Mastering the Grading System: What Every Parent Should Know
- Monday, May 10, 2010
Few challenges have any more ability to erode a home educator's sense of confidence than the responsibility to assign accurate grades. Most parents feel like they are "standing in spaghetti" when it comes to evaluating their children's academic work, and many attest to an overwhelming impression that their best efforts are inconsistent. Others are driven consciously or unconsciously by their own memories of school days long past and thus reinforce procedures with little understanding of the rationale behind them or react to perceived injustices with inappropriate concessions in their own teaching. This dilemma can be solved with a little effort by correcting some common misunderstandings, understanding some basic evaluation principles, and developing good habits in planning objectives for each educational program.
1. Letter grades are the "shorthand symbols" that the educational system uses to describe the quality of a student's performance on a given task.
While it is certainly possible to use any set of letters or numbers to summarize your report of a child's academic progress or individual performance, in most academic situations the letters A, B, C, D, and F function like common currency in our society. Everyone assumes that these letters communicate specific values, and it is expected that an A is better than a C, and proportionately a C is better than a D or F. If you choose to use any other means of communicating academic progress (e.g., a scale of 5-1, where 5 is outstanding and 1 is unacceptable, or a scale with alternate letters, where S=superior, E=excellent, G=good, F=fair, and U=unacceptable), make sure that you provide an explanation of your scale with the report.
2. Objective and subjective evaluations require different grading methods.
Many local school systems and even a few state departments of education try to standardize grading by designating a range of percentages to each letter, but these efforts generally fall short of the level of precision that administrators desire for the simple reason that academic tasks vary greatly. Some school work can be evaluated objectively in the sense that the answers are clearly right or wrong (e.g., spelling tests, math quizzes, tools that examine accurate recollection of facts or definitions, grammatical analysis, labels on diagrams, etc.), and thus the end result is easily quantified with a percentage score. Other tasks require an extensive rubric of subjective judgments, such as rating scales for thought progression, thoroughness of research, accuracy of documentation, quality of presentation, interaction and progression of discussion, and more (e.g., essays, research papers, speeches, literary discussions, scientific experiments, performances in the arts, etc.). The following diagram lists adverbs and adjectives that would be appropriate for describing a student's performance in subjective areas, so that you can effectively begin to work your way from anecdotal descriptions to letter grades.
3. Mastery learning must be distinguished from the disciplines of content exploration as students mature.
Much of the learning during the toddler, preschool, and primary years would be described by the education community as "mastery-oriented." In other words, the lesson ends only when the student completely understands how to do what is required: recognize letters and sounds, decode words, count and compute accurately with basic arithmetic facts, etc. What this means by way of report cards is that children earn either an A or an F—they know the material or they don't. And if they don't, more instruction and practice need to be provided until they do.
During the middle school years, the basic skills learned in early childhood should be expanded and applied to a variety of content areas. Thus, in the realm of home education, fourth grade (or when the student is 8 or 9 years of age) would be an ideal time to begin documenting progress on a traditional report card.
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