Review: ELEMENTS OF GRADING by Douglas Reeves

I’m glad I read Douglas Reeves’s Elements of Grading. Reeves has thought deeply about grading processes and engagingly articulates his ideas and attitudes in this brief book’s pages.

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of Reeves’s thinking is the no-zero policy, which says that a zero is mathematically brutal when using a percentage-based grading scale, not to mention that zeros are virtually always an inaccurate representation of student learning. If a student cannot or does not prove learning, how do we represent that situation in a grade? I believe we can find middle ground on this issue if we (1.) keep learning as the focus and objective; and (2.) think in terms of incomplete grades rather than mathematical zeros. There is room for compromise between the hardheaded teacher policies that say absolutely-no-late-work-accepted and the impracticality of those who think that students should have almost unlimited opportunities to complete and revise their work without grades being affected. Neither the hardheadedness nor the impracticality enhances student learning.

Common sense says that sometimes students will turn in work late. They may have good reasons or bad reasons, but late work will happen. Regardless of the reason for late or missing work, that work demonstrates a student’s learning, and it should be taken into consideration in some fashion. Common sense also says learning that takes place in sync and sequence with class activities is likely to be more significant than work completed out of sequence and out of sync with class activities.

If a grade is to be an accurate reflection of a student’s learning, a zero is not valid because it’s unlikely that a student learned nothing. Similarly, if a grade is an accurate reflection of a student’s learning, the grade should be higher if work is completed in sequence with timeliness than if it’s completed in a more random chronology.

If we think of missing work as temporarily incomplete rather than as an absolute zero, then we can talk about reasonable conditions for making up the incomplete work. Eventually, incomplete work needs to be converted to a no-credit status that will negatively impact a student’s grade, but again, the time frame can be discussed more sensibly if we’re thinking about a student’s learning and not a cold hard zero.

Discussions like these are conducted in the context of a school building or school system. But grading policies may not be the only policies affecting learning that are routinely based on traditions and nothing else. If a school is going to examine, question, and consider changing its grading traditions, that school should make everything fair game, not just grading. If grading is the only change under consideration while other learning-related problems are ignored—well, Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

One of the most useful ideas in Elements of Grading is the language Reeves provides for how to discuss beliefs. Frustration can result when those arguing particular positions confuse their opinions and experiences with more global levels of evidence and certainty. In other words, just because I believe something does not automatically means it’s true, even if it’s based on my personal experience. My opinions and my experience have some value, but they are not the same as collective experiences, evidence based on more widespread experiences, or mathematical certainties. Although Reeves might not agree, we should acknowledge that as we radiate outward from the “opinion” level of belief to include the experiences and experiments of others, more variables are introduced, making valid comparisons and generalizations more difficult.

While I agree with Reeves’s assertions about the needs for accuracy, fairness, specificity, and timeliness in any grading paradigm, I also felt the English teacher in me coming out when he focused on timeliness. Timeliness looks different to a writing teacher than to those in most other disciplines. Providing worthwhile feedback to students on writing takes significantly more time than do most other forms of feedback. Reeves predictably shouts out the glories of rubrics for saving time while teaching writing, but I’ve always felt that writing rubrics tend to miss the best aspects of some students’ writing. For an in-depth exploration of this phenomenon, my friend Maja Wilson’s Rethinking Rubrics in Writing Assessment (Heinemann, 2006) is indispensable. Teaching writing is different from any other discipline.

Timeliness is still important when providing feedback on writing. It’s harder for writing teachers to achieve timeliness, but that should not be an excuse. Writing teachers have an extra burden when we do our jobs well. Unfortunately, the example provided by Reeves for how writing teachers can provide timely feedback is weak: Let students give feedback to each other. Yes, that can be a useful strategy, but it cannot be the only strategy, and Reeves provides no other ideas.

More valuable to writing teachers is Reeves’s suggestion that teachers use “mid-course corrections” in order to speed up the timeliness of feedback. That works for me. When I provide feedback on an early draft of a student’s writing without grading it, the final draft is almost always in better shape and takes less time to grade. Yes, it takes time to give the early-draft feedback, but the net time gain is still significant, and students learn better from that in-process feedback than they do from an autopsy report on their final drafts.

The most disappointing section of Elements of Grading is Chapter 9, “Leading Change for Effective Grading Practices,” which outlines Reeves’s suggestions for how to bulldoze his grading changes into a school’s culture. Reeves recommends the inclusion of all stakeholders in discussions; he then characterizes disagreement with his ideas as “complaints” (113) and recommends that school leaders accept that “complaints are inevitable,” (113) and just go ahead and make the changes: “Leaders undermine their own best intentions time and time again when they equivocate … There remain many areas of teacher discretion, such as engaging scenarios for lessons and assessments, but grading policies or any other educational reform will not achieve improved results if implementation specification is left to chance” (112).

It strikes me as hypocritical to go through the motions of soliciting input in a democratic fashion, all while fully intending to ignore the results of that discussion if it is at odds with the leader’s pre-determined outcome. When leaders only pretend to listen, they lose credibility when their pretenses are exposed. And when student learning is involved, too much is at stake to play these kinds of games. While I agree with much of what Reeves says about grading, his ideas should stand or fall based on their merits, not because those in positions of power have the authority to ram them through. I respect that Mr. Reeves has an all-encompassing grading philosophy. I have one too. It overlaps that of Mr. Reeves in many areas. But I’m disappointed that his philosophy apparently excludes room for any variation or difference of opinion.

The best teachers tend to be reflective practitioners, professionals who question themselves and constantly seek ways to improve their instructional and motivational techniques. Douglas Reeves’s advice to school leaders undermines that reflective capacity. If teachers are encouraged to examine their practices, that’s fine, but there is no point in questioning one’s practices if there is no opportunity to act upon one’s reflection. If leaders tell teachers, “Think about why you do what you do” but then prevent them from acting upon the results of those thoughts unless they mirror the leader’s preferences, the teachers’ reflective capacities are, let’s just say, not strengthened.

I gained some insights into grading from reading Elements of Grading. I’m going to make some changes based on those insights. I value the process of questioning my beliefs and practices and re-calibrating when necessary. I encourage teachers to read Elements of Grading. It contains important insights about grading. Read the last chapter too for some illuminating insights into how school leaders are advised to make and implement decisions.

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3 Responses to Review: ELEMENTS OF GRADING by Douglas Reeves

  1. Russ Anderson says:

    Thanks for the review, Gary. I agree wholeheartedly about grading writing without rubrics. I’ve always felt that leaving substantial comments and grading holistically has been more rewarding for me and more constructive for my students. Although it does take more time, my “discussion on the page” is more valuable, I have found, than a check in a box. Also, mid-course corrections works wonders for me in class. They are not usually assessed for a grade, but their papers are drastically better after having done so. From all of this, I am questioning my grading practices. Hopefully, I’ll find my own answer to “Why am I grading the way that I’m grading?”


  2. tony romano says:

    I admire the balanced approach here. Our school is in the middle of heated discussion on grading, and we need someone like you to lead that discussion! But sadly, mistrust has leaked into the fray, and all I hear is shouting. I think everyone on both sides needs to calm down and read this entry. There are moments of brilliance here. Thanks.


  3. Pingback: My Books for 2011 | What's Not Wrong?

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