To Grade Blindly or Not?

When I first started teaching, I would make a little extra effort to only look at the name on an assessment after I had graded to avoid bias.  Now that I’m using an SBG system where I give students a score of 1, 2, 3, or 4, based on how well I think they understand each topic, there is more of an opportunity for grading bias: “Oh I know student X knows this stuff, so I’ll let it slide.”

However, our Special Ed staff recently pointed out to the rest of us teachers that students who are special ed actually graduate with an asterisk, and we need to do everything we can to ensure that they pass their classes as long as they are trying.  Because of that I should, at the very least, check whether I am grading one of these students and judge their work and understanding with their situation in mind.[1]

But should I not look at other students and give them appropriate grades based on their circumstances? Should I give a 3 to the student who is struggling so hard, and yet I know they have reached the limit of their abilities in this topic?[2] Or should I not give a 4 (“Mastery Level”) to a student who did much better than his/her peers on an assignment, and yet who I know could do better if they just put a little more effort into it?

I guess what I’m asking is whether teachers who also use SBG strive to simply record on a scale of “absolute” understanding, or do you make the scale relative for different students and for different situations?

This topic reminds me of an activity that I’ve never tried, but considered doing. A teacher wanted absolute control over grading and discipline practices in a classroom, so she handed out a different injury or disease to each student in the class: everything from broken bones and scratches to life-threatening cancer and serious diseases like Malaria. Then, she proceeded to pull out a box of band-aids and handed one to each student. When she asked “Is everyone okay?”, the students shouted back that they all needed different treatments. The point was then driven home that, similarly, every single student has different learning needs. So if she gives HW to some students and not to others, it’s her job to recognize who needs what just like it’s a doctor’s job to recognize how to treat each patient that enters the office.

Though I’ve never done that activity, apparently the teacher never had a complaint all year about how she treated each student differently, down to giving different assessments.[3]

For now I’m grading the students who always seem to do well a little tougher–to give them something to reach for.  I’m going a little easier on those students who seem to struggle so much more–to give them something to hold on to.

[1] Or should these grades remain the same and I should just edit what gets put on the report card? A challenging question, perhaps, for another time.

[2] Is it possible to know when someone has done that: reached their full potential in a given topic or standard?

[3] I just wanted to point out that I mean “treating students differently” in a professional way: being able to maintain unfair biases or prejudices are not the intention of this activity.



Filed under Teaching

9 responses to “To Grade Blindly or Not?

  1. This is a big BIG question to raise. How objective can we ever be and how objective should we hope to be? We’re in a people business and it is vital that our reporting on students reflect that. I have students who are still learning English enrolled in my AP Stats class. Should I grade their writing the same way I grade the writing of someone who has spoken English his/her whole life? I think that the example above about the band-aids also makes me think about learning accommodations where students get extra time. I understand that there are legitimate differences in processing times for people but I am also fairly certain that all of my students would benefit from extra time on assessments. This whole question of objectivity is a tricky, tricky one and I look forward to words of wisdom from your other readers. I fear I have none myself.

  2. There’s a road that will drive you mad. 150 students with 150 different courses? How much time do you have in a day, mine are limited to 24 hours, and being a mere human, I need sleep and sustenance, and time to walk the dog. The special ed kids with an asterisk are being singled out as not meeting the same academic standards as other people. The SBG should have objective standards – did you meet this level, this level or this level? The point is, it is not subjective.
    Remember that of the 70% of students who go to college, 65% will drop out because they don’t have the necessary math skills. You do them no favors by patting them on the head and telling them they are “good enough.” We math teachers are costing the economy millions of dollars, and I think we need to bite the bullet and ask for skills.
    My 2 cents 🙂

  3. Hmm this is definitely worth thinking lots about.

    We’ve spoken lots before, and you know that I am in favor of a personalized curriculum that’s tailored towards student needs. But I think the topic is a bit different here. I’ll try to tackle wherever you have question marks – might be easier this way.

    “But should I not look at other students and give them appropriate grades based on their circumstances?”

    Depends on what you mean by “appropriate.” What circumstances are you referring to? In our context here, we have students who have “individual education plans” that may need additional support. From extended time to scribing to a modified assessment.

    “Should I give a 3 to the student who is struggling so hard, and yet I know they have reached the limit of their abilities in this topic?[2] Or should I not give a 4 (“Mastery Level”) to a student who did much better than his/her peers on an assignment, and yet who I know could do better if they just put a little more effort into it?”

    Effort ultimately doesn’t equal results. I think it is important to assess students compared to a set criteria, instead of with other students. I think in the cases where standards are not yet well established as expectations for students in a particular course, this may be more difficult, but it still is not a reason to begin comparing with other students.

    I guess what I am trying to compare are criterion-referenced tests vs norm-referenced tests — and that I support criterion-referenced approaches.

    I don’t think the example you gave about injuries and diseases and resulting in different treatments correspond to the situation that you described with respect to students.

    The different treatments are simply the different feedback you give students.

    Different assessments you give patients are the personalized curriculum that I often fantasize about, and imagine it being more effective and meaningful. But in this case, if I understand correctly:
    – you have given students the same assessment
    – students understand that they are being tested for understanding of certain topics
    – there are standards that student work is being compared to

    then you cannot ignore resultant work by saying “it’s okay, I know student xx knows this.” Whatever student xx does, should be entered as evidence, and discussed with the student to move her/his learning forward.

    hopefully all of the above made sense. It’s a huge topic, and I’d definitely love to spend hours discussing it and thinking about it.

  4. I would much rather see you give different assessments to kids who need accommodations and grade them all at the ame high level of expectation. For me a four is a perfect paper, absolutely everything must be correct. A special Ed student might get fewer questions, a word bank/formula sheet or extra time, but the four still represents a perfect assessment. Differentiate homework and classroom activities so everyone is able to show mastery of the content come exam time.

    • I agree with you that I would rather give different assessments to kids who need accommodations, but realistically I don’t always have time to do that for students who should probably have accommodations, but aren’t so severe that they have an IEP.

      And while I, too, try to strive for “the four represents a perfect assessment”, let me try to give you an example that might blur the lines.

      Student 1 usually gets all A’s in her other classes, rarely studies, and often can figure out the right problem by paying minimal attention. She makes a mistake, but showed her work so that it is clear she understands how to solve that kind of problem, but she simply typed the numbers into her calculator incorrectly. (We’ll assume, for the sake of argument, that the answer was off by just a little, so it’s not something she could look at and realize, through estimation, that it’s clearly not the right answer.) However, I don’t have a “can enter numbers into a calculator” standard (perhaps I should?), and so the question becomes, should Student 1 get a 4 (“Mastery” on my grading scale).

      Same situation arrives for Student 2, except that Student 2 is not a straight-A student, she struggles in her other classes (and mine as well), and I know it takes enormous effort to learn even the easiest (in my opinion) problems.

      I might be tempted to give Student 2 a “4” because she could, and should, spend her time focusing on other topics, but I might give Student 1 a “3” just to encourage her to review the topic and perhaps demonstrate her mastery in another way.

      I say “tempted” because a situation very much like this arose for me yesterday and I couldn’t grade them differently: I felt like if two students had the same paper, I should give them the same grade. I guess I’m just asking, should I do that when I feel like I know the students better than a computer would?

      Thanks for your comment and the ideas it forces me to struggle with!

      • I would give both students the same grade. But I would give the paper back to student 1 with little comment, knowing they will recognize their mistake and come for the retake. For student two I would exclaim “you were so close!! Looks like you just typed something in wrong. Can you come after school to retake, or maybe if you are working well we could take a couple minutes during class for you to do the retake so you can earn the perfect score you deserve.” Grade content, teach kids and treat them based on their situations and needs.

      • Love it. Of course we can use feedback to differentiate–I should have thought of that! Thanks again for your help!

  5. My understanding and how I implement SBG is that achievement is measured against the standard, with no bias. In my classes, students with level 2 understanding successfully complete simpler problems and earn 70% (I must give percentage grades). Level 3 problems are the target and that equates to 90%. Level 4 problems are beyond the target and that is 100%. A combination of level 2 and 3 problems may earn 80%. The above may help you answer question [2] Is it possible to know when someone has done that: reached their full potential in a given topic or standard?

    This may sound harsh but, “Pass them as long as they try” is grade inflation. Of course we will do everything in our power to help the student succeed. First and foremost, follow the IEP,reteach, and reassess if necessary. In the end it may mean a low C or even worse, but that may be the reality of where the student is at at that the end of the grading period.

    • Hmm, I’m not sure I agree 100% with “Pass them as long as they try” is grade inflation, though I see your point. At least in classes that are required to be taken by all students. Or maybe it is grade inflation and it’s the kind I’m okay with. I would say that “Give them an A or B if they try” is grade inflation, and I’m certainly against that.

      (As a side not, I’m pretty sure that I failed more students last year in one period than any other teacher did in all of their classes combined, so I do feel like I’m fighting the grade inflation monster right there with ya!)

      But yes, I have a tough time grading the same test two different ways (I wasn’t able to just yesterday even though I knew the students were coming from very different backgrounds/abilities!) and perhaps that’s a good thing.

      Thanks for the comment and the thoughts it inspired!

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