Making the Grade


I just finished reading Norb Pienta’s editorial in the June 2014 edition of JCE. He hits on a touchy subject between college chemistry instructors and their students...the grade. I remember being shocked as a freshman student at Michigan State University when I saw the first posted exam grades for my math and science courses. I can still hear the complaints about the unfairness. “How can more than half the class fail the test?” Even though I was not one of those students on the bottom half of the score sheet, I was low enough to be shocked into reality. Fortunately, I was able to pick myself up and bring my study practices up to the expected level of rigor. Having become an educator, I have certainly seen the other side of that issue.

I would like to say that I am working to prepare my own high school chemistry students for the rigor of college chemistry assessments, but it can be a battle. I won’t take this space to lament my own struggles with student, parent and administrative expectations. I will just state that I have a reputation (at least among some) for having high standards and one of the toughest courses in my district, but I personally think that standard should be higher. I have had students who are driven to excellence and their own high standards. I have had a few students who have been endowed with intelligence and maturity that will get them through the toughest tests. I have many students who have the intelligence to match the standard that I would like to set in my classroom, but at the high school level there can be many intervening issues that affect a teacher’s ability to hold students to that standard. I will save that tale for another time.

Pienta mentions that his department subscribes to a “grading contract.” Wondering if this idea was different than what I am used to, I clicked on his reference, Making Your Own Grade II: Contract Grading in the 21st Century. The basic idea is that the instructor provides “a clear and detailed set of guidelines that stipulate exactly what a student needs to do in order to earn each possible grade.” The blog post goes on to describe a variety of scenarios. Some instructors might define the final grade just by the average of exam grades earned during the course. Others might offer a variety of assignments allowing students to pick the assignments they want to submit for scores.  I like the idea of allowing students some flexibility, but I already feel overwhelmed with grading. I am wondering how I could manage allowing for that student flexibility. I will investigate this a little further. I have tried to add some flexibility in assignments recently by allowing for a report, video, oral report or approved alternative to share the same information, but students have resisted because they are unfamiliar with the practice. The students all chose to complete the basic “report” assignment that they were familiar with. I welcome suggestions if anyone has experience with using “contract grading” that allows for student flexibility in the chemistry classroom.

Pienta also referenced Melanie Cooper’s article, Cherry Picking: Why We Must Not Let Negativity Dominance Affect Our Interactions with Students from the April 2012 issue of JCE. Cooper’s article includes a quote by Paul Rozin: “One cockroach will spoil a bowl of cherries, while a cherry will do nothing for a bowl of cockroaches.” We have heard it time and again in relation to many scenarios. We pay more attention to the bad than to the good. We must be careful to avoid negative responses to student complaints, frustrations and test scores. If we get negative student or parent feedback, we need to try to look at the situation without defensiveness. We need to consider what it is that we can do as educators to help the situation. If one student is complaining, there are probably others out there who are not placing the blame on you  (at least not verbally) but who are at a loss for how to make improvements. Cooper proposes, “Perhaps it is also time to take some responsibility ourselves. We must teach the students we have, not the students we want.” I have long believed this, but I appreciate the reminder.

One of my goals for the next school year is to redesign my AP Chemistry course. Of course, I just experienced the “redesign” of the AP Chemistry curriculum this past school year, but I am speaking more to my own content delivery, assessment and grading. I am modifying the course I teach to include a “blended” environment involving some online learning and optional attendance days (at least for those students who maintain a set academic standard). I have been thinking that my biggest decisions would be about the design of the online portion of the course. After reading Norb Pienta’s editorial and the related references, I have decided to spend some serious time redesigning my course “grading contract,” including how I incorporate my assessments into that equation.



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Comments 2

Erica Posthuma's picture
Erica Posthuma | Fri, 06/20/2014 - 09:06


How will you use contract grading on Exams?  I can see using it for small assignments - homework, FR problems, etc., but I am curious how exam grades would factor in the overall course grade.  Would exams be a separate category?

Deanna Cullen's picture
Deanna Cullen | Fri, 06/20/2014 - 13:52

I have not decided yet. In a Twitter conversation related to my blog post, it came up that many teachers worry about students taking advantage of reassessments, yet when I speak with teachers using standards based grading, they say that the bigger problem is that many students do not take advantage of the reassessment opportunities. I am in the midst of making the types of decisions that you refer to, Erica. I have a list of link that were given to me to puruse. I will share here:


Educational Leadership Article, "Seven Reasons for Standards-Based Grading"


Gary Abud (Michigan Teacher of the Year 2013-2014) Google site on SBG


Thomas Guskey, "Practical Solutions for Serious Problems in Standards-Based Grading"


Ken O'Connor, "A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades"


Robert Marzano,"Formative Assessment and Standards-Based Grading: Classroom Strategies That Work"