learning orientation, while not mutually exclusive, do pull in different directions. There are kids who are like, ‘I want an A,’ and then their focus is on the A, not on becoming a better writer. But getting the A and becoming a better writer actually pull in different directions and I’m afraid this is where TJ struggles for its soul. Grading decreases a student’s intrinsic interest. We know [from academic research, see Kohn article cited above] that as we raise extrinsic motivation, we lower intrinsic motivation. We know that grades decrease the retention and interest in the material. So when I set grades on your writing, I make you want to write less, actually.” Miller said “The National Council of Teachers of English, which is our professional organization, even issued a formal statement on grading. They said teachers should not put letter or number grades on student writing, because it’s counter to what we know about best writing instruction.”
But, given that Miller still had to submit grades for his students per Fairfax County Public Schools policies, he experimented with a different grading system for the next few years.
“For years, I stopped giving grades– lots of feedback, but no grades. And at the end of the quarter, or interim time, [students] would submit a portfolio with all the things [they’d] produced. And I’d give students a rubric describing a grade that has people assess themselves in reading, writing class participation.
However, the introduction of SIS StudentVue created the need for a new system.
“The arrival of SIS changed expectations about [grades]. People would freak out if there were no grades. [Per FCPS policies], I need six grades on that, right. I got to feed the machine. So what do I do?” Miller said. “Well, Alfie Kohn and some other writers have posited that, if we must assess students, one of the ways we can go is to do pass fail courses. And I can’t, this is not a pass fail course, but I love loopholes, so [even though] I can’t do a pass fail course I can do each individual assignment pass-fail. And that’s where I am right now.”
Miller’s current grading system involves each assignment being put as either a 50 or 100, with students being allowed to resubmit all assignments (including both formative and summative work) as many times as they want until they get a 100. Miller acknowledges that his grading techniques are not perfect, and that they may continue evolving.
“It’s a pass fail course in a letter grade world. Not even I like it. But it’s the least damaging thing I can think of,” Miller said.
Miller’s innovative new grading system has inspired other teachers, like computer science teacher Eckel, to change the way they grade as well. Eckel’s system is slightly different in that it uses 80, rather than 100, as its basis for a “passing” grade, and allocates the remaining 20% for students who go beyond the minimum passable requirement.
“My grading system was actually inspired a lot by [Miller’s]. I’ve sort of combined two big ideas. One idea that I really think is important is his idea about re-submitting until you have it right. I would much rather, if you understand 80% of something, say ‘you’re not there yet,’ and get you to learn the remaining 20%, than to just say, ‘you’re 80% good,’ and then we both move on with our lives,” Eckel said.
For CS, grading is less subjective, so it’s far easier to establish clear requirements than it is in Miller’s case, for example. Eckel’s assignment criteria give students an idea of what work would score an 80%, and the remaining 20% is left to the student’s [something, like creativity or planning or whatever].
“To get to a 100, [students] need to decide how you’re going to go beyond, and you expect them to do that in a way that they’re in control of. So that instead of school feeling sort of like checking the boxes on a list, the student is involved in their own planning,” Eckel said. “And so what I’ve done with that in my class, is I’ve applied into the whole course, so there are required labs in the course that get you up to exactly 80%. And then to get the remaining 20%, I have a huge variety of assignments [students can choose from].”
Both teachers mentioned that they’ve seen results out of their policies, and overall feedback has been good.
“You know, teachers often lament that students will come to them and argue over half a point on a test or whatever. And that never happens [in this system],” Eckel said. “Students often tell me that they really appreciate the flexibility and they appreciate the clarity, they feel like they’re in control of their grade in a way that they are not in other classes. And when I asked about the sort of remaining 20%, being your choice from a bunch of different options, that’s also very popular. I’ve asked about it in the past, and upwards of 90, 95% of my students have said that it’s a good idea that I should keep doing.”
Miller noted a rise in student interest, and the quality of papers he has received. He has mentioned that whereas typical English courses often produce students who restrict themselves to writing only typical 5 paragraph essays, his grading system has led students to experiment with other, often more interesting types of writing.
“I think the writing got better. The class participation got better. In other words, the research was right. So it was great,” Miller said. “Sometimes kids write some really interesting pieces. And I’m like, ‘wow, that was kind of a bold move. That was cool. You know, what made you do that?’ I get the response, ‘Why not?’. When you’re not struggling between grades, there’s a lot of room for creativity.”
But, these grading policies are not without issues of their own. Eckel notes that one of his greatest concerns with this type of grading system is the time students spend redoing assignments.
“There is a clear disadvantage to this, which I’m working to address. It’s that if you are struggling in another class, your workload is about the same as the other students, you will just get a lower grade. If you’re struggling in my class, what happens is that your workload will increase, right? Where another student might be getting full credit on each assignment after an hour’s worth of work, if you’re having trouble with an assignment, it might take you literally 20.” Eckel said. “So it’s a legitimate question to ask if setting up the incentive structure like I have, so that you can keep re-submitting things over and over and over again, with a student body that is very focused on success, is just going to lead to a ridiculously enormous workload for a lot of my students. But I am very happy giving that choice to my students.”
This idea of providing a choice is integral to Eckel’s system.
“Students really are in control of it. If they want to skip an assignment, they can do that– if they want to do 80% of the work and get an 80, and then take the same amount of time as everyone else,” Eckel said. “What I’ve done is given them another option. So if students are choosing to spend more time working to raise their score, who am I to say they shouldn’t do that?
One concern about alternative grading strategies is that students may begin to slack off to meet only the most basic of requirements for their work, but Miller has not found this to be the case in his class.
“If it’s 100 or 50, and all those middle grades are removed, then conventional wisdom would be that they’re just going to turn the bare minimum,” Miller said. “But, the papers that kids are turning in, they’re 28 pages long, so I’d say the proof is in the pudding. Will this work everywhere else? Is it transferable? I don’t know. But in my course, work has only gotten better. It’s been more creative, it’s been riskier, it’s been more interesting.”
Sophomore Christina Han, a student of Miller’s, further expressed support for his grading system,
“Even though the pass fail system may seem ‘easy,’ if you really invest yourself in it and pay attention in class and listen to what the course has to offer, it gives you room to improve and to want to improve. And that, I think, is one of the greatest benefits of Mr. Miller’s grading style: he allows you to try again, so you don’t feel as much trepidation about failing,” Han said.
The question of how to approach grading, Miller believes, boils down to what society believes is the role of a teacher.
“People will say ‘he’s not putting letter grades on, but that’s his job,’” Miller said. “To that, I would say, what’s my job title? English teacher. Teacher– not grader, not judge, teacher. That’s what I do. My job is to teach.”