How I Encouraged Productive Participation (aka, How I Made Grade Inflation Defensible)

My third year teaching I encountered something new. I had multiple classes of honors students and, being honors students, many of them thought they could just skate by doing the bare minimum and get straight A’s in my class. Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen, so when they didn’t do what I asked (homework, whatever), they didn’t get good grades. At the end of the semester, I was called into the principal’s office and asked about my grades. I had (what I believe to remember) a relatively normal grade distribution, but I did have students making C’s, D’s, and F’s. My administrators asked me what I was going to do to have more A’s and B’s. I told them I’d give the students many opportunities, but they simply hadn’t done their work and so their grades reflected that. I was told I needed to do something to have more A’s and B’s in my honors classes. You can read between the lines about what went down in that office.

explosion

I actually ended up losing my job over the incident. Well, that probably wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely one of them. It turns out it was a good thing, though, because it really made me think about my grading. As the years went on, I began to realize that no matter what the students did (or, in most cases, did NOT do), I was always being asked what I was doing to improve their grades. So I started giving participation grades. This worked well with the new wave of teacher evaluations that required all students to be engaged in the lesson. I mean, I’ve never had a lesson where every single student participated meaningfully and engaged in higher order thinking, but…hey, I’ve only been in the classroom 10 years. I’ve got a ways to go.

long road

First, let me say that my personal philosophy is to try, at all costs, to not put students on the spot. I have found that I get more out of my students (especially ones with behavior issues and such) if I let them come to me, so to speak, rather than drag them kicking and screaming. If I just call on a student because I don’t think they’ve been paying attention, for me, that just creates all sorts of problems. I’m all about using public shaming, but it has to be artful. It can’t be for the sole purpose of embarrassing a kid who I know already struggles with something. And having been both a math and English teacher, there are kids who just struggle with some stuff. So anyway, my plan of attack was predicated on the philosophy that I don’t call kids out (99% of the time).

deer in headlights

I am a clipboard fanatic. I carry mine around with me everywhere. It gives me a huge advantage. Have you ever seen the look on a student’s face when he has done something he isn’t supposed to do and you just look at him and hold your clipboard and pretend to jot something down and then look right back at him? That’s a day-maker right there. You’ve got that kid in line for the rest of the class. I also carry around a list of positive phrases to help me with my classroom management. I can get pretty frustrated with my students when they act like…well…teenagers. So I have to work hard to stay even-keel and not let my emotions get the better of me. Point being, I carry a clipboard. I actually have 2 in case I set one down on one side of the room and go to the other and realize I need it.

clipboard

What I decided to do was give out participation grades. I decided (after lots of trial and error and tweaking) to give 4 participation grades every quarter. This worked out to about 1 participation grade every 2 weeks or so. I would print out a roster and track student participation during whole-class discussions and even small-group or partner work. I decided I would give students credit for wanting to participate. This was a key ingredient to the success of this system. I had 2 groups of students I worried about. The first were the overachievers. They raised their hands for everything. Hands up even before the question was finished. Every time. Clockwork. If I didn’t give these students credit – or the opportunity to earn credit – for being eager beavers, it would crush their spirit and they would probably take it personally and think that they’d done something wrong and I was mad at them. Then I had the stones. The kids that sat there and never wanted to say anything. Ever. Sometimes I wondered if they were even alive. There was no way they were actually going to answer a question. And even if I called on them (without their volunteering, of course), it would be hit or miss as to whether or not they would know the answer. So I had a dilemma with these students. What to do? What if I gave students credit just for raising their hands? Seriously. I ask a question (or another student asks a question) and I give points just for being willing to contribute. Obviously, I’m not able to call on every single student every single time, so sure, I would only call on 1 or 2, but the rest would get credit.

Game. Changer.game changer

First of all, the type-A’s were okay with it because they knew they were earning points to pad their 110% grade even when I didn’t call on them. Second, the students who normally sat like a bump on a log would wait until I asked a question that a ton of people knew the answer to and then they would raise their hand and hope to God I didn’t actually call on them. Which I often didn’t, because I knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t want to jeopardize the baby steps I was making with them. Plus, I also hit a 3rd group I didn’t realize existed. The fragiles. I have students every year who are high maintenance. They require finesse. They are the “I was just gonna say that” kid. They have a need to be recognized but not singled out. They are the “this is too hard! I can’t do this!” just because it doesn’t come easily right away or takes more than a single step to complete. When this kid raises a hand, you MUST call on him. Because if you don’t, you will a) hear from him that “I was just gonna say that!” after you call on the kid you do call on, and b) this kid will think you purposefully did not call on him because you don’t like him, think he’s stupid, or some other laundry list of teenager logic that makes little sense to the rest of us. But if I told everyone that they were getting credit for just raising their hands because I KNEW I wouldn’t be able to call on everyone every time, and that it was important to me that I hear from as many different people in a period as possible, that kid was managed. No longer did he feel slighted, because he knew I was paying attention to him. He saw that I saw his hand. He knew I knew that he “was gonna say that.”

But how did I manage this new method of participation grading? Ticks.tick marks

Tick marks. This system had an added benefit that I didn’t expect: increased wait time. In order for me to stay true to my word and give students points for raising their hands and participating, I had to keep track of it somehow. So I printed off a roster and slapped it on my clipboard. Whenever we were having a discussion, I would mark down tick marks every time a student raised his/her hand. Depending on the situation, I might even make a secondary mark after I actually called on a student. But the point was I was physically tracking student participation. And they knew it. They saw it. So they raised their hands. And I would mark a tick down for every single student. And when you have 22+ kids in a class, that can take some time. It feels like it takes forever, but it doesn’t really. What it does do is give you the wait time students so desperately need to process the question, find the answer, and decide to participate. By the time I was halfway through the tick marks, nearly every student’s hand would be raised. It was amazing.

wait time

To assign grades, I would give the student with the most tick marks for the time period (again, about 2 weeks) a 100% – in most cases it was out of 25 points, so a 25/25. Then, grades were calculated on a sliding scale. The next highest person (or persons, if there was a tie) would get 24/25, and so on and so forth. Everyone sort of bottomed out at about a “C”. I also would subtract points if a student was habitually disruptive or lethargic (sleeping, etc.).

If I knew certain students needed a teeny grade boost, I would reiterate the system before a class discussion. It would prompt participation. My students began to learn when I would get lazy, too. If I didn’t have my clipboard, participation dropped dramatically. The second I picked it up and started marking…boom. Sea of hands.

sea of hands

I like this system better than the popsicle sticks because even though students know they have to be prepared with that system, it still feels to me like a “gotcha.” I really like the idea of giving students the motivation to want to participate on their own. I mean, grades, by definition, are extrinsic motivation, but…I’m trying to build some sort of initiative and self-motive here. I have used this system with my 7th graders and also with my 9th graders and it has worked beautifully. And it’s a great tool to pull out when the administration walks through because you can show how engaged your students are in the lesson – and not just doing what you tell them to do; not just compliant, but really engaged and wanting to be a part of the discussion. On their own.

eager beaver

Once I started using this system, I found I had a lot more leeway to nudge students who might fall into that “yes, but what are you doing, as the teacher, to raise his/her grade” category. And I was able to sleep at night because it wasn’t really grade inflation, it was students earning points in a legitimate way. And it gave me ammunition. If parents or administration questioned my grades, I had one more intervention to throw at them: I give students points just for raising their hands. Let me tell you how many parents that shut up. It worked great in tandem with my “yes, and all the quizzes and tests are open notes.” There’ll be another post about why I give open-notes assessments in the future. And I used it to work the kids, too. I would tell them if they weren’t participating that they were essentially throwing points down the drain. There would always be a few who would rather die than raise their hand, but…to them, I would say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can here to help you out. I’m tempted to give you points just for breathing, but some of you are so intent on failing my class that I’m afraid you might actually stop.” Which would earn some laughs and maybe get a hand or two from those kids. Not always, but maybe.

making progress

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Why I Decided to Accept Late Work

This post is highly related to my thoughts on why I stopped assigning homework – or better, really, why I changed my outlook on homework assignments. That being said, this post can be read in isolation from the homework post series.

I used to not accept late work. I think my first 2 years for sure, and probably my third year, too. But my third year was the year I lost my job in part because I had too many failing students and many of them came from families who did not like to have failing (or in some cases, C or D) students. I had to re-evaluate my philosophy on late work.

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So I did. I decided that in order to help students raise their grades if they were interested, I would accept their late work with many restrictions. Each day the work was late, students would receive only partial credit. Each additional day would result in less and less credit. I think I capped the late work submissions at either 3 or 5 days late, and then I would not accept the work.

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Holy frickin’ cow was that a lot of work for me. First I had to remember how many days late the student was turning the assignment in. Good luck with that, since students turned work into a tray and never put dates on their work, so it might be the next day before I saw it and had no idea when they turned it in. Then I had to do the math for how much credit to give. Would have been easy if the kid earned 100%, right? 1 day late? You get 90%, 2 days you get 80%, and 3 days, you get 70%. But ohmygosh no. The kid earned 62.5%, so now I have to figure out 80% of 62.5% and put it in the system. Since most of my work was worth like, 10-15 points, kids were getting like, 3 or 4 points by the time I was done. When I could figure out when the heck they turned it in. It was SO not successful. SUCH a bad idea.

But what else could I do? Accept late work the whole quarter? What kind of teacher would I be if I just let kids turn in their work whenever they wanted? Wouldn’t I foster and enable irresponsibility? Wouldn’t I perpetuate the problem of not doing work on time? Wouldn’t I suddenly get entire classes of kids not doing their work and suddenly giving me every single assignment from the quarter on the very last day? OH. MY. GOSH. How could I entertain such a notion?

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Well, I decided to give it a try because really, the worst that could happen would be that it didn’t work and the next quarter I’d revamp my policy. So I set up some very basic ground rules. Work that was not turned in when I collected it was late. No ifs, ands, or buts. This was true for classwork and homework (I rarely – if ever – assigned homework in many of my classes, so this distinction that work was work is important). If I collected it and it wasn’t ready to be turned in (I usually would count down from 5) it was considered late.

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Side note: This tip doesn’t warrant its own post, but I used to have lots of kids claim they turned work in on time and I had just lost it. I couldn’t prove them wrong, so I had to accept their re-work for full credit. To stop these shenanigans, I began stapling student work together. I’d count down from 5 with a stapler in my hand and say that anyone whose paper wasn’t in the stapled pile would be considered late. I never had another issue again.

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If a student wanted to turn in late work, I would accept it for half credit. Blanket rule. Half credit. 50%. Done.

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I would accept late work up until the last Friday before the end of the quarter. This gave me a full week, at least, to grade the late work so I wasn’t staying up all night the day before grades were due.

The only kids who failed my class were kids who didn’t turn in all their work. Really. I am dead serious. Not kids who did all their work on time. Not kids who got A’s on all their work. Not kids who passed all their tests. Any kid who turned in every assignment at any point during the quarter passed my class. This. Was. Groundbreaking. It was ammunition. It was fuel. Failing kid? Angry parent? Angry administrator? Did the kid do their work? Not my problem. Every other kid who turned in their work passed the class. End of story. Can he still turn it in? When does the quarter end? If it’s before the next Friday, then yes, he can turn it in. All of it. Let me tell you how fast that shut people up.

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I was a revolutionary. A visionary in my field.

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And I didn’t end up with piles and piles that last Friday before the end of the quarter. I found out that kids would normally turn their late work in within about a week or so. It ended up being much more of a trickle effect than a flood. I’d have one or two kids that would do all their missing work the last week and hand it to me, but that was manageable. I never had a kid who was missing ALL his work and then tried to turn it in. I found out that the kids who did absolutely nothing weren’t going to do it late any more than they were going to do it on time. And those were the kids who failed.

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Side note #2: I also did not grade work with no name. I know some teachers do the “no-name pile” for kids to claim, but I didn’t play that game. No name = no grade. If you don’t care enough about your work to put your name on it, I don’t care enough to grade it. Or if your work’s not important enough for you to write your name on it, it’s not important enough for me to grade. I wasn’t nasty about it. I didn’t tear up no-name work into little pieces in front of the kid whose work it was and make them cry to instill a lesson upon the class at large. I just threw them away at home or during my prep when I was grading and never brought it up. When a kid looked at their grades and realized it was missing, they’d come tell me they did it and I’d tell them it must not have had their name on it. BUT DON’T WORRY! I’d reassure them, you can redo it for half credit. And I promise, if this is the only time it happens, it won’t affect your overall grade. Occasionally I’d get some tears, but I never had to defend it to a parent or an administrator, because the kid got it.

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Again, my decisions about late work were predicated on the assumption that the work I assigned was valuable. I wanted my students to write the essay. I wanted them to do the definitions. I wanted them to answer the questions. They needed the practice. I needed the assessment to see their achievement. The work needed to be done. It wasn’t busy work. It wasn’t useless. It had a purpose. So if they didn’t do it on time, I wanted them to still do it for the intrinsic value of the work itself. So I gave them half credit for it. The percentage of my students doing their work throughout the quarter rose drastically. So did their grades. So did their learning. So did their achievement. So did their self-concept and self-esteem, because I had kids who were career failures suddenly passing a class.

I hope this post has made you think about the value of the work you assign and your own late work policy. What are your thoughts on my policy? What is your policy? Why do you have that policy?

Are You Testing Me? Part 3

As a classroom teacher, I was always looking for ways to effectively assess my students’ learning. I came up with some great ways to differentiate through product, but sometimes, I just had to use a traditional assessment. I always thought I was pretty good at creating those assessments, but once I got my current job working for Assessment and Accountability, I realized I’d been doing lots of things that are not best practices when it comes to traditional assessments. I’ve decided to share some biggies with you in the hopes that your classroom assessments can be more valid, effective, and help you inform your instruction.

Be cognizant of item complexity, difficulty, and the distribution. We want assessments to tell us about our students. If there is a test that is so easy everyone gets 90%+, that doesn’t discriminate well at all. We don’t learn anything about what needs to be retaught or extended. If a test is so difficult that the average is 30%, that doesn’t discriminate well, either. We still don’t learn anything. It’s important that there are a variety of items in terms of complexity and difficulty. Think about it this way: you want to have some items that will tell you the difference between your D and F students. Yes, every A/B student will get those items right, but that’s okay; you’ve put them on the assessment to tell you about the struggling students’ mastery. Then, you have items that will tell you the difference between your A and B students. yes, every D/F student will get those items wrong, but that’s okay; you’ve put them on the assessment to tell you about the high-performing students’ mastery. Now, difficulty and complexity are NOT the same thing. Difficulty is how many students answer the question correctly (high correct % = easy question; low correct % = challenging/hard question). Complexity is based on the Depth of Knowledge (Webb) or Taxonomy (Bloom). You can have a high complexity question that is easy and you can have a low complexity question that is hard. You won’t know the official difficulty level of a question until students take the assessment. You can speculate on the difficulty level, but that is performance based. Complexity, however, is NOT based on performance. A simple recall question is low complexity, regardless of how students perform on the item. You need to have a balance of both. When you write your questions, try to keep these ratios in mind: 10-15% easy, 15-20% difficult, the rest should be average. 10-15% low complexity, 15-20% high complexity, the rest should be moderate. So, for a 50-item test, the breakdown might look like this: 7 low complexity questions, 10 high complexity questions, and 33 moderate complexity questions. When planning/writing I might anticipate a difficulty breakdown of 5 easy questions, 10 difficult questions, and 35 average questions. Now, when my students take the test, I might find that the actual difficulty breakdown looks like this: 2 easy questions, 40 difficult questions, and 8 average questions. I know now that my test was too difficult. It’s not telling me anything useful. I really should make a new test. OR it might look like this: 30 easy questions, 5 difficult questions, and 15 average questions. I know that my test was too easy. It’s not useful. I really should make a new test. The more questions you write, the more information you get. That being said, sometimes quizzes will only have 5-10 questions, so do the best you can with what you have to work with.

Sometimes, you won’t have the time or ability to make an entirely new assessment if your first one didn’t perform as you’d hoped. In that case, it may be time to employ a scale (or curve). Here, there are some important things to take into consideration. The first is the overall grade distribution of your class. If you are a consistent grader, then your students’ performance on any given assessment should be similar to their performance in your class in general. Essentially, you’d expect an A/B student to get an A/B score on any given assessment. In general. So you can use that distribution to scale your assessment score. If your class breakdown has 4 A’s, 7 B’s, 11 C’s, 6 D’s, and 3 F’s, then you can scale the assessment to be close to that breakdown. That DOESN’T mean that you give the 4 A kids an A on the assessment. They might have performed really poorly and end up with one of the lower grades. What matters is the distribution. Don’t look at names. Here’s what your scaling process might look like:

Grade breakdown in class Grade breakdown on assessment (based on traditional 90-80-70 scale) Raw score on assessment Scale score on assessment
13% A (4 ST) 3% A (1 ST – 44) 45-50 40-50 (4 ST = 13%)
23% B (7 ST) 10% B (3 ST – 40, 41, 44) 40-44 34-39 (6 ST = 19%)
36% C (11 ST) 16% C (5 ST – 35, 35, 36, 38, 39) 35-39 29-33 (11 ST = 36%)
19% D (6 ST) 32% D (10 ST – 30, 30, 31, 31, 32, 32, 33, 33, 33, 34) 30-34 20-28 (5 ST = 16%)
10% F (3 ST) 39% F (12 ST – 29, 29, 28, 28, 27, 26, 20, 19, 19, 18, 17, 15) <30 <20 (5 ST = 16%)

As you can see, the distribution of grades on the assessment is now similar to that of the class as a whole. You could also do it by looking at the overall distribution of grades for ALL your classes (for that course). Now, the original average for the exam was about a 61%. It is difficult to calculate a new assessment % based on scale grades, because there are no raw scores from which to work with. As a teacher, you’d have to come up with the % you’d want to assign for an “A”, “B”, “C”, etc. You could also break down the scale even further to include “+” and “-“ grades if you wanted to get more specific.

Another option is to go through the assessment and look at items that performed below a certain threshold (perhaps 25%, since that’s the guessing rate) and throw them out. Recalculate the grades and then go from there.

Another option is a flat curve, which is where you add a set amount of percentage points to everyone’s scores. This does NOT work well when one or two students performed very well but everyone else tanked. One way you can do this method is to look at your highest score and see how many points it would take to bring that score up to a certain threshold. For example, on this assessment, only 1 student earned an A (>90%). However, that raw score might have only been a 45/50. So as the teacher, I might say, “I’d like the highest score on the assessment to be a 98%. That would be a 49/50. So I’m going to a) add 4 raw score points to everyone’s score or b) add 8% points to everyone’s score.” In this scenario, the distribution of assessment scores won’t relate to your class grades, but it will raise the average. You can see that the scores are not similar to the overall grades in the class, but the overall average for the test is higher (8% higher, actually). The original class average was about 61%. Now the class average is about 68%. Much closer to that “C” average.

Here’s how that would look:

Grade breakdown in class Grade breakdown on assessment (based on traditional 90-80-70 scale) Raw score on assessment Flat curve score on assessment
13% A (4 ST) 3% A (1 ST – 45) 45-50 +4 10% A (3 ST)
23% B (7 ST) 10% B (3 ST – 40, 41, 44) 40-44 +4 13% (4 ST)
36% C (11 ST) 16% C (5 ST – 35, 35, 36, 38, 39) 35-39 +4 32% (10ST)
19% D (6 ST) 32% D (10 ST – 30, 30, 31, 31, 32, 32, 33, 33, 33, 34) 30-34 +4 29% (9 ST)
10% F (3 ST) 39% F (12 ST – 29, 29, 28, 28, 27, 26, 20, 19, 19, 18, 17, 15) <30 +4 19% (6 ST)

Yet another option is to scale the assessment so that it follows a normal distribution curve. In this case, you would want to end up with a roughly equal (but small) number of both A’s and F’s, a roughly (but slightly larger) number of B’s and D’s, and then the majority of scores would be C’s. For this particular class with 31 students, I would anticipate my normal distribution curve to look something like this: 2 A’s, 4 B’s, 19 C’s, 4 D’s, 2 F’s. There’s a little room for playing around. I might want it to be 3 A’s, 5 B’s, 17 C’s, 4 D’s, 2 F’s. That’s pretty close, too. I then adjust the grades accordingly. I would list the students’ grades from highest to lowest and the top 3 would be A’s, the next 5 B’s, the next 17 C’s, the next 4 D’s, and the last 2 F’s.

Keep in mind that these methods of scaling/curving/norming individual assessments can be done for overall class grades, too. This is useful if you have a particularly low-achieving class but won’t be looked favorably upon if you have 20 failures at report card time.

It’s important to realize that if you curve/scale/norm your assessments, that doesn’t make you a bad teacher. You can still get information about your students’ mastery and use it to inform your instruction without punishing the students for faulty questions or a test that you simply made too difficult. The important thing is that if you realize your tests are too difficult, make an effort to change it. Either change what/how you teach or change the anticipated difficulty of your tests. Think about why you are assessing students.

Final Thoughts: Think about the purpose of assessment. Any assignment, really. We plan, we teach, we assess, and continue the cycle until our students master what we’re responsible for teaching them (or the end of the year gets here…whichever comes first…usually the end of the year). Assigning something or testing students with the sole goal of “teaching them a lesson” or intentionally promoting failure doesn’t fit into that cycle (plan/teach/assess). Assessment sometimes gets a bad rep, but if it truly fits into the cycle, it shouldn’t. Assessment (testing) is a part of the education cycle. If we don’t figure out what kids know, how can we teach them appropriately? And keep in mind all assessment doesn’t have to be summative or cumulative. We can design, give, and use interim (ongoing, formative, whatever you want to call it) assessment to make micro-cycles of the plan/teach/assess loop. Teachers do it all the time without realizing it. Every question asked is an assessment, whether it’s during a discussion or on a paper/pencil test. Making traditional assessment work for you and your students is just one piece of the puzzle. I hope this series has helped with that.

Teachers are Heroes!

It’s true, teachers really are heroes! Teachers are leaders, nurses, parents, psychologists, social workers, friends, confidants, and so much more. If you’ve been waiting for the perfect time to check out Teachers Pay Teachers, it has arrived! Today (only for a few more hours!) everything on the site – in every single store! – is at least 10% off! My store has everything 28% off! That’s right! If you’ve been eyeing that perfect lesson, activity, or resource, now is the time to stop by and stock up! There probably won’t be another sale until my birthday (that’s all the way in April, people!), so get test prep, Common Core and LAFS resources, math lessons, writing resources, reading activities, and so much more! And don’t forget, there’s a TON of free stuff on the site, too – not just my store, but hundreds – thousands (literally, there are over 70K stores on TpT!) – of stores with something for everyone. So no matter what or you teach – in a classroom K-12, early childhood, college, or even homeschool, there is something for you! Head on over and check it out!

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Get your teaching resources while the getting is good!

Fabulous Football Freebie!

In honor of the Buckeye’s victory over the Bearcats, I have put together a freebie that I think will come in handy in the next few weeks. I know the end of the first quarter is right around the corner – just a few weeks away, can you believe it?!

I did not expect my middle school students to understand the calculation of GPAs, semester grades, or the like. However, once I moved up to high school, though, I was surprised that even my upper classmen didn’t really understand how those things were determined. The high honors kids figured it out, of course, but they weren’t the ones who needed the help. I found that my low-performing students would get so discouraged at the end of the first quarter if they made poor grades that they would throw away the entire second quarter because they didn’t understand that things were still salvageable. I also encountered students who did quite well first quarter, but honestly thought they didn’t have to do any more work the rest of the semester because they already had their “A” (or “B” or whatever). SMH, I know, but they didn’t know any better. That’s when I decided it was my duty to wise them up.

setting semester grade goals

Setting Grade Goals

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This freebie helps you take students through the process of using 2 separate quarter grades and a semester exam grade to create a semester grade that will appear on a “permanent” record: the report card. It’s important you know how your district calculates semester grades – what percentage of the semester grade is the exam? Once you figure that out, make a spreadsheet that shows students the various combinations of quarter and exam grades to create a final semester grade. Many districts have this as a part of the district’s student handbook. You will be AMAZED at the difference in attitude your students show when they realize their entire year isn’t completely shot (or that they can’t sit back and do nothing for the next 9 weeks…). They’ll thank you, too, even if they’re doing well in your class, because they can use this in their other courses that might not be going so well.

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This is what I have noticed with my students:

Highly focused, motivated, overachievers like this tool when they get a “B” instead of an “A” that first quarter because it shows them they can still earn an “A” for the semester. This calms them down and keeps those helicopter parents off your back.

Average students (B/C) tend to be hit or miss with this – sometimes it really motivates them to push for that extra mile. Other times they’re like, “Sweet. I only have to get a ___ and then I’ll have my C.” So it kinda depends.

Struggling students who have a bad spell in the middle of the quarter or miss a major due date or something and end up with a “C” or “D” and it really rattles them and you can tell they’re going to just give up – these are the bread-and-butter kids. They love that they can hop back on board and turn everything around. I get the best responses from these kids (even if they’re not performing this way in my class, they might be in someone else’s).

“F” students don’t tend to benefit as much from this (unfortunately). Although, it can at least help some of them decide to do enough to at least pass the second quarter and the exam. There are other, better interventions for these students.

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I have also found that teaching students how to calculate their GPA yields similar results. This, however, does actually work well with those “F” students because it helps them see the damage they are doing if they are “taking some time off” like – “oh, freshman year doesn’t matter” or “oh, I’m already a senior – I already got into ___ school…” Of course, for this, you have to know how your district/state calculates (weights) courses for GPA purposes. But it’s not a bad idea to show kids how to calculate their unweighted GPAs, since that’s how the vast majority of colleges and universities decide admission. It also pushes home the importance of doing your best in every class rather than taking the “Honors” or “AP” courses but doing just “okay” and relying on weighting to keep a good GPA.
Kids are naturally competitive. If you show them how to track their performance, they’ll be motivated to do better. It also shows them you really care about them, because 99% of the time, you’ll be the only teacher/adult they know who is taking time to show them how this stuff works. It can make a huge difference.

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These activities can help you drive home to students the importance of being successful in high school. I used to talk about colleges with my students, but of course there were lots who didn’t seem to care, because they’d decided college wasn’t for them. It was hard for me to hear that, since education was so important to me (as a teacher – obviously). I realized, though, that while college may not be the motivator for every kid, every student does have a button. I started broadening my horizons to talk about community colleges, AA programs (Associate Degrees, not substance abuse), technical education, and other reasons that high school grades affect the future. I was fond of saying that “The poor choices you make now are closing doors you don’t even know are there.” I would remind them that just because they don’t want to go to college (or any other post-secondary program) now doesn’t mean they won’t want to later in life. I also would stress that “College may not be for everyone, but graduation is.” There is no good argument against graduating from high school. Unfortunately, for many students, this realization comes too late. So if you start working with your students and helping them manage their grades and their education early in high school, it will really pay off. Can you “save” them all? Of course not – and I’m not going to lie and say you can. But you can help a lot of them – and for the ones you don’t “save,” you’ll at least know that you made the effort; you extended the branch.

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If you decide this is right for you and your students, it’s imperative that you find out your district’s formula for calculating semester grades. A standard, traditional calculation is 37.5% weight to quarter 1 grade, 37.5% weight to quarter 2 grade, and 25% weight to the exam. Some districts also do a 40% – 40% – 20% split. This activity won’t be useful unless you know how your district does it. I included a table that shows students the different grade combinations and it’s based on the 25% exam grade weight. It is from my district (Hillsborough County Public Schools – FL). I’ve also included a chart based on a 25% exam weight that does NOT follow the F=50% rule that HCPS uses. And I’ve included a chart based on a 20% exam grade weight, but I’m not sure how accurate that will be when compared with another district’s – again, because it’s purely mathematical; it doesn’t have any rules about minimum values, etc. Finally, I included a blank chart so you can fill in your district’s grades once you figure them out if they don’t match the two charts I included. Be sure when you are checking on your district policies, to note any specific rules, like auto-F for a semester grade if the exam grade is an F-below 50 (an HCPS rule). Or some districts have a 2/3 rule that must be met. Just make sure you have all the information to give your students – because they will ask.

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I hope you find this resource useful! Have a great week…and go Buckeyes! We take on Maryland this Saturday!

Setting Semester Grade Goals

I’m a firm believer in teaching students how to help themselves. You know, that whole – give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day, teach him to fish and he’ll never go hungry – thing? So many students have a learned helplessness that is reinforced every day (mostly unintentionally). One time that this became very evident to me was when I was talking with my students about their GPAs. Report cards had just come out and I told them they could ask me any questions they wanted about them. I got lots of questions about how quarter grades related to exam grades and how quarter and exam grades related to semester grades. I also got a lot of questions about GPAs and how they are calculated. It certainly didn’t surprise me that the majority of my students didn’t know how to calculate their GPAs or figure out potential semester grades given a current quarter grade.

I had so many students that would give up on a class (usually mine) because of a poor first (or third) quarter grade. They thought that because they had messed up and gotten a D or even an F, that their entire year (or at least semester) was over. I realized that if I educated them on how semester grades and GPAs work, they might be more motivated during that subsequent quarter.

So I started my grading tutorials. I took an entire day – each class period – going over how semester grades were calculated and how GPAs were calculated. Then I had students set goals for themselves. I was lucky enough to have a document provided by the district (really designed for teachers, but it should have been a tool for students, as well) that laid out all the possibilities for final semester grades based on both quarter grades and the exam grade. For example, a student got a B 1st quarter, and then he could look at the chart and see all the possible combinations of semester grades based on what his 2nd quarter and exam grade might be. The visible relief I saw on my students’ faces was enough to know that I was doing the right thing by giving up a day of content instruction to teach them this. Students who I could tell were ready to chuck it all and do nothing the entire 2nd quarter because they had failed 1st quarter changed their attitudes immediately. When they realized they could still earn a C (or better, in some cases) for the semester – for that transcript grade – it was like night and day. It also helped my over-achievers who were devastated because they got a B. When they realized that with dedication and hard work that they could still earn an A for the semester, the wailing and gnashing of teeth ceased.

This had unforeseen consequences as well. I had so many students come back and tell me they used my lesson to calculate grades of their other classes. I had students thank me profusely because they knew what they had to do to get the semester grades they wanted. I never dreamed my 1-day tutorial would be so successful. It blew their minds even more that their English teacher had done this for them. They might have expected it from their math teacher, but an English teacher showing them GPA calculations totally surprised them.

Think about teaching your students about this important topic. It might give them the motivation they need to stay on track for the remainder of the semester.

[Side note: I did this with my high school students. I did not do this with my middle school students because their grades were not a semester-based system. This may vary in your school district. You also have to know your district’s policy on how much exams count for in the final semester grade. You might have to do a little leg work up front to get the information you need, but it’s worth it.]

My documents for helping students set semester grade goals can be found here.