Binary Grading in Practice (Update 1)

As described previously on this blog, I am experimenting with a grading system in which students earn either 1 or 0 points for daily assignments that reflect learning activities or practice.  Quizzes, tests, and projects that do measure individual learning earn higher point values in the gradebook. With a few weeks-worth of grades in the book, I’ll risk a few early observations about how the system is working.

Best outcome so far: I have found that I need to assess student understanding more frequently so that one quiz does not doom a student’s grade.  Even better, students are now asking for more chances to demonstrate their learning. Student athletes, in particular, are approaching me with requests for ways to show that they understand what we are discussing in class in order to remain eligible for sports.

With only a few quizzes in the gradebook and no “extra” points from daily assignments to buffer their grade, many students have found their grades to be much lower at the start of this quarter than they would like.  This may be because they are still getting used to the system and are only now realizing what the new point system entails. Most students do seem to realize now that they are not being rewarded just for turning assignments in. They have to perform well on the quizzes for the grade to show any progress. I think it helped that I put the new grading policy in writing and distributed it to students and their parents on the advice of my principal, Bud Ozzello.

Another outcome of binary grading is that some aspects of the daily assignments themselves have changed.  Since most daily assignments are now defined as learning activities, not assessment activities, I send home the answer keys with assignments as much as possible.  This makes my job as teacher a lot easier. I used to be in the role of “copy policeman” where I would have to scrutinize homework to see who was copying whom. No longer. Now it is the student’s responsibility to make sure that they are using their time wisely. Students may still cheat, but now at least they have the correct answers and are getting very little credit for it in the overall course grade. They are still held accountable for learning the material since it appears on quizzes and tests.

The most surprising observation so far has been that students still complete the daily assignments even though they are worth only 1 point.  I had worried initially that students would lose motivation due to the lack of points, but I think most realize that they are still being held accountable for the daily work. Their parents can check my online gradebook to see if they are doing their work and if they are understanding it based on the quiz results.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Paula White’s article on effective grading in which she passes on a warning about the hazards of formative assessments taking over the gradebook:

Coaches don’t grade practices, so why over-grade ongoing assessments?  Students need opportunities to practice, analyze work, and learn from errors in a safe context.   The formative assessments given should be just that—formative—not final grades.

I’d like to think that that is what is beginning to happen in my classroom with this change in grade reporting. My challenge now is to routinely produce quality assessments (formative and summative) that do measure individual student levels of understanding in a timely manner. I am still shaking myself out of the past several years of doing things the same old way. But I hope that my students and I will continue to work the kinks out of this new grading system and find ways for them to learn to earn the grade.

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  1. psikeyhackr’s avatar

    So what do you do with a kid that does the 3 hardest problems of 10 in a homework assignment and throws them away but then always gets A’s on the tests.

    School doesn’t test how well the subject is understood but how much idiotic busywork is done.


  2. Chris Ludwig’s avatar

    psikeyhackr: you bring up one of the reasons that I have gone through the trouble to try to change my grading system. I used to reward busywork, and yes some of it was probably idiotic.

    In the system I use now, though, the kid who does the 3 hardest problems then never turns in the assignment loses exactly one point from their possible total points. If they really know the material they will score 10/10 points on a quiz. With their missing grade, they now have 10/11, a fine grade overall. While it really doesn’t reward the kind of student you describe (nor should it), it does not punish them either because the real assessment comes from quizzes and tests, which a student like this could presumably pass.


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