Thoughts from a reflective educator.
We don't give grades as teachers do we? We expect our students to complete the work we assign, we assign them a mark on the work depending on whatever we perceive the quality of the work, and then we use a bunch of similar assignments and tests to determine a mark for the students. So we don't give grades, we just give absolutely everything else the kids need in order to be able to "earn" a grade.
When I worked in NYC, we were required to give a participation grade for our students. This participation grade couldn't be based on the students attendance, tardiness, behaviour, or anything "bad" they did in class. As a result, almost all of us quickly realized that we pretty much had to give the maximum amount for attendance, which in our case was 20%. So we gave every student 20% right away on their grades (in NY they need 65% to pass).
Next we had to give students marks for homework, again another 20%. Now here, we did have to actually assign homework everyday, but our administrators had us play a different game. We had to accept late assignments because many of our kids would be absent (some months our attendance rate was hovering around 60%, shhhh... don't tell the city!). We also had to make sure we went through the homework assignments at the beginning of the classes. Oh, and we had to hand back the homework once we had it marked as well. We had a terrific homework completion rate, if we didn't mind 33 copies of the same assignment. Note that now, almost all of our students are hovering at around 40% without having really done any thought or demonstrated any learning.
We were next encouraged to give quizzes on a regular basis. I gave one every class at the beginning of the class and I made the quiz a very simple review of what we had covered before. Essentially everyone got 100% on the quiz, if they were in the classroom in time. The quizzes were collectively worth another 20%.
Now, if you are keeping score at home, you recognize that students only needed to earn an additional 5% out of a possible 40% on the class tests in order to pass. That means that if the students earn a mere 12.5% on our class room tests and assignments, they will pass our course (which was always the only objective 99% of our students had). Believe it or not, even under these conditions I only ever had a pass rate at around 70% of my students overall.
The point I'm trying to make here is that every school with a grading system has a set of steps (or if you prefer hoops) that the students must go through in order to be successful in your course and pass or get a "high mark." These benchmarks are always set by the students, the school, or the state, and students never have any control over how they are graded. Not every school sets the bar as low as the school I worked at in NYC, but all of them have a bar set at some level which is the minimum level at which the students need to succeed.
To me, a system where a student is given complete guidance on how to be successful, and has no control over the terms of success is not a very good system. We could argue that the students have not "earned" their grades, they have been "given them" since they have no ownership over the process.
This system to me is broken. Students shouldn't be trying to jump through hoops to earn grades, anymore than teachers should be spending their time constructing hoops. Both the teachers and the students should be focused on the student learning, and the ownership of that learning should be the student's.
David is a mathematics teacher and a learning specialist for technology at Stratford Hall in Vancouver, BC. He has been teaching since 2002, and has worked in Brooklyn, London, and Bangkok before moving back to Canada. He has his Masters degree in Educational Technology from UBC, and is the co-author of a mathematics textbook. He has been published in ISTE's Leading and Learning, Educational Technology Solutions, The Software Developers Journal, The Bangkok Post and Edutopia. He blogs with the Cooperative Catalyst, and is the Assessment group facilitator for Edutopia. He has also helped organize the first Edcamp in Canada, and TEDxKIDS@BC.