Teacher Tech blog with Alice Keeler

Paperless Is Not a Pedagogy

Alice Keeler

Is it Ethical to Give Percentages on Assignments?

Is it Ethical to Give Percentages on Assignments?

67 percent

I am passionate about not calling kids failures. As a math teacher I saw many students coming into my class already believing they were not going to be successful. A low score on an assignment or test reinforced to them that they were not smart.

When you give a 3 question quiz the score options are 100%, 67%, and 33%. An A, D or F. Odds are we end up telling students they are failures.

On a 5 question quiz the score options are 100%, 80%, 60%, 40% and 20%. Getting one question wrong takes you from an A+ to being on the verge of a C. Most of the possible score options in this scenario tell a student they are not that awesome. A 20% gap between scores seems irresponsible in accurately reporting student abilities. It is not even possible for a student to score “average” on a 5 question quiz. You’re a super star or a failure.

Even on a 10 question quiz, missing one question knocks you down a whole letter grade. A+, A-, B-, C-, D-, F, Low F, Really Low F, Super Low F. Odds are we are calling a student a failure again. Unless a student gets all of the questions correct they will have a MINUS next to their grade.

Do we really want to be telling students they are failures? Do we want to give negative impressions? Is the practice of giving percentages on assignments conducive to helping students feel good about themselves, their learning and school? I think it is time we stop abusing kids with math.



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15 thoughts on “Is it Ethical to Give Percentages on Assignments?

  1. This raises an objection to grading I have shared, as well.
    My fix has been to allow students to research the answers to assignments and quizzes and recover the points.
    They return to the material perhaps only to raise the grade – but in the process, they come out with improved skills. Win-win!
    I’ve written a bit about the topic in a post about Student Ethic Modifier – a title that, not-coincidentally – shares the word “ethic” with your post. I’d love to talk more!

  2. I see your point, but most of the students I have ( conceptual physics to mostly 10th graders who don’t do well in math) who are getting bad grades are the ones who’ve stopped even trying very easy things .
    I try everything I can think of to interest them in hands-on activities, which they don’t bother to document on the activity sheet, which is usually very easy to do.
    Or their minds are far away. Some don’t get started until I explicitly remind them they are in class with an activity to do, so please get the materials for your group and get started. If that group doesn’t finish, I think they deserve a low participation grade, which most of my grades are.

    1. Is the low participation motivating them or reinforcing that they are failures? What kinds of activities might they want to participate in? Perhaps the assignments are not tied into their personal interests, is it possible to connect their music, hobbies, activities into their assignments? There is no easy fix and if students do not do any work they should not pass. However, we can look at some of our practices to constantly ask ourselves how can we design lessons that would engage the students who not engaged? How can we change some of our practices that we know may have the effect of demotivating students?

      1. This is my first year teaching (following a very long hiatus after teaching different subjects in another country to a very different clientele.) The students general love the inquiry learning activities. It’s discussing what they’ve found and writing even short answers that is the problem. And every time there is even the simplest math problem, like many others we’ve done this year, they balk and can’t come further. I think they understand a lot more than they produce. I’ve given “authentic” assessments, where they created models or demonstrations about a topic, but some stop before they’ve explained the science of it.

        I hate giving grades. In my previous teaching, students got about 1 grade a week, but did the rest of the expected homework anyway, so they could participate in class. But (some of) my current students won’t do something if it’s not going to be graded – even completing a study guide they can use as a crib sheet for a test!

        I know it’s because someone earlier told them they were failures, which is really hard to fight by the time they get to high school. It dismays me every time I see a blank, or nearly blank inquiry packet returned, or a kid just sitting back lettng group-mates do the work, and then copying answers (and of course, not having a clue what he’s writing.)

        In at least one case, the opposite was true. He was told that he was smart, and got straight A’s without trying, so he gave up at the first C for no effort (he finally met someone who talked in a way that made sense, and he’s asked to be able to make up the stuff he didn’t do, and he’s finally listened to what I’ve been telling him all along.

  3. I think there’s difference between “you are failing” and “you are a failure.”
    I see a lot of talk about how kids feel in this article and in this thread. What about the quality of their work? My concern is always that in our concern to make children feel good about themselves, and their learning, that we lower our expectations of the quality of their output. I don’t think anyone does it on purpose, but I think it happens a lot.

    What do you think about the idea that if the kid doesn’t learn to fail and then pick themselves back up, dust themselves off and carry-on, in other words persistence, in school that that is a skill they won’t develop later on in life?
    How do you develop grit and determination if you’re never told you failed something and that you need to keep going keep trying and to improve and overcome?

    I don’t claim to have the answers to all of these, and I don’t claim that the way we do things now can’t be improved, these are just my questions and thoughts as I read the article and the comments.

    1. Josh, absolutely kids should learn from failure which is completely different from labeling them a failure. If I get one question wrong on a 3 question quiz, I just did not know the answer to that question, but I am labeled with a D which is probably NOT an accurate reflection of my knowledge. The instrument was too blunt to measure my true understanding. When we discourage kids, especially if they have low self efficacy, they get frustrated and give up. The real problem is when we use formative assessment as something that shows on the progress report and effects their grade. Even if the student learns from their mistakes and gets better, that failing score never is removed from the progress report. This is a constant reminder of our failure, which is not part of learning through failing.

  4. It sounds like you (and I) prefer to grade by rubric. That way, students are always earning “points”, but maybe not as many as they could have.

    1. I prefer a holistic rubric. I actually do not like to use the rubrics that assign points to the categories. It assumes the categories are mutually exclusive. And… let’s be honest, I made up all those point values.

  5. I teach grammar and writing to middle schoolers, and I use both rubrics and percentages. Rubrics (with plenty of feedback) are for writing assignments, projects, activities. Percentages are for quizzes and tests on basic grammar concepts. However, I’ve never given a 5-question assessment for the very reasons you state above. I’ve never given any less than 25 questions, far more often 40+. I allow the whole class period (50 min.) for completion, AND I offer retesting opportunities for anyone earning a C or lower. A student must complete written proof of 3 things he has done to increase concept mastery. (I have a form.) Then he qualifies to retest. New test has different questions but covers same material. New grade replaces old one. This allows me to assess students while giving them opportunities to improve. A poor mark that indicates poor concept mastery need not be permanent. If concept mastery improves, then grade improves. I also host peer tutoring nearly every Wednesday, to allow students to fill those gaps.
    Done this way, I don’t think percentages are unethical at all. They are simply a measurement of a moment, subject to improvement if the student desires.

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