I spent some time this afternoon updating my grade book. Like most of us, grading is my least favorite part of teaching and I have a nasty habit of putting it off for longer than I should. I end up having marathon grading stints after school and it usually seems to coincide with other things I would rather be doing.
Anyways, I was putting grades into the book and I began thinking about what I'm going to call "count down" grading and "count up" grading. Very technical.
Currently, my grading is quasi-standards based, where learners are rated on a one to four scale for each learning objective based on an evaluation of some sort. Each person starts with a zero, for no experience, and can progress at any time to a four, which is a class expert. If they are at a level four, they know that they can be called upon to tutor small groups and teach others. It works really well and I have reliable people to help foster collaboration in the class. Learners have told me that it is encouraging to work this way because they can see their learning increasing through the chapter (or quarter, etc) as they gain new skills. This is "count up."
That all sounds great, but the grade book can cause some concerns for people that aren't familiar with the system. Until the learner attempts the concept, they are a zero. As a zero, they are not being punished for incompletion or missing work. It is simply a place holder until something is put in there. It helps them keep track of where they are and what they need to be working on. At times, though, there are mild panic attacks because of the number that is associated with their names.
I began thinking about some other books I've seen, where learners all begin with full credit (the proverbial "clean sheet") and are then whittled down over time through testing, homework, or whatever other assignments are put in. I haven't used a system like this, but I have known teachers that make sure everyone starts at 100% and then works down by artificially setting the grades at the start of each new quarter. This is "count down" grading.
I know this narrative is painfully biased, but I think it is an important questions for practicing teachers to ask themselves (constant evaluation and adaptation) as well as for teachers in training to ponder before they hit the class. Are you using grades to show the learning process? Or are grades simply an average of scores through the year?
On a side note, I would abolish grades if I could, but that's not the system we live in. Until that day comes, I'll do the best I can.