Grading Part II: This is the Worst Thing Ever

Grading.

I hate grading. Grading is the worst. From my first teaching assistant days until now, I have a strong distaste for grading.

I fit in nicely in the grade-free atmosphere of the DU Writing Center, where we repeatedly emphasized that we were not a service for improving grades, but working on writing. There were policies in place to distance us from grades – no coming in on the same day your assignment was due, no meeting with students who were in a class for which you were a TA… I could continue to gush about the DU Writing Center and Writing Center work in general, but this post is about the worst thing ever. So let’s get started on that.

 

The Backstory

This semester my classes were graded. I not only gave a speaking test, but a class grade for participation and completion of class material; this became my students’ English performance test (수행평가) grade. For first grade, this was a combination of their speaking test scores and my class grade, while my class was the sole factor for the second graders’ English speaking grade.

When the semester began, I hadn’t realized (or been told) my class would now be graded, and I’m not sure it even started out as a graded class. The second week of school other English teachers seemed to have decided to include my class as part of students’ overall English grade, so I began announcing this to my classes. Their grade would come from participation/completed worksheets. Instant motivation increase. Students participated. Made more effort on their worksheets. Actually paid attention to the marks I made on their papers. All was good until grading time rolled around.

 

The Grades Approach

My school’s final exams were July 1st, 4th and 5th and semester grades are due two weeks after.

Just before the final exams, my second grade coteacher suggested that we start showing students their grades. Okay, I said. It seemed early, but sure, students would probably like to know where they stand. Their class would be worth 20% of their overall English grade after all.

So I sent her my spreadsheets, didn’t clean anything up (spoiler alert: BIG mistake. Also known as Mistake #1), and we walked into class with their grades. Except I didn’t know that the scores I held in my hand weren’t simply grades. They were up for negotiation.

One by one we called students to the front of the room to check their score. Those who received 100% had no concerns, but anyone with 99% and under had cause for complaint.

What?

99%?

Yes. Even students who’d received 99%.

To be fair, and approach this from a student’s perspective, last semester my class wasn’t graded. Maybe they approached my class this year with the same mindset.

But to also be fair to my coteacher and I, we did explain to each class that they would be evaluated through their worksheets and participation. At least twice. My coteacher always translated this announcement into Korean or just outright explained the grading herself. But some students claimed that they didn’t know they were being graded.

kayne really

They didn’t know they had to participate. They didn’t know sleeping for the entire class and then copying off their partner’s paper in the last few minutes would result in, surprise, no points!

taylorshocked

The problem though, was memory. Throughout the semester, I’d graded their worksheets, marked their grades in my gradebook, and passed the worksheets back to them. Mistake #2. No evidence left. Many students had already thrown away their worksheets. And some brought up previously incomplete worksheets that were magically 100% complete. My coteacher and I had no evidence, although we were suspicious of many of these papers.
Mistake #3: Not clearly inking these papers in red.

But there was a beautiful moment that arose from this occasion. You first have to understand that I’d grown increasingly bitter towards students during this period. How dare they all expect 100%s? How dare they sleep through half my class and then act surprised when they didn’t receive an A? How much longer were they going to argue that I never said that part would be graded or that they had to complete the whole worksheet?

Now that you’re in this mindset, let’s replay this moment.

 

“Gotcha!”: a Tangent

A lot of students didn’t complete the poetry unit worksheet. Surprise – they weren’t too excited about poetry. Part of the worksheet was to complete an acrostic poem with similes for each letter of their name.

One student came in to the office a day or two after we’d showed her class their grades. She brought her completed poetry worksheet and gave us a fishy, complicated story. Apparently she’d lost her worksheet, but she swears she did it. So she used her friend’s worksheet, covered all the answers with white-out, and re-did it with all her own answers from before.

What…should a teacher even do with that? Not accept it, ordinarily. But I’d long since come to accept that I wasn’t in any ordinary grading situation.

Except then my coteacher and I noticed something about her worksheet.

The name on her acrostic poem…wasn’t hers. She’d erased her friend’s work, only to rewrite her friend’s name right there on the worksheet. BAM! Caught! From there we could prove to her face that she’d just copied her friend’s worksheet exactly as it was. ZERO, STUDENT, ZERO.

And we later caught one more student who made the same mistake.

ENCORE.

 

Return from the Tangent

Mistake #4: I wasn’t always diligent about attendance.

Which left gaps in the gradebook. Unexplainable, were-they-absent-or-were-they-slackers gaps.

During the semester, some students did come see me after an absence to ask about missed work. See? Some of them knew this grades thing was happening!

However, most seemed to assume that they didn’t need to worry about the missed work, including me. I would’ve just taken off points. But my coteacher went through the laborious process of tracking down each second grader who’d ever been absent and giving them make-up work.

It took us three weeks to finish this grade-checking process.

 

Lesson learned: Keep only the most crystal clear explanations of the grades you assign because in order to accept anything under 100 percent, students need definite proof.

 

Meanwhile, my first grade coteacher had me dramatically simplify all the grades to either 90% or 100% and did the grade-checking process herself. She was finished in two weeks and had me change fewer than ten students’ grades.

 

Lesson learned #2: Know the system. Then werk.

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Grading Part I: Speaking Tests 2.0

It was that time of year again.

SPEAKING TEST TIME.

I wrapped up this joyous occasion with my first grade students just a few weeks ago. I’d been dreading this monstrous task since March, the start of the 2016 school year. While class rules and rubrics were being created, I successfully wheedled my way out of second grade speaking tests, but my school won the fight for first grade.

Some changes were definitely in order. Instead of feeling pressured into making sure each of my lessons translated into a perfect speaking test topic, I reduced the number of topics tested from 10 (last year) to 3. Concerns about cheating arose in a conversation with my first grade co-teacher, so I ended up creating three different topics for each day of the week – on days when I had multiple first grade classes they were always scheduled back-to-back, so cheating wasn’t likely to occur. Given that I recycled a few questions and built off of general concepts from my class instead of specific topics, it was still considerably easier to come up with a list of questions. I was also excited about the idea of giving each class different topics in part because I didn’t want to be stuck listening to variations of the same speech 200 times. Although they randomly drew their topics, every class somehow seems to weasel their way into choosing the easier topic the most frequently. Hmm. Coteacher leniency behind my back? I allowed them to change topics if they really felt they couldn’t do well with the topic they chose, but this resulted in an automatic grade penalty.

However, the biggest and wisest adjustment I made was not requiring students to speak for the full two minutes. Yes, that made for some super brief speeches, but since last semester, time was the biggest problem – my largest classes always ran over into passing periods and sometimes into the next class period – I knew I had to do something about this. And what a wonderful decision it was.

My smallest classes finished with a little time to spare, enough for me to address the class, give encouragement and finish up the grades – saving me a lot of time.

In my largest classes we started 5 minutes earlier and usually the bell rang with only 2-3 students remaining – not bad. I never went all the way through a passing period like last year. This year, I also had a lot of first grade classes in pairs – back-to-back class periods – so limiting their time was a wise choice.

I still fell into the usual bias of grading more harshly in the first class and easing up later on. This time I also required them to use specific phrases and vocabulary from class at least 3 times, and not doing so would cost a student 30 percent of her grade. This really hit some students hard. But listening to all the other students who incorporated multiple phrases into their speeches and some who emphasized them to make sure I heard – thank you students, this was more helpful than you realize – I know the requirements I gave weren’t too difficult. It wasn’t exclusively lower level students who forgot to include the required phrases or vocabulary.

As of now I’m done with speaking tests, after catching the few stragglers who were absent on the day of their test. Fortunately, I also wasn’t forced to test the special needs students who are technically enrolled in my classes but on most days don’t show up – they have their own activities and programs and so they’re often pulled out of regular classes. Thank goodness I don’t have to go through that grading farce, painful for all sides.

 

If I were to do speaking tests again, I wouldn’t dread it as much as before, and I feel much more equipped to evaluate students’ speaking in a productive way.

 

But as I would soon discover, grading still sucks.