To Drop or Not to Drop: A Well-Tempered Discussion
Recently, I asked the question, “Is it ok to employ the grading practice of dropping the lowest score?” Many of you responded with eloquently worded comments. It’s pretty obvious that we’re all over the board on this one, and I think you may find it surprising that I am not wholly against the practice (as perhaps I led on), but to me it’s more about being Picard, not Data.
The goal of this blog is to force myself to think cogently about why I do the things in my classroom that I do. Last year I came to the terrifying realization that teaching matters and can actually permanently affect other people’s lives. I’m sure I acknowledged this fact from day one, but I don’t think I truly had the fear of the power then. This is why I must agonize over the things I do with my students. This is why I must come across as a bit too intense.
For those of you who are assuming I’m always being a jerk about the traditional system of assessment, I’m sorry that I’ve come across that way. All I’m trying to do here is make sure you and I actually believe in what we’re doing and aren’t just dropping lowest scores or giving random tests because, well, that’s what was done to us. I’m sorry that I make some of you feel defensive; I just want you to be absolutely sure that what you believe in is worth defending (read: good for your students) and not some crusted ideal curve handed down from the great Statistics Perverters of yesteryear.
Here’s the recap:
Most of you espoused the “bad days” argument, wherein the teacher acknowledges that some days a student may screw up and that may inaccurately reflect their true understanding due to a breakup or illness or whatever. Problem: What if that low score is not the result of a bad day, and is in fact a giant flaming red flag indicating that the student needs some serious help on this concept?
Dropping the lowest score can lead to:
… When I was a student I would use it [dropping the lowest] as an opportunity to skip a class (or not learn specific material).
Thank you, Zach, for rocking the anecdote. This is the problem that prompted me to post this in the first place. A clear dichotomy is starting to form…
And then, like Tyson in the fifth:
The drop-the-lowest-grade idea might help give students hope, so that they don’t give up early on.
- Dan Greene
So, we recognize the need for students to be allowed to improve, and for their final grade to reflect that. Hmm, there must be something wrong with summative obsession and averaging…
The underlying, pernicious assumption, alas, is that the “average” is a suitable indication of overall student understanding.
Wha, what, what?! Averaging isn’t sufficient? Who knew!? What I think we’re getting at here is that when you say, “I want you to get better at that,” the traditional assessment scheme undercuts you by implicitly saying, “oh, but I really don’t want you to get better, I want you to follow my arbitrary schedule of topics, and I want your grade to reflect every horrifying and embarrassing mistake you ever make.”
Oh, did that offend you? Well, that practice offends your kids, but they usually don’t verbalize it. That’s scary.
Bethea then raises some pedagogical issues:
Above all, it [dropping lowest] lets the teacher off the hook. No need to meet with a student and explain material that you won’t be going over again, when you can just say “don’t worry, your lowest grade is dropped.”
Stop reading, go get some coffee and think about that one for a long time. Really turn it over in your mind. Spend some time slumming in the seedy underbelly that Bethea is trying to expose with that quote.
If you read the rest of the comments (which I strongly encourage) you’ll get a healthy conversation about averaging. Which is really the underlying assumption for many grading schemes.
What I want is for us all to see this dichotomy to its natural maturity. We have a rift going here between those of us who want to consider ourselves “progressive” and those who are willing to work within the traditional system to try and get some learning done. Obviously, there are great teachers on both sides, but I think we’ve finally touched upon something that cannot be agreed-to-be disagreed.
Learning Indication vs. Points Accumulation:
As usual, the state of Iowa shows up in spades:
Dropping the grade doesn’t mean the info was ignored. Just means that grade was dropped.
- Russ Goerend
What does Russ mean? The “info” he refers to is called feedback. Think about the assumption Russ is making here, and how those assumptions indicate that he must be a badass teacher. He assumes and practices feedback with grading, and can’t even seem to imagine a system where the points matter this much to be even having this conversation. Perhaps Russ has already left us for the Elysian fields of assessment, but he makes a fantastic point: who cares about the points, if the student got the information about how you think they’re doing? Awesome.
The fight here is really about what you want to communicate with that grade, and you have to think about it, for the sake of your students. Do I want them to accumulate a grade all semester that will either be a monkey on their back or a soft padding to ease end-of-the-year lallygagging? Or, do I want them to know that their grade reflects what they know, how well they improve, and how well they retain?
Here’s how I see dropping the lowest grade from a student’s standpoint:
- Collect as many points as possible in whatever topics you want, often never knowing what you know or don’t know, and hope test questions will be about topics you’ve managed to “get.”
- Dropping the lowest grade means I can ignore important material altogether, if the teacher chunks assessments like most teachers do.
- Dropping the lowest means that points have no connection to learning and really are just an accumulation game.
- If I have more than one bad day, I’m totally effed.
Obviously, this blog is in the what-they-know camp. This is also why I had to switch to a dynamic standards-based system:
- In SBG, lowest grades represent the current level of the student, dropping them destroys important information.
- In SBG, lowest grades can be erased from the grade calculation when a student demonstrates higher proficiency. (This satisfies the “bad day” argument.)
- The only way to “collect” points is to know something; points map to learning targets which in turn map to a final grades.
So, do I agree with dropping the lowest score? Only if you’re using a dynamic system that has replaced that lower score with a more accurate picture of how that student is now doing on that topic. This is of course impossible to do if you’re not mapping your assessments to specific standards, and are instead just giving random numbers of questions just to fill the 20 minutes a quiz “should take up.”