I have been conversing with a few colleagues about traditional grading practices. Everyone knows what the "points" system is like where all assignments, tests and quizzes are assigned some pre-determined point value. Sometimes the categories (homework, projects, tests, lab reports, etc.) are even weighted separately in order to come up with a percentage that translates in to a "letter" for the purpose of quarter/semester grades. The fuel for this conversation comes from some notes from The Homework Lady and a book entitled, Developing Grading and Reporting Systems for Student Learning by Guskey and Bailey (2001). Here's a quick snippet from p. 49.

"Teachers must decide, therefore what purpose each source of evidence is to serve and then tailor their assessment practices to fit that purpose. In particular, they must be careful in their efforts to increase quantity of evidence available for grading and reporting that they don't use formative assessment information for summative purposes...It would be inappropriate, for example, to use the results from formative quizzes constructed to check students' learning progress and prescribe corrective activities, or from homework assignments designed to offer additional practice on difficult concepts or skills in determining students' summative grades in a subject area or course." (Emphasis mine)
In other words, "practice" assignments/activities shouldn't really be a part of calculating a final (summative) grade. I think it's fair to say my math department believes that "practicing" well (and being allowed to make mistakes and ask questions) should and will lead to "performing" (testing) well, but are we practicing what we preach in the way we report student learning?

Consider the following example. Assume that homework is graded on completion and quizzes/tests on content mastery.

Student A: Homework: 50% Quiz: 60% Test: 100%
Student B: Homework: 100% Quiz 100% Test: 100%

Student A did not understand the concepts and therefore did not complete the homework. Somewhere between the "quiz" and the "test" Student A came in for extra help and finally "understood" the concept which explains his/her sudden improvement on the "test."

In the traditional grading system, which student earns a better grade? Student B, of course. A traditional points system penalizes "later learners." On the "test," both students demonstrated the same level of understanding, but Student A is penalized for initially struggling. Do we have a realistic expectation that students will "get it" the first day we teach concepts to them? If so, then why not have daily tests?

Two questions have come out of this conversation:
1) Why not simply grade homework for completion?
This clearly skews the reporting process. For example, what does a "95% - A" grade mean? Some might argue it means a students has completed 95% of the assignments. Others might claim it means a student has mastered 95% of the concepts. Yet another group suggests some blend of effort and mastery.

2) If I don't grade homework/assignments, then why would students do them?
I think precisely the opposite is true. We are encouraging our students to copy, cheat and only turn in the assignments they feel are "worth it" when they are assigned a point value.
"Students begin to view academic wealth as determined by the number of points they can accumulate. Teachers set the currency rate when they establish their grading standards and simplify the required bookkeeping with modern computerized grading programs. Savvy students keep track of current exchange rates, calculating far in advance the exact number of points they need to attain the grade they want, and adjust their efforts accordingly. They know they must plan cautiously since they can lose points or be fined for certain transgressions, such as not completing a homework assignment or turning in a project late. They also make note of contingencies that allow them to earn points or bonuses, such as doing special projects or volunteering for work outside of class" (Guskey & Bailey, 2001, p. 19).
Most secondary educators have experienced students asking, "how many points is this worth" or parents emailing about "turning in late assignments to boost their child's grade." I want my students to "practice" or complete learning activities for the sake of learning. I'm guessing I am not the only one with this mindset.
"Sadly, this emphasis on earning points in order to procure the grade commodity diminishes the value of learning"
(Guskey & Bailey, 2001, p. 20).
I believe the answer to this "grading" issue is related to creating an increased awareness and classroom culture of formative assessment and reporting out student learning via standards-based grading.
Teachers must seek an appropriate balance between the formative instructional purposes of assessement of student learning, and the summative evaluative purposes required in grading"
(Guskey & Bailey, 2001, p. 31).
This balance is an ongoing challenge for me. What arguments for/against the "points" system are missing from the conversation? What strategies are you trying out in order to better report student learning?

Previous related musings: