Imagine a typical student who is failing a class. This student is earning low scores on his quizzes, exams, papers, and projects. For the sake of this thought experiment, I’m going to stick to several imaginary assignments that each have 100 points possible as a perfect score. In the real world, teachers know that all assignments are not equally weighted, but the concept works with any assignment, and I want to keep the math easy for this article.
In this scenario, the student earns 20, 22, 28, 35, 45, and 60 on each of the assignments. In this imaginary class, the scores break down along the traditional 90-100=A, 80-89=B, 70-79=C, 60-69=D, and <60=F. So this student has earned an F on each first five assignments and then a D on the sixth.
In a traditional grading system, I can imagine this student giving up on this class. As you can see, even though the student has improved on each and every assignment, he sees very little benefit from his increased efforts. I can imagine many of my students ever even completing the forth, fifth, and sixth assignments at all, because they have given up hope. I can hear the child say, “Why should I even bother! No matter how hard I try, I’m still failing! I give up! I hate school!” With this imaginary student, and hundreds like him at my school, I can see a dropout in the making.
With a growth model for grading, this child can find reward in his increased efforts and hard work, and his improved performance.
Under a growth model, after the first assignment earning a 20 the teacher would have a conversation like this. “You earned only a 20/100 on this assignment. Now, you and I both know that this is an F. What I would like us to agree to is this: you come in for extra help, and make some commitments to work harder. Our goal is a 10% increase on your next assignment. So you’re shooting for at least a 22 on the next assignment.” The child asks, with typical teen hope, “Will a 22 get me an A, then?”
The answer is, “no.” Here is how growth grading works. On the next assignment, the student earns the 22. A 22/100 is still and F on content. But the student hit is growth target perfectly. On his growth goal, he has earned an “A.” I the growth model, these grades have equal weight, so the total grade for assignment two is a C. Then the teacher and student set the next growth target, another 10% or a 24.
On the third assignment, the student exceeds his growth target, earning a 28 instead of the hoped-for 24. His growth grade on assignment 3 is an A+, but his content is still an F. This averages to a C+ on the third assignment. Because the student’s growth was so impressive, he and the teacher set the growth bar a little higher, say 20% growth this time, or a 34.
On the forth assignment, he does well again. Exceeding his target slightly with the 35. Again, this is an F for content, but another A for growth, averaging to another C for the assignment. Together, they set the bar higher, hoping for 25% improvement on the next assignment.
Again, the student hits his target with a 45. Again the content and growth grades average to a C. Again they set a growth target, 30% this time, aiming for a 60
On his sixth assignment, he does it again. This time, while his growth grade is another A, his content grade has increased to a D. The average of this assignment is a B, perhaps the first B this child has earned in this class all year.
Can you see the reward for perseverance? Can you see the child realizing that hard work and study pays off over the long haul?
With this student, once his content grades have climbed to a C or a B, the growth grading ends.
I know this model flies in the face of some practitioners who are strong advocates for strict standards. They may argue that the content grade is too important to dilute with a growth grade and that an F is an F.
I know this model also flies in the face of fairness. If this student can earn a C for only 45/10 correct, what does that say about the student who is earning a 75/100 and earning the same letter?
I also know that this model of grading will hurt my school’s score on the high-stakes tests in May. This is because this child is not learning the material well enough to do a great job on that test, and the State of California is far less concern with a single child’s growth than they are about being able to rank my school based on a singe test score. Additionally, growth grading will hurt my school because, rather than abandoning hope and dropping out in the fall, this student will still be with us in May, along with his lousy test score.
I know all of this, and I don’t care. I don’t care because I also know that this child is learning more of my class content earning a 22, 28, or 45 than he would have had he dropped out. I don’t care because I would rather have this student in my school dragging down our test scores than on the streets dragging down his future. I don’t care because I care more about learning and hope than strict standards and fairness.
The trick is to see every child as an individual and find a way for each child to learn as much as she or he can every hour they spend with me. Growth grading is not for every student, but for those students who may lose hope, who may drop out, it can be a great tool to keep them connected to school and teach them that hard work and effort really can pay off.