Tag Archives: grades

The Argument Against Online Grading

Just say "no".

Just say “no”.

Sue me: I do not use an online grading program.

Engrade, Schedula, Jupiter Grades, every school in New York City has adopted their own program where teachers can post each and every grade to each and every assignment online. It is not free either, for these programs can cost the school over $1,000.

For teachers, the selling point is that they no longer have to hunch over a calculator for hours on end come report card season. All they have to do is press a button and the grades are all calculated for them, according to whatever scoring algorithm the teacher chooses.

For students, they can log on to see their latest scores. It is like checking under your pillow to find some money from the tooth fairy each and every day. An ongoing tally tells them the grade they have in the class so far.

For parents, they can closely monitor the progress their kids are making in their classes. The more involved parents can even download the assignments and/or lessons, assuming the teacher has uploaded them. An email link keeps them in frequent contact with their children’s teachers.

Administrators seem to like the idea of being able to pull up any student’s grade from a central database. From what I hear, most administrators exhort their staffs to use the school’s adopted online grading program. Some schools have even mandated that teachers use it, although I am not sure that is 100% contractual.

And here I am, one of the last teachers in the city to not grade my students online. I am the only teacher in my school who is not online, which leads to some interesting exchanges come parent-teacher night.

One teacher recently referred to my absence from the world of online grading as me “taking a stand”. I do not see it that way. For my part, online grading is not compatible with my teaching philosophy or my philosophy in general. Many teachers swear by it and that is their decision. If a teacher believes online grading helps them do their job better or more efficiently, then I certainly am not one to try to convince them otherwise. Teachers should be free to make these types of decisions based upon their styles and experience.

I understand all of the arguments in favor of online grading. Now I would like to present my arguments against it.

Teachers should make the effort to inform their students of how they are doing in class. But what does this actually mean? Is “how a child is doing” mean a number grade? I told my students on the first day of school this year that I do not want them caring about grades. They are not sitting in my classroom to earn a number. This bit of information caused many a furrowed brow on many teenaged faces. My goal for them is to gain an appreciation for history.

This is a quaint notion, especially in the era of data (!). Kids have this idea that they come to school to earn good grades so they can get a diploma so they can go to college so they can get a good job. These are assumptions that most students, no matter what their background, tend to share. This is all the more reason why they must be reminded of the fact that there is actual knowledge, actual learning, to be done inside of a school building. If on the first day, or even the second or third day, I did the standard thing by giving each student their pass codes to log into their online grade account, I would merely be confirming their deeply held assumptions that school is about numbers. There will be more than enough time for them to fret over numbers throughout their lives, whether in the form of grades, salaries or bills. For the 45 minutes or so they are in my classroom, I want them to worry about history.

At the same time, I do not see why those students who are particularly hung up on their GPAs cannot remain hung up. They get homework every evening that is returned to them graded the very next day. They get exams every two weeks that are returned to them graded, also the very next day. Their projects are graded in a timely fashion, so they have those numbers as well. For class participation, students know whether or not they raise their hands, come on time and complete the little written assignments that are required of them. In short, they have more than enough data (!) to keep track of their own grades. Those students who are grade-driven will know and remember the grades they get throughout the semester, whether those grades are online or not.

Most importantly, there are always students who I do not grade by the strict algorithm required by our department. Every year I teach a class of exclusively English Language Learners. If they were plugged into the same equations as all my other students, as most of the online grading programs demand we do, most of them would surely fail. Instead, I must use a more “holistic” grading method, as teachers like to say. There are students who come to my class speaking and writing very little English and end the year with much more confidence and skill using the language. These students have upside, meaning their English skills will only continue to improve over time. Should I fail these students if I know they would be able to make their way in the next grade, even if they have struggled in my class for most of the year? Not only would this be unfair, it would frustrate them. They would be forced to sit again for a class of which they eventually got the hang. I would be holding them back from applying their new-found English skills in the next, more challenging, stage. Would they continue to improve if they are not continually challenged? For these students, and for students in analogous situations, plugging them into a strict numerical algorithm would be doing them a tremendous disservice.

Teachers are under pressure to bring more technology into the classroom. We are told that kids are using more technology than ever in their personal lives, so we should get with the program and integrate more of it into our practice. The push to record grades online is an extension of that pressure. I see things precisely the opposite way. Since children are spending so much time with technology, they need to have daily reminders that life is not digital. Adults could use this reminder as well, which is an ironic statement coming from someone who keeps an internet blog.

Many parents seem to like how online grading makes keeping track of their children’s schoolwork easier. In an age when the American worker has to put in well over 50 hours at the office to keep their families’ heads above water, it is understandable that many of them like online grading. On parent-teacher night, many parents ask me why I have not posted any grades to the internet. This leads me to summarize to them what has been written above. Most of the parents seem to understand my reasoning. A very bare minority do not and chalk up my rejection of online grading as either laziness or Ludditism. I give them my personal email and school extension and tell them they can contact me at any time they might have a question about their child’s progress.

This always leads me to think about how my mother was able to be so involved in my schooling. She was a single parent who, at times, worked two jobs. After working, cooking and cleaning, she still set aside the time to help me study and do homework. She came to every parent-teacher conference. She came into my school even when there were no parent-teacher conferences. She received every report card and knew all of my grades, which was never a good thing for me as a solid 65 student. She interacted with me and my teachers constantly. The truth is, I would have never pulled even a 65 if it was not for my mother. If she had access to my grades online, how much less would she interact with me and my teachers? How much more would she be inclined to see my schooling as nothing more than a pile of data rather than a daily interaction between me, my teachers and my peers?

While it is tempting to have the freedom to throw away my calculator at report card time in favor of a computer program that tallies the numbers of all of my students with one click of the mouse, I kind of like punching in those numbers and seeing what comes out. A student comes out with a grade of 59? What if they tried their hardest for that grade? What about that unit when they were asking all of those questions about the Enlightenment or the Civil War, went out of their way to watch a documentary about it and then came to class the next day to tell me what they learned? Should I fail this student just because they did not surpass some arbitrary cutoff point? What if this was the first time they ever started to care about something that happened in history? With online grading, those students are locked into whatever number the program says.

This is not to say that I grade students with fuzzy math. I keep meticulous records (on paper of course), add up every single number and adhere to our department’s grading policy. Students are informed as to how their grades are calculated. In fact, as I told one parent who disapproved of me not posting grades online on parent-teacher night, I spend more time than most other teachers going over with my students how their grades are calculated. I walk them through a hypothetical student with hypothetical grades and show them exactly how I calculate during report card season. They get a handout describing in both words and in diagrams what it means for their grades to be “cumulative”. In my mind, there is more transparency in this type of grading than in online grading since, unlike a computer program, I walk them through exactly how the sausage is made.

And then, after I do all of this, I tell them that this is not the point of coming to school. These are merely numbers. Education is what goes on in class all day. It is how they are affected by history. It is how history shapes their lives.  How many online grading programs were used by Socrates? Did Plato respect him because he promptly posted his grades to the internet?

Administrators can twist my arm to go online all they want. They have their reasons for wanting teachers to post their grades to the internet. None of those reasons have anything to do with education and everything to do with the bureaucratic exercise of covering one’s behind. Administrators want to be able to say that their schools constantly inform parents. Granted, some administrators might think that going with online grading is “pedagogically” the best thing to do. If that is the case, they should share their reasoning with their staffs who should, in turn, be free to accept or reject that reasoning. However, in Bloomberg’s Department of Education, it is all about informing parents.

But informing is a one-way street. Informing means explaining to someone a policy decision after it has already been made. Instead of informing, schools should be eliciting. Instead of posting grades and sending home letters, schools should be asking parents what they need. Instead of telling parents what has already been done, schools should be working with parents in designing what needs to be done in the future. Granted, these things are not mutually exclusive. A school can both inform and elicit. Yet, instead of spending a cool grand on an online grading program, imagine a school spending that money on organizing a “parents’ night” or several “parents’ nights”? Instead of mandating that teachers hunch over a keyboard to punch in numbers, imagine schools that would encourage teachers to take a day out of the semester to knock on doors of the parents they do not get to meet on conference night. Instead of more digital interaction, how much face-to-face interaction can a school purchase with a thousand bucks?

Subconsciously, this is probably another reason I have an aversion to online grading. It has the foul stench of Bloomberg all over it. Not only does it conjure up images of Joel Klein-like characters profiting off the backs of school districts by hawking superfluous and/or useless technological wares, it is just another way to inform. One thing the reformers have done well is drive a wedge between teachers and parents, as well as between parents and parents. They have sought to atomize the “stakeholders” of the education system into its constituent parts so that it is more difficult to unite against their harebrained “reforms”. Bloomberg himself has accomplished this by making it easier for schools to inform than to elicit.

Contrary to what we are being told, education is not all about the data (!) I will remind myself and my students of this every chance I get.

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First Marking Period Blues

True learning

I put in the grades for the first marking period today. Our school year is divided into two semesters, each with three marking periods. The marking periods last for roughly 6 weeks. Once the grades are in, parents will come down this coming Thursday and Friday for parent-teacher conferences. This is one of my least favorite times of the school year.

There is no way to put a number on teaching and learning. Trying to do it six weeks into a semester is an exercise in futility. One can say that the grades should only be based on the work a student has done up until that point. That is theoretically the purpose, but I do not see things so simply.

There are students who have been trying, but struggling through the material. They may not have earned a passing grade based purely on the work they have done up until this point. How can I fail a kid who has been trying but just not getting it? This is a potentially devastating proposition. They will think that all of their work is in vain, stop trying and then there is little hope that I will ever get that student back.

Since my school is annualized, I have been with the same students since September. There are some who are not doing so well, yet they are doing way better than the end of the previous semester. Again, giving these students a failing grade is potential disaster than can have long-term consequences.

On the flipside, there are students who are doing very well. Some are the bright students that do well with all material, in all subjects with all teachers. Others are doing well because they like the particular subject matter we have covered, or find the work at this stage particularly easy or have buckled down and promised to turn over a new leaf. For these students, too high of a grade would give them a false sense of success. Yes, they have been successful up until this point, but it might just be a stage. What happens when they start to struggle with the harder stuff a few weeks down the line? They will get the next marking period grade, see that it has gone down and that puts them in the same demoralized boat as any other student who has been trying but failing.

I am sure most teachers can sympathize with these things. Parents, on the other hand, are much less sympathetic. There are generally two types of parents who come to parent-teacher night: the ones who accept everything I say about their children and the ones who act as their children’s advocate. The latter parents assume that I am short-changing their child’s grades and will harp on every little detail in my grade book. It is understandable that they want what is best for child’s future. For me, it is a fine line to travel between sympathizing with their concerns and dismissing them as much ado about nothing.

The first thing I tell parents, as well as my students, is that these first marking period grades mean nothing. They do not appear on any permanent record and they are not used to determine any grades for future marking periods. The only grades that “matter” are the grades for the end of the semester. Some parents understand and some plain do not buy it. They think I am blowing a bunch of hot air.

What I really want to say is that the concept of attaching a number to the way a student learns is ridiculous. I want to tell them that their children need less television, less designer clothing, less internet access, more reading, more quiet time and more guidance. I really want to tell them that the best service they could provide is to be a guide for their children. Going for my jugular because they perceive that their child deserves an extra 5 points on a silly piece of paper does nothing but send the message that the learning process is all on me. How can I reach a kid whose brain is so pickled in pop culture that as soon as they hear the term “Hundred Years’ War” or “Mongol Empire”, they tune right out? How do you reach a kid who is thinking of the latest Justin Bieber chorus all of the time while sitting in my class?

There are ways to reach them, for sure, but my job is much tougher because I have to dig through layers of corporate brainwashing to get anywhere. I see these parents, many coming in their work clothes, looking exhausted and exasperated, and cannot find it in my heart to excoriate them for helping turn their children’s minds into mush. Many of them work well over 8 hours a day and have other responsibilities as well. Many are single mothers barely holding things together. Now, this middle class jerk is sitting there in his tie, telling me that my kid should read more? Who does he think he is?

This is another argument in favor of unions, worker rights and an increased standard of living for all. How can parents raise their children when they have to work around the clock to put food on the table?

So, I keep my mouth shut about these things, patiently hoping that they will see that school is not about grades. Every parent-teacher conference reminds me why I have so many students obsessed with their grades. Their parents are hoping beyond hope that this school is a ticket to a better life for their children. They want their kids to get those grades, get that diploma and go off into life with the tools they need to succeed.

Unfortunately, high school diplomas and college degrees are a dime a dozen, although they do not cost that little. What is rare are people who are active and engaged citizens. What is rare are people who can think about the world around them and figure out that not everything is the neat, clean and just system that it pretends to be.

Just once, I would like to get a parent angry about something other than a low grade.