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The Meaning of Grades with Dr. Bill Rice

Sep 28, 2021

Welcome back to the Sustainable Teacher Podcast, and today  we have a return guest, my  husband, Bill Rice.  He was first on the podcast back on episode 39, so not too long ago, where we talked about his perspective as principal and husband to a sustainable teacher - so if you haven’t yet, you’ll want to go back and give that a listen.

In this episode, though, we are focusing in on a particular subject, and that is grading.  Specifically, the meaning of grades and how a teacher could be more aware and intentional around what it means when they give a student a specific grade.

This is not a light conversation, and there are certainly fourteen other conversations (or podcast episodes) we could have from this one interview.. And maybe some day we’ll go there, but today we’re focusing on the work Bill has recently done in his research on the meaning of grades, and what it’s been to just scratch the surface on this issue.

So without further ado, let’s bring Bill back to the podcast.


Mandy: Hey Babe, thanks for coming back on the podcast today.

Bill: Thanks for having me back.


M: For those of us who may be newer to the podcast or haven’t been around for a bit, Bill was actually first on the podcast back in episode 39, so you should definitely go and give that a listen.  That episode was about Bill’s perspective on sustainable teaching as a principal and husband to a sustainable teacher, which he had ample experience in.

I’m so glad to have you back on, and today we’ll be talking about the meaning of grades.  But before we get into the rather heavy conversation, go ahead and introduce yourself and tell us about all things Bill Rice.


B: Well thanks for having me on again, I am b ill Rice.  And II have the honor and privilege to serve?? Is that the right word? - to BE Mandy’s husband.  Partner in crime, and father to our three knuckleheads.  And in the day time I serve 2400 students in a suburban high school just outside of Cincinnati, Ohio as building principal, and this is my  sixth year in that role. 


M: Awesome - so this episode is on the meaning of grades with Dr. Bill Rice, so please tell our listeners about your work you just finished up with your dissertation and doctoral degree, your research, and then we can dive into the implication for education and teachers listening today.


B: So grading is something that has always fascinated me since early  on in my  tenure as a teacher.  There is little to no guidance in preparatory  programs for teachers, no discussion on what a grade actually means.  So when you start out as a teacher, not only  are you figuring out everything else about your role, but also what a grade means in your course.  It’s something that I’ve always thought about.  When you work in a school, and you work in a subject that’s exactly  the same as someone down the hall… what’s fascinating is that a C in your class could be an A in someone else’s class.

It’s always fascinated me, and it’s what I did my doctoral research and dissertation on, and if you're looking for some riveting reading, maybe something to help you sleep, you can go Google it and check it out.  The title is Subjectivity in Grading: The Role Individual Subjectivity  Plays in Assigning Grades. 


M: HAHA!  This is my husband’s humility coming out because he always says it’s going to put people to sleep, but I’m betting that many teachers would find it interesting.  And I’m betting that a good  chunk of teachers would find this a good place to start, but to even start by thinking on this topic.  If you have a few teachers that teach the same exact course and level, you have to ask and even do a periodic audit of this topic, what do grades mean in each of our courses, and are they equitable.  What do grades look like across this course, and are we reflecting a student’s performance in the same way.  That really is an issue of equity, giving everyone an equal opportunity to shine and thrive in our course.

Subjectivity in Grading is the title.  So tell us about that work and that research that you did.


B: The basis of the study is what does a grade mean, what is reflected in that grade.  And where I landed on that topic is when early in this position, February of my  first year I stood at a podium getting ready to recognize sophomore first semester honor roll students.  And in the sophomore class we had almost 50% of our students on the 3.0 or above honor roll. Some background information on our school - we are rated, for lack of a better term, by the State of Ohio’s Department of Education each year, and it looks very similar to a child’s report card, a rating of A, B, C, D or F.  And we are struggling, speaking candidly, with changing population, changing times, and all things Covid.

At this particular time we were, I don't want to say falling behind, but certainly not where we wanted to be.  I remember standing at the podium thinking to myself and asking why is it that our report card looks the way it does and yet we have 50% of our sophomores, and sophomores in the state of Ohio are the ones predominantly tested for their graduation requirements and therefore indicate our ratings on the school report card.  But I couldn’t help but wonder why our report card looked the way it did, and yet in our eyes 50% of sophomores were worthy of the honor roll.  IT’s not adding up.  And what became the core question I was asking was, why aren’t our grades reflective of content mastery?  So that’s been the journey and what I was thinking about along the way - if we say that our student earns an A, then they should do well on the state assessment - they should get a 5 (the rating on the state assessment that’s the highest).  So there’s a disconnect, and I wanted to know why there was that disconnect.  And that really became the premise for my dissertation and what became for me a four year journey.


M: Alright, I have visual in my head of what you’re saying - you have two parallel lines, one being a student’s grade, A B C D F, and right next to it their scores on the state assessments.  If they are the same and indicate the same thing, that is alignment at its core.  It's saying that what we are teaching them is in fact preparing students to do well with the state assessment.  In a teacher’s mind, is the grade in their class and their end of course exam (the final assessment of their course), which is like a prerequisite to the broader view you're taking as  a building principal.  So the teacher’s reflection can be on her own class, and you is building or class wide.

So what did you do in your research, and how did you start figuring out where this disconnect lies?


B: I did what’s called a mixed methods research project, where you live in the qualitative and quantitative world.  I began by attempting to show a correlation between end of class grades and the end of course exams, the final assessments students must take as a state mandated graduation requirement, and what ultimately is reflected in our school report card.  So, I am not a statistician by any means, which means I learned a lot about correlations, but what I learned about this correlation is that by definition there is a correlation where I was looking for one, but the effect size is extremely small.  And when you start to understand statistics a bit more, you realize there are thousands of variables that are factored into a classroom grade or an end of course score determined by the teacher.  So to try to pinpoint one variable and say this equals this is impossible.  So, yes, while there is correlation between our class grades and our EOCs (End Of Course Exams mandated by  the state for graduation, and reflected on our report card), it is a tiny, minute correlation, and is very weak.  We found this through a regression analysis.

We then moved into the qualitative component, which for me was to ask why.  I interviewed students, staff members here to talk about what the meaning of a grade is for them.  You start to hear from students and staff that effort is factored into a grade, things like participation.  We hear that staff is grading homework, but they are grading it differently, even assigning it differently.  So you start to figure out and see that there are a whole ton of variables that are factored into what a final grade ends up being.  In the research you see what we call non academic variables, some refer to it as hodge-podge grading, where your grade book has fifteen different categories and it spits out a grade, but a lot of those categories have nothing to do with content mastery.

You talked about this earlier, the topic of equity.  It does become an equity issue because as a student if I play school well - YES, we’ve talked about this on the podcast before - if I show up everyday, I raise my hand, I bring in Kleenex boxes for bonus points, I do all these things, then my grade will be better than the next student’s who doesn’t do all these things.  But then is my final test better?  That’s not reflective of mastery of content.  And that’s the end product of this work, is to figure out a way to remove these things that teachers find value in.  And I recognize that grading is a passion-driven topic and very personal for many.  I’ve heard teachers say “it’s my system,” so they take ownership of it.  We have to figure out a way that I still recognize the students who are doing the right things - showing up and on time, turning in their homework - but at the same time their end grade is reflective of their content mastery.

So can I be that kid who does barely any of the work, then nail the test but my grade in the class is a C or lower?  That doesn’t add up.  The student just passed the test with flying colors and that’s what the class is all about.  Why should he/she have to do anything else?

Those are the tough conversations, and where we are moving as a school.  And the whole process is a lot of reflecting for the individual teacher.  Thinking on what does the grade mean to me?


M: I like what you said about a teacher’s grading system being very personal to them, and that’s a new idea for me, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it’s true.  A veteran teacher has been working year after year to craft their own grading system taking into consideration all kinds of variables and situations to find the right mix that works for them, so yes it’s got to be challenging and lead to passionate conversations when that system is challenged.

As much as I am in the world of education, I can’t help but think of sports and how this applies.  A coach, and how they prepare them for the game is a good indicator of what system we could be moving toward.  When a player is at practice working hard to get better they are not watching the score board.  There is NO SCORE!  There are things like forms of reinforcement and punishment, other ways of gratifying a kid’s work, but they don’t know how well they are doing or if they’ve improved until it’s game time - that is where their content mastery is measured, and nothing else is taken into consideration.

So why is it that we as teachers have a scoreboard for the learning process when the score really should only be taken at game time? And this is not a rhetorical question for teachers listening - this is something you have to think about and get honest with yourself about.

Is there anything else you wanted to add or talk about here with your research?


B: No, I think we talked about the boring research enough 😆, but now the implications are where we go next.  We’ve started and had tons of conversations as a building and within departments, and within departments have established what we call guardrails, boundaries we will stay within but then allowing freedom to develop a system that works for them.

And this is all in its infancy in this work, we’re just getting started, but we’ll get there.  And it’s something that I’m excited about.  Here’s what it is, a kid should know when they sit down to take that state test, the ACT, whatever the test, they should know coming into it how they are going to do on that test because everything up to that point has led them in that direction.

In our building, we’ve come to a place where if a student does well on the end of course state test, we will then give them credit for the class, even if their grade wasn’t passing.  The transcript will stay the same - so if a kid “earned” a C in class, but got a 5 (out of 5) on the state test, their transcript will reflect BOTH of those grades.  So we aren’t discrediting the teacher’s grading or the lack of effort the student made.  Effort came up so much in the surveys of teachers and it’s a hard topic to discuss because if a student is giving effort, they will do well on the test.  But that is exactly why we shouldn’t be factoring it into grades, because their grade will be impacted by their effort regardless.


M: And that assumes that every student has to give the same amount of effort to get the desired result (or grade).  And that’s not the case.  I have to work a heck of a lot harder than LeBron James to make a free throw.  And I’m not discounting a professional player’s years of hard work and effort, but the amount of effort I have to put in to be good at basketball compared to a 6 foot 7 inch professional player is WAY different.  That’s just the nature of variety in who we are. 

A lot of things we’re talking about, it’s making me think about our boys.  We just talked to our second grader when he came home from taking his MAP test at school, and we asked him “How did you do on your test?”.  This is exactly what my parents did to me as well, and most kids will answer, “I don’t know, I haven’t gotten my grade back yet.”  And that answer tells you that they don’t see their effort and hard work as leading to their performance on the test.  A student should absolutely know how well they did on a test, they should have a metacognitive understanding of how they did.  Because this is not a game.  I’m not “giving” you a grade.  Everything we’ve been doing in class up until this point has led to this test, and if you’ve tried and worked hard, you should know how well you did on the test.

So what advice would you give to teachers about grading, based on your research?


B:  Number one you have to be intentional in your work, you have to do some self-discovery and, when you’re an entry year teacher, you need to talk with your colleagues, you have to visit classrooms, and we all have to be willing to have these conversations, because the days of rewarding bonus points for bringing in a box of tissues are OVER.  They have to go away to be equitable.  Bonus points for not using restroom passes - it’s got to go.  Have some self-discovery, and constantly be thinking about how is this grade I’m about to write on this piece of paper, how is it reflective of a student’s mastery of content?  

In the elementary level, it’s being done all over with standards based grading.  And there really is no reason why secondary folks can’t jump on that bandwagon as well.  We just think we can’t.  Think of it like a looping model, you can’t move on until you’ve mastered this first.  It’s so fundamentally important, especially in lower level math.

And we’re slowly getting there, not just in our building, but in the secondary world everywhere.  We’re slowly moving toward standards-based grading.  I like standards-based grading because kids at any point in time can do some self assessing and show you where they are on those standards.  They  then reflect on what they’re going to do about it when they aren’t where they need to be.


M: It’s really about an alignment of when they've done things, why they did those things in class, and reflecting on how they  did., It’s about empowering kids, which will end up helping all parties involved

Well, thanks again babe for being on the podcast.  I hope that this conversation starts some wheels turning for teachers listening, some self-reflection, and even conversations amongst colleagues when it comes to what a grade means in our courses and how it’s empowering and leading kids to doing well on their assessments.


Wrapping up our Conversation on Grades

Alright teacher friend, there you have it.  As I’m finishing up this interview and thinking about the episode as a whole, I’m wondering about each individual listener, yes you my friend, and where you might be on this journey with grades.  Because it truly is a journey with unique starting points.  You may be someone who is already fully standards-based or mastery-focused.  Or you may be someone at the other end of the continuum who is still tracing effort and extra credit in their grades… and that is ok.  That is ok as long as your wheels have started turning on this idea of what grades can or should mean, and how at its foundation this topic is one of equity… and really value.  

As a teacher, as a classroom, as a school, as an education system, how is it that we want students leaving their experience with us?  Do we want them leaving as kids who are good at trying hard but never getting results?  Do we want them leaving as individuals who coast by and never have to work hard at anything?  Do we want them leaving as people who understand the relationship between their effort and performance, but in a way that empowers their effort to increase their performance, not in a way that their effort overpowers and delegitimizes their performance?

Where are you on this continuum?  Like I said in the introduction to this episode, this is not a light conversation, but it is a conversation no less, and I’d love for you to join me in actually having it in our Sustainable Teacher Podcast Private Facebook group - you can get to it at the link in the show notes.  Head on over there and find our post about Episode 43 where we’ll be asking where you are on the continuum and how we can be helping you in your journey with grades.

I’ll see you there, and I’ll see you right here, same time next week on the Sustainable Teacher Podcast.  Bye for now.


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