Grades and Empathy

My students are just finishing their last rounds of state-mandated testing. Many of them are burnt and fried. It’s just too much testing all at once, especially for the sophomores at my school. For my tests the results are mixed.

I fall under the auspices of something called Student Learning Objectives (SLO) under the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System (OTES). I have to create a test that is to represent a years worth of material and administer a pre-test and post-test to show growth. Since the test is practically identical, much of the material is new to the students. To encourage students to take the tests seriously, we are allowed in our district to use the SLO as an exam grade.

Without the threat looming of exam grades, the only consequence SLOs had was teacher evaluations. To put it another way, the test wasn’t necessarily a measure of student ability, but of teacher quality, or in the case of most SLOs, teacher test writing ability.

Most of my SLOs are completed and the grades are mixed. Overall though, I feel that they are too low to use as an exam score that would accurately reflect what was accomplished during the year. So why are the scores so low? I think there are three factors in play.

First, students just flat out forget a large quantity of the information they are presented with throughout the year. I have read psychology research, cognitive load theory, and numerous other theories as to why this occurs. I believe there appears to be debate about whether instructional practices or student attitudes account for this phenomenon, but either way it exists. Our students just forget so much stuff.

Second, so much of math instruction is perceived to be this, whether it actually is or not.

What happens is that students freak out and have borderline panic attacks when problems don’t match the memorized examples from class. Students who normally volunteer information and come up with some of the best ideas in class shut down when the assessed problems don’t match their memorized examples.

Third, my usual assessment format does not require to students to be as attentive to precision as they should be. The multiple choice format SLO I gave requires precision regarding negative signs and arithmetic. My usual assessment rewards creativity at the expense of precision.

So why are the scores so poor? The first problem, students just forgetting, I think that is something that is only minimally impacted by teachers. I can encourage, I can try and provoke, but if students won’t authentically engage with the material learning will not last. The second problem I think I usually do rather well with, or at least with the grade obsessed students. My reading through pseudoteaching has really changed the approach I use to the presentation of my lessons. I have adopted a less is more approach in my lesson presentations, emphasizing that the work done in class only illustrates concepts and that can be applied in many different scenarios. And I am pretty happy with aspect of my assessments as my students have become more flexible and adaptable in new mathematical situations.

But the third reason why I think the grades are low, the precision, is something I need to change. In the multiple choice section of the SLO, I noticed that many students had the concept down, they were just making procedural errors. That means, to some extent that the low scores are my fault. Every year I keep saying I will, but because my open ended assessment reward creativity more than precision, it is ultimately empty rhetoric. I don’t want to just dump my current assessment as I am happy with the outcomes. I was able to use the students attachment to grades to make them be more mathematically creative. I think I can do the same by using some multiple answer assessments throughout the year. It would force the students to become more accustomed to mathematical accuracy and lingo.

Now back to the original purpose of this post, curving grades. I have never felt the urge to curve grades like I have this year. I also never realized there were different ways to curve grades. In past years I have felt that the exam scores accurately represented my students knowledge of math. As I have interacted with these students over the course of one to three years I have a pretty accurate representation of their mathematical potential regardless of their specific exam score. This year I had a couple of students perform much more poorly than I expected and much of that performance is based upon my not training them well enough to handle the precision of a multiple choice exam, hence my urge to curve the grades. So here is a list of all the questions and dilemmas running through my head.

  • While I have sympathy for those students who engaged fully throughout the year and want to take blame for their poor performance, I have a handful of students that have so effectively tuned me out that I really don’t feel the need to curve their grades. In a way I want those students to suffer the consequence of lacking authentic engagement, which in this case would be a drop of a letter grade or possibly two. For clarification, none of them would be in danger of failing, just GPA reduction.
  • I thought about applying the curve to only those students who have shown effort throughout the year, but I revolt at that for two reasons. One, I despise effort grades. Two, if I pick and choose which grades to inflate it ultimately renders the concept of an exam mute.
  • I realize that much of my desire or lack of desire to curve is based upon which math class students are in. I have more sympathy in my required courses (Algebra 2) and less sympathy in our elective courses (Pre-Calc).
  • I have a couple of curve breakers whose scores are high enough that it renders the curve pointless for my low scoring students.
  • I really don’t want to put my students through another exam. I don’t want to take the time to make another exam. It rewards those students who didn’t take the SLO seriously enough the first time around knowing that there is potential for another exam.
  • If I give another exam it punishes the students who did well on the SLO.
  • If I let the students just keep the higher of the two scores, why stop at just two? Why not give the students three, four, or even more opportunities? And if I give them endless opportunities isn’t it really just like me determining their grades subjectively?
  • At the end of the day my students did well enough to help ensure my job security (met SLO growth targets). Well, most of them. I think there were a couple that really want to get me fired. Is it wrong that I want to somehow manipulate the grades in a way that either rewards, or at least doesn’t harm my students grades?
  • I really, really want their input. However, I want their input in a manner that takes into account more than their individual grade, which I feel most  are capable of doing. I do fear the implicit pressure placed upon me to “control” my class and that requesting feedback from students is empowering them too much.

Isn’t it nice that grading is so simple.


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