Kleenex is not proficiency

Kleenex isn’t proficiency (and other stupid things that make grades meaningless)

Guest Blog post by Nicole Naditz

I wanted to talk about grading. Yup. Grading. And why we are doing it wrong.

When I talk to groups of teachers about this topic, I start with three statements for my audience to respond to.  I ask the attendees to close their eyes and raise their hand if the statement was true for them personally. The results have been the same every time I have spoken on this topic:

Primary Goal to Teach Proficiency

“Raise your hand if your primary goal is to develop your students’ proficiency in the language you teach.” Nearly 100% of the audience raised their hand. This did not surprise me. In fact, I was expecting that and I believe that this is true of the language teachers in our country: we all aspire to prepare our students to be able to interact with other speakers of the language in a variety of contexts within and beyond the classroom. The audience kept their hands up, opened their eyes and looked around. Heads nodded as they saw that their peers felt the same way they did. Although I teach language, and most frequently speak to language teachers, this question could easily be tailored for other subject areas and I firmly believe the results would be the same.

Assessment Aligned to Develop Proficiency

OK, time for statement two. I instructed the audience to lower their hands and close their eyes again. This time the statement was, “Raise your hand if your instruction, practice and assessment are all designed to help develop that proficiency.” Again, almost 100% of hands went up. I had the audience keep their hands up, open their eyes and look around. And again, I believe that this is true. I think that most teachers really do feel that the lessons they design, the practice activities and opportunities they provide, and even the assessments that they administer work together to help develop students’ proficiency.

Grades Reflect Accurately Reflect

On to the third statement. “Close your eyes and raise your hand if the grades your students earn absolutely and accurately reflect their ability to use the language outside of your class.” I fully expected fewer hands to go up for this statement. I planned it that way. But the first time I spoke to a group of teachers on this topic, even I was not prepared for what I saw. “Keep your hands up, open your eyes, and look around.” One hand was up. One. In an audience of well over 100 educators, only one person felt that the grades his or her students received accurately reflected the degree to which students could use the material they learned outside of class. When I spoke to another group of teachers just a couple of weeks ago at a school district in Northern California, not a single hand was raised.

Our Grades Are Broken

Something is wrong. Virtually no teachers with whom I have spoken think their grades reflect what students could actually do with the material outside of class. Our grades are broken. The way many of us grade is broken. And the saddest thing is, our grading system is so institutionalized that most teachers use it without even giving it a second thought.

Traditional grading systems–with a 100% scale and traditional grade book categories do NOT value proficiency and that we are losing students–sometimes proficient students–as a result. So if traditional gradebook categories and the 100% scale do not value proficiency, what DO they value?

They value points. And points and proficiency aren’t the same thing.

In American education, we often do things the way they have always been done. For example, gradebook categories whose sections have names such as “homework,” “tests,” “quizzes,” and “participation.” And, of course, “extra credit.”And each of those sections is often assigned a percentage value. All the assignments the students complete receive points and the points are input into the correct category. Points are calculated and the whole thing adds up to a score out of a possible 100%. There is conversion to a letter grade using the 100% scale and that letter grade gets reported to parents, students, and others. There is some variation to this conversion, but most scales go something like this:

  • 90-100 = A
  • 80-89 = B
  • 70-79 = C
  • 60-69 = D
  • 0-59 = F

That’s not proficiency. That’s 100 shades of grey.

Is an 89% vs 90% Substantially Different in Terms of Knowledge and Skills?

How is the proficiency of a student who earned 95% quantifiably different from that of a student who earned 96%? And if you don’t think that matters, consider the exact same question with the percentages at 89% and 90%–because in most systems, the former student will receive a B and the latter an A, and yet we can’t even explain in what ways the two students are different in their skills and knowledge. Worse yet are the students receiving 59% and 60% because one will fail the course and the other will receive a D and yet, we know that they are not substantially different in terms of knowledge and skills. Of course, what is a D? Does anyone in our schools, businesses or communities really think a student with a D is proficient at the material and can use it to tackle real-world problems? So the student didn’t “fail” but he or she really can’t do anything with the material? How is that a useful grade for communicating a student’s proficiency with the material of a course? It’s not. It merely reflects a slightly better accumulation of points rather without an additional accumulation and application of knowledge. It won’t surprise you to know that I have removed the D from the grades my students receive.

Some teachers might say, “I have fixed that problem; I altered the scale so the A goes down to 87%.” Or, “I round up.” That’s great, but when you get right down to do it, if the grades in a class are based on points within a 100% scale, then the difference between any two letter grades–the difference between an A and a B, or a D and an F–ultimately will come down to ONE POINT. Out of all of the work the students completed and all of their assessments, in any scale that uses points to calculate the grade there is only a one point difference between any two letter grades. One point determining the letter grade that in most classes is the only exportable measure of their success with that content.

Points for Effort

Further complicating the value of grades based on points are the points teachers give–or take away–for aspects of the students’ behaviors and personality that have nothing to do with the standards they are targeting. Points for effort. (How do we even quantify that?) Points for whether their final copy included “nice, colorful pictures.” And yes, points for Kleenex™. Why are we giving students extra credit for bringing in facial tissues? When those points are added into the grade, the grade becomes meaningless. It now no longer reflects what students have demonstrated that they know and can do, but that they have the money to help supply the classroom with materials. And/or that they are motivated by points.

Students who are constantly asking for extra credit, or copying homework from others have learned how to play the game of school and they have learned that the student with the most points (not skill or knowledge) wins, regardless of where those points come from. So the question is, why are we “giving points” at all? When students ask how many points something is worth, they are communicating what they’ve learned about our educational system: it’s not about what you learn, know, understand and can do; it’s about how many points you can rack up. Points for homework. Points for classwork. Points for crossword puzzles. Points for Kleenex™.  Points off for being late. Or for talking. Or for not having a pencil. Notice that these are items that in many classes can add up to a lot of points–but none of them are considered measures of what students have shown they know and do! Their grade, which will be seen by family members, colleges, or even at their first jobs in the workforce, risks totally misrepresenting what they are–or are not–capable of in the various disciplines that make up their academic careers. Decisions about whether or not they will be accepted into college or hired at that job are being made based on grades that are largely meaningless, because they are inflated or deflated by what is often a random accumulation of points. This hurts students who do well based more on homework and extra credit “points,”  because there is an expectation of a certain level of performance based on their grade, and these students may not be able to demonstrate that level of performance. But this is also harmful to students who consistently score well on assessments but refuse to play the points game with homework…or who can’t even participate in that game due to factors beyond their control outside of the classroom. Or perhaps worse, students whose grades are unintentionally deflated due to the notoriously bad math on many grading rubrics. In a 4-3-2-1 grading rubric, the descriptors for earning a 3 often “meet” standard, but if teachers use strict traditional percentages based on those four “points,” the student will only earn a C. On most report cards, a “C” is described as approaching standard, not meeting it. And the descriptors for a “2” on rubrics are usually written with language that indicates the student “approaching standards,” in other words, the student is showing strong signs of beginning to successfully respond to and interact with most of the target content, but there are some areas where the student is still inconsistent. If teachers record the number on the rubric as a strict percentage, with 4 being 100%, the students who get a 2 will have an F! In fact, half the rubric is an F. There are only three grades possible when that type of rubric is converted to a traditional 100% scale: A, C (and a really “low” C at that, if teachers are using a 100% scale), or an F. What about a five-point rubric? It’s not much better: you can have an A,  very low B, a D, or an F.  There is no C (although one could argue that the 80% for the B might as well be a C). Here again, the rubric is weighted towards failure, with two of the rubric grading categories resulting in an F (and a third category yielding the lowest possible D) when most teachers using a 100% scale record the scores.  Sadly, many teachers don’t even realize that their insistence on points and a 100% scale is in fact causing them to record “scores” that don’t reflect what their rubrics say or what they intended to communicate in terms of student progress and performance on that task.

Change to a Culture of Proficiency

It’s time to change our school system from a culture of points to a culture of proficiency. It’s time for students’ grades to reflect their proficiency with the standards. In that scenario, at least while I am still in a school that requires letter grades, students who are meeting the targeted standards earn a B. Students who demonstrate that they are exceeding the target earn an A and those whose assessments show that they are approaching the target, but not quite able to perform it consistently enough to be “meeting standard” earn a C. The grade now actually reflects what students know and can do and communicates a student’s proficiency and skills accurately to all stakeholders. Students deserve nothing less than a grade that actually tells the truth about their attainment of standards in each course. Anything else is a disservice to the students, the colleges to which they apply and the communities in which they will live and work.   It’s time to burst the grading bubble.

I highly recommend you check out the works of Myron Dueck, Tom Schimmer, Jan Chappuis and Rick Wormeli (books and video), all of whom have greatly inspired and shaped my thinking on this subject and the changes I have made in my approach to grading and assessment over the past few years.

Want more? Click here to see my “TOY (Teacher of the Year) Talk” where I describe why our system of points is actually less fair to all of our learners and what I (and a growing number of teachers in all subjects, including ours) believe may be a better way.

Feel free to check out my blog: http://www.3rs4teachers.wordpress.com 


Nicole is a French Teacher at Bella Vista High School. Over the course of her career, she has taught French grades 3-12, as well as social science and adult ELD courses. She is very active in professionally, and is a sought-after speaker and facilitator of professional learning. She is currently serving a term on the Instructional Quality Commission (an advisory body to the State Board of Education) as well as being a member of the leadership team of the Capital World Language Project and  President and Advocacy Chair of the Foreign Language Association of Greater Sacramento.

She has been honored by Hilton Hotels, PBS, Google, National Geographic and the GRAMMY Museum for her work with learners and is the 2015 American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages National Language Teacher of the Year. She was also the 2012 Sacramento County Teacher of the Year and a finalist for California State Teacher of the Year.

In her free time, she is a competitive figure skater (seriously!), and enjoys travel and photography.

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