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When Grading Meets Technology: Not Necessarily a Match Made in Heaven

Twitter conversation last week:

Ben Rimes (a tech coordinator from MI) says: Do any other #edtech specialists ever get concerned you're leaving people behind? What do you do to reach out to those teachers?

Great question and concept-- No teacher left behind. There was a bit of back-and-forth about resistant teachers who print out Google docs (shameful!) but in general the techies seem inclined to give teacher colleagues the time and leeway they need to incorporate new tools into their instructional repertoire. Ben graciously says his expectations sometimes exceed what teachers have time to accomplish, tech-wise.

It's a great chat, but I'm secretly glad these edtechs weren't around when I was being compelled to adapt to the new district online grading program, part of a much-hyped master suite of tech tools designed to make the work of assessing easier and more transparent.

Also--more standardized. Which is, in my admittedly minority viewpoint, Not a Good Thing.

When it comes to online gradebooks, I believe there is a misguided faith in the magic of technology to "streamline" routine tasks and "solve problems" (even things we didn't realize were problems beforehand). Here's one: if parents weren't allowed to peek into teachers' gradebooks twenty years ago, what makes us think they're interested now? And furthermore--is it even a good idea to nurture grade-stalking in parents?

Points to consider:

  • Expecting parents to track their children's grades--and do something about low grades or missing assignments--shifts responsibility for monitoring the grade to parents. And guess what? It's the student's job to track their own learning and stay on top of class lessons, not Mommy's. This is a point of building independence for even young children (if they're unfortunate enough to be getting letter grades). And it becomes another thing to resent/rebel against with adolescents.
  • When parents are suddenly hawking their gradebooks, teachers feel compelled to put lots of numbers in the boxes, proving that they're organized and soldiering away, assigning lots of homework and giving lots of grades. My principal sent us a memo suggesting that we add at least one new grade per week, it being worrisome when parents see that several days have gone by with no grade posted. This compulsion to do something because someone is watching, rather than because something is important enough to dig in and master, puts a major, negative kink in the learning process.
  • Some of those grades represent formative assessment: constructive feedback to students in the process of learning to accomplish a concept or skill. Formative assessment is supposed to be non-punitive--information that helps a student improve. If curriculum is appropriate--in the sweet spot where it challenges, but builds on prior learning--then formative assessment will most often show lots of room for growth. Try explaining that to one panicked parent at a time.
  • Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. (A great quote, although Einstein didn't say it.) An online gradebook seeks to convert assessment data to numbers. It's a digital tool. Sometimes, kids need coaching or commentary--or a gentle kick in the pants-- not a comparative percentage. Sometimes, it's OK to paint a picture, write a poem, or test a solution, just to see how it turns out. You don't have to grade everything to make it real or valuable.
  • Online grading programs also let teachers uncover which parents are creeping on their children's assignments and grades (which are different from said children's actual progress). This is an issue of deep concern for some teachers, who now believe that since overseeing grades is convenient and available, all parents should routinely do so. A parent who never takes the time to check on grades might be pigeonholed as "just doesn't care."

I found my district's online grading program so inflexible as to be nearly useless. I collected a mountain of valid assessment data on my music students that could not be represented in the gradebook program. For example, the program routinely converted memorized scales--Ab, Bb, Db, Eb--into percentages. Because there was no way to fix that, the grading program trainer suggested I stop collecting data that couldn't be translated, somehow, into numbers. The ultimate "data driven" solution to a problem that didn't exist.

The online grading program was instituted when my son was in middle school.  I never checked on his grades although it would have been extremely easy to do so--and, trust me, I am a caring parent, with a deep commitment to his education. I got his report cards, and I went to parent-teacher conferences. And that--really--was enough. The rest was up to him.

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