Those Darn Quarter Grades


I should start by giving a summary of the way grading worked in my classes this past year. (If you already know about the grading in my class, just skip this paragraph.) My implementation of Standards Based Grading (SBG) involved two classes of standards: A objectives and B objectives (here’s my Honors Physics list). Each skill was graded on a binary 3-point scale (I know, bear with me). 0 = no mastery, 1 = developing mastery, 2 = mastery. Both 0 and 1 counted as a “no” and only a 2 counts as a yes when it comes down to translating these scores into a grade (hence the binary nature). In order to get >= 70 for the semester, students had to have a “yes” on every A objective. In order to get > 90, students also had to have a “yes” on every B objective. Only the most recent score on an objective counted, and students were allowed to initiate assessments outside of class when they had corrected and practiced skills from earlier tests. Grades above 90 were supposed to mean that the student had mastered all of the skills in the course and was able to show depth and sustained mastery by using them in combination on a comprehensive exam. At the end, I felt pretty good about how their semester grade represented their understanding of physics.

The Problem with Quarters

Now for the problem: I have to assign quarter grades halfway through the semester. I totally failed at coming up with meaningful quarter grades that were consistent with the system that I liked for the semester grades. My students took full advantage of initiating out-of-class assessments, and they picked away fairly isolated skills to get the 90 (or very close to it) every time. The quarter grade for many suggested a stronger understanding than they were capable of demonstrating when the skills were no longer so isolated on the exam. For others, there was no good chance for them to show the depth of their understanding, so they were limited to a grade around 90 for the quarter even though they earned 95’s or above for both semesters. Almost all of my grades were crunched into a very narrow band at the quarter, then spread out in a way that more accurately reflected the diversity in their understanding at the semesters.

With such a narrow band of grades, advisors (and, I’d assume, parents), did not get a good sense from the quarter grade how the student was progressing in the middle of the term. Well, now, isn’t this exactly part of the problem with traditional grading on a 100 point scale anyway? Regardless, I was forced to assign the kids a number while we were in the middle of things, and I will have to do it again next year.

Last Year’s Solutions

After realizing the problem in the first quarter, I asked my students for advice as we approach the end of the third quarter. The best suggestion they gave me was to make the quarters simply pass/fail. Unfortunately, that’s not an option. Other than that (and the suggestion from one student that I randomly pick numbers between 92 and 100 and give one to each student in the class), there weren’t a lot of ideas.

What I actually did was let them pick away at their list like last time. If they had shown all of the As and Bs with a week left before grades were due, they could do an optional project. They could find something around campus that they found interesting and try to model it using physics. Essentially, they were to make up their own goal-less problem around campus, make measurements, draw diagrams, and show calculations. I should note that I hadn’t been giving them any homework since the start of the second semester, so this wasn’t really extra homework on top of everything else. The No Homework post is coming soon.

I only received a few projects, and most of them were pretty shallow (not a surprise since they have lots of work in every class during the final week of a quarter and we didn’t spend any class time for it). There was a great one about all of the dangers involved in letting teenagers watch small faculty children (swinging them around and perhaps letting go? throwing them in the air and “forgetting” to catch them?) and a good start on an analysis of the salt shaker game kids play at meals (it involves sliding the salt shaker back and forth along the table, trying to get it very close to the edge without falling over). Some of my strongest students elected not to do a project, use the time to focus on other classes, and not worry about the quarter grade since it wouldn’t have any effect on the semester grade anyway.

Next Year’s Solutions

Next year, I am going to change the way my students assess outside of class. This year was total chaos: frantic, disorderly, and time-consuming. I’m going to have them only assess on Sundays (I work at a boarding school, so this is an option for me and the day when the kids have the fewest conflicts) and make them apply for an assessment à la Sam Shah (whose application email I’ve shamelessly stolen almost word-for-word and turned into a Google form for next year… thanks, Sam!). They will have to turn in the form by Friday night so that I have time to put together a few questions for them. This should cut down on the chaos and on the picking away at objectives since they will have fewer times available to assess. Hopefully it will also make them start to see those additional assessments more as opportunities than as entitlements (many seemed to get caught up in the idea that because it was mathematically possible for them to still get an A for the quarter that they therefore deserved an A for the quarter, despite their incomplete understanding of physics).

I still don’t have a great plan for making the quarter grade mean something more similar to the semester grade, nor for distinguishing in the 90 to 100 range. One idea is to do the project again, but give them more specific options (such as giving them videos of things on campus to analyze rather than setting them loose on their own with little opportunity for support from me). Another option is always to do a midterm test, but I don’t want to add to the end-of-quarter stress in that way, nor devote another class period (which would probably have to be a lab period, given how much material would need to be on the test) to that kind of assessment. I have time to think it over this summer, but I’m definitely open to ideas, thoughts, rambling, etc from the Internet people.

5 thoughts on “Those Darn Quarter Grades

  1. Great post.

    I’m in the same boat with our progress report grades which fall halfway through the quarter. At that point, I usually don’t have enough data on hand to give a student a 0-100 grade. I chose this past year to just give everyone a 100, which pleased the students and parents, but caused general confusion for the parents in the cases where a student received a 72 at quarter. I’m intrigued by the possibility of a test, but I’m not sure how much weight to give it. Would it replace all previous scores?

    I’ve used the Yes/No scale for standards this entire school year, but I’m intrigued at the 0,1,2 scale within the Yes/No system.

    Love the application system, I will be using that!

  2. I did a midterm test first quarter, but quickly realized it was, as you say, an interruption in our learning routine. I used the quarter grades (which don’t count towards the final grade) as progress grades, mostly for parents’ benefit. I publish an approximate “grade” for each student all through the year based on what learning they have demonstrated, but when the quarter grades roll around, I do a thorough check of which standards students *should* have learned (ones that I think they had a chance to encounter in class) so that they are held accountable for all of the standards to which I am holding them. Parents very seldom comment on the ongoing “grade” but clearly tune in when the quarter grade rolls around. So in a strange way, the quarter grade does matter, or at least it matters for the moment until I can retrain students and parents to pay more attention to students’ daily evidence of learning.

    1. Does your approximate grade fluctuate wildly? If I were to do that, nearly all of my students would be failing almost every day. In my class, I tell them that their grade doesn’t exist until the end of the semester.

      Are you saying that you give them a list of standards but you don’t hit all of them in class?

  3. I have to figure out a way to beat my district’s system into not forcing me to average the four quarter grades to get the final grade.

    1. Good luck. I keep getting reminded how fortunate I am that my school is supportive of all of my crazy ideas and that I don’t have to conform to a standard way of doing most things.

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