Gradebooks Get a No Credit

5 min read

The first things about Sequoyah that come to mind for many people are kids running around barefoot and no grades. When I think of Sequoyah, I think of The Barefoot Times and a confusing grading system. Mastery- and standards-based grading do not have to be confusing, but Sequoyah has made them too complex.

In my freshman year, there were no gradebooks students could look at whenever they wanted to understand how they were doing in a class. When students got their end-of-mod reports, many were surprised. And when they received their final grades, they were baffled at how they could have met all 12 learning objectives and still have received a 3.3.

The only way you could have known how you were doing in your classes was to ask your teacher to show you your grades, on their computer, on Alma. Not only was this inconvenient, but final grades were still a surprise to most.

In 10th grade, some teachers started to use a Google Spreadsheet gradebook that is very similar to the one being used now. It provided students their exact grades for every assignment, what LOs were assessed, and the weight of each assignment. A bar graph was then added showing students their progress for all of a given class’s LOs.

These spreadsheets proved insightful for students and are now used by nearly every teacher. However, as much as the gradebooks may make it clearer to students what grade they are getting in a class, they fail to hold up the goals of mastery-based grading.

One major issue with the spreadsheet gradebooks is that they are numeric on the teacher’s side. While students only see their mastery level grades on each assignment (MTG, APP, BEG, or NC), teachers enter a number that corresponds to those mastery levels, as defined in the school’s student handbook. Each mastery level has a nearly full point range, meaning that while you may have “met” every learning objective in a class, you may still get a B+ as your final grade.

When a student is deciding whether they should revise an essay, for instance, they may look to their gradebook to see if revising will help them improve their overall grade. If they see all mets, they assume that no work needs to be done. However, if they know that the number that is entered (and used to calculate the final numeric grade in a class) by the teacher is a “low” met, they may want to revise the essay so that they can bring their grade up to a “high” met. In fact, when the school sent an email with Mod 1 reports this year, they noted, “It’s important to think about the feedback levels (MTG, APP, BEG, NC) as a way to help the student to prioritize what studying they need to do to improve.” By giving students mets when the student has not actually fully met the learning objective, students are duped into believing they do not need to focus on improving that LO.

However, this should not be happening with a mastery-based grading system. If teachers stuck to the idea of mastery-based grading, a “met” would always be entered into the gradebook as a 4.0. If a student would have gotten a “low” met, they should instead simply get an approaching. This would make for a less confusing grading system and one that encourages students to exemplify their mastery of a class’s learning objectives when they otherwise would have accepted a lower grade (perhaps sometimes unknowingly).

While allowing teachers to enter numeric grades that fall in the middle of mastery ranges goes against mastery-based grading, the gradebooks themselves may be hurting the school’s goals in moving towards a fully mastery-based grading system.

The progress bars that appear at the top of the gradebooks are a visual representation of a student’s mastery of the course’s LOs. The progress is calculated by averaging all of the grades related to that LO. However, in the Mod 1 report email, the school said, “Sequoyah does not have a practice of averaging quiz grades.” But gradebooks are not only averaging quiz grades; they are averaging grades.

This goes against the goals of mastery-based grading. Mastery-based grading systems encourage students to learn and improve. In that same vein, students are not expected to have “met” or mastered all of a course’s learning objectives at the beginning of a course; instead, they should build up to them and have mastery by the time the course ends. In fact, Sequoyah has consistently told families that students are not expected to have met all LOs at the beginning of a class, nor by the end of the first mod of a three mod class. However, the gradebooks report a student’s progress on all of the class’s LOs by averaging all of their grades, whether they were from the first or last assignment in the class.

Rather than having the gradebooks calculate averages to show to students in a bar graph, teachers should be expected to re-evaluate each student’s progress on each LO once every week or two based on their most recent work in the class.

But the gradebooks are not just used as an unofficial way for students to understand what they need to improve on in their classes. Many teachers use the average grade the gradebooks calculate as the final grade given to students, when they instead should be basing a student’s final grade on how consistently and well a student is able to show mastery of the course’s learning objectives. Not only is this not how grades are supposed to be calculated with a mastery-based grading system, but the gradebooks make it easy for teachers to give the average as a final grade. I have indeed heard firsthand from teachers that they often use the grade the gradebooks spit out.

I have struggled to think of a perfect system for calculating a final grade in a class that is not a cumulative average of all of the student’s grades. While it would be easy to say that a student has to have met each LO at least three times in the last mod of a course to get an overall met, I do not think such a policy would work well in practice. This type of strict system would also ignore work from earlier mods that may have shown mastery over LOs.

Instead, I think a self-assessment, portfolio, and conference process would embody Sequoyah’s values as well as the goals of a mastery-based grading system. At the end of a class, every student would complete a simple self-assessment by giving themselves their mastery level for each LO in the course. Along with the self-assessment, students would be expected to compile a portfolio of work that they think exemplifies the mastery level they gave themselves. (It would be up to the student to determine how much work is necessary to include.) Students would also be encouraged to include work that was not as strong to show how they improved and made progress on the class’s LOs.

After completing their portfolio, students would send it to their teacher so that they can prepare for a 15-or-so-minute conference where the teacher asks the student questions and the student defends, in person, their self-assessment. During the conference, if the teacher does not agree with the student’s self-assessment, based on the work they presented, they would express their disagreement and encourage the student to find new work or change their self-assessment and perhaps meet again.

The teacher would then base the student’s final grade off of the self-assessment, portfolio, and the conversation they had at the conference, and perhaps some additional work if the student was unable to convince the teacher to agree with their self-assessment.

I love mastery-based grading. For my Impact Project in SIP, I am developing a learning management system built around mastery-based grading systems such as the one used at Sequoyah. However, until a Mastery Transcript is used by Sequoyah, our gradebooks and final grade calculations need to change. Teachers should be prohibited from entering grades for assignments that are in between mastery levels and instead simply input the actual words students see; progress and final grades, meanwhile, should not be averages of all of the student’s work in the course and should instead be based on the student’s self-assessment and portfolio.

If Sequoyah continues to use the gradebooks as they are designed now, the school might as well revert to a traditional alphanumeric grading system for everything (although grades could still be split by LO). In fact, that would make it less complex. But we do not have to do that; we can redesign Sequoyah’s gradebooks and grading system to be able to fully reap the benefits of a mastery-based grading system.