Educational Reform: How many end of term assessments are too many?

For the last few years, our school system has been refining grading policies. It is time well spent, in my opinion. We have been residents in the same school system for nearly twenty years. During nineteen of those years, I have had a child in the system.  I’ve seen a lot of changes come and go when comes to grading.

But, two years ago, when my youngest son was a high school freshman, there was a wide disparity in the value placed on final exams from course to course. In some courses, the final exam was weighted as much as fifty-six percent of the final grade!  In other courses, it hovered around 15%, or was as low as nine percent. The problem was that there was not any consistency from course to course.  And, to be honest, there was little to no transparency, either.  My son did fine, albeit his grades were affected by this haphazard weighting, just as all student grades were whether it was recognized or not.  In essence, subject area teachers were allowed to weight their formative and summative assessments as they desired.

But, let me be clear, this is not a post complaining about teachers. It is a post concerning continuity, equity, transparency, and other traits that are governed by a system or institution and its overseeing body.  It is a post about finding, using, and sticking with a grading system that is most fair for students.

The following year, a system was thrust upon the staff and students that was meant to standardize the grading. This involved weighting all formative assessments at 20% and all summative assessments at 80%.  The implementation of this took place right as the school year started. Again, there was little to no public discussion or transparency about this change in the grading weights. I found out more about it because I sought answers from administration as to why it was done and how the numbers were chosen. Eventually, it was noted that finals were lumped in with all other summative assessments, instead of being given a separate category and weight.

What was interesting to me was that the in the spring semester of 2016 , middle my son, then a junior, took pre-calculus. The following fall semester of the same calendar year,(2016), my youngest took pre-calculus. The grading system had changed, but the course was the same. No separate category for final exams existed. And now, they were worth 80% in all courses because finals were a summative assessment.  As one can imagine, this helped some students and hurt others. Don’t get too excited as the weighting was soon to change again.

Some teachers, certainly not all, cleverly, found a way around the specific weighting. They used what I call the manipulator (which is really called the multiplier) to change the weight of the assessment.  I am confident that I am only one of a few people to notice such a thing, but be that as it may, it still allowed for a lack of consistency in grading practices. I do not think that most students were aware of how the change in the multiplier affected their grade. But, it most certainly did – sometimes, to a large and grave extent.

This year, yet another, revised, third, method of cumulative grade assessments were put in place. For my youngest, this change represents the third such change in a cumulative course grading policy in three years. In other words, for all three years of his high school career so far, he’s had three different “systems” upon which his course grades have been calculated.  This “new” system was the same as last year but now with a separate category for finals, worth 15%. So, now, this year, summative assessments are worth 70%, formative assessments worth 15%, and final exams are worth 15%. Again, this change was not widely advertised but told to the students as the school year started.

Is your head spinning yet? As a parent, mine is! And, I consider myself fairly well versed in educational issues.  But, then, again, I have been paying attention because student advocacy and grading policies have been a long time area of interest for me.

Lest you think I am being passive aggressive or trying to back door something, I have spoken out about these issues to district leadership and to a high school administrator. Progress is being made, but there are still areas that need improvement.

I agree with having a separate category for final exam scores. But,  I have to ask, how was the 15% decided upon? And, why is a final valued at the same rate as a formative assessment? That piece does not make sense to me. Additionally, if we, as a school system, are preparing our students to face life after high school, I am not sure a 15% value placed on a final exam is realistic. Many will face finals in college worth 30% or more, won’t they? I know they will. I have two college students.

I do think that the consistency was something that we needed. As stated above, I agree that having a separate category for finals is necessary. And, I also think that having finals taking up 50-60% of a course grade, as was happening in some courses in the past, is unrealistic and outrageous. But, I just do not feel that 15% is the right number for a course final.

Finally, last week was the end of first semester grades, and something else happened. My son, a junior, was taking four courses in his block schedule.  Between Wednesday and Friday, he had 12 yes, TWELVE, assessments! Naturally, these included his finals in all four of his classes but also unit tests, a couple of quizzes, a lab, and a timed-writing.  There were three assessments in each of his four classes over that three-day period.

TWELVE assessments in three days for four classes! He worked hard. And, I was proud of his effort. But, it was a lot. Really, it was too much! I know he felt pressure, yet he exhibited good coping skills. However, he did state that he did not understand why he had so many things due all at the same time, on top of studying for finals.  I know that the timing of at least one of the assessments was his fault. He had put off a current event presentation until the last-minute. He owns that procrastination. But, I do think having so many assessments in such a short period of time impinged on his grades. In three of four classes, he was less than .17 away from the next (better) letter grade.  In the fourth class, his AP class, he got an A on his final, but remember, this year, it is only worth 15% of his total cumulative grade. Last year, in the same course that A would have had significantly more positive impact on his term grade. This year, at 15%, the A and all his studying to do well, did not help improve his course grade all that much.  And, as a side note, our AP classes are not weighted any heavier than any other course taken in our high school.

I was left  having to empathize with his frustration over the number of assessments he had to take in such a short period of time.  It was easy; I don’t understand the great number of assessments during finals, either. I really did not know what to say to him other than, study hard and try to do your best.

But, I found myself adding, “you know it shouldn’t be this way.”

Obviously, I feel that we still have not hit the mark on grading.

There is work to be done.

If any of this bothers you, I encourage you to speak out.

I have not made much progress on my own. Please note that the above experiences are my own, and might not reflect the experiences of others. This is an editorial in which I am reflecting on those experiences and sharing my opinions because I spend a lot of time thinking about these things!

This post is part of Slice of Life: Tuesday, hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

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