Few challenges have any more ability to erode a home educator’s sense of confidence than the responsibility to assign accurate grades. Most parents feel like they are “standing in spaghetti” when it comes to evaluating their children’s academic work, and many attest to an overwhelming impression that their best efforts are inconsistent. Others are driven consciously or unconsciously by their own memories of school days long past and thus reinforce procedures with little understanding of the rationale behind them or react to perceived injustices with inappropriate concessions in their own teaching. This dilemma can be solved with a little effort by correcting some common misunderstandings, understanding some basic evaluation principles, and developing good habits in planning objectives for each educational program.
1. Letter grades are the “shorthand symbols” that the educational system uses to describe the quality of a student’s performance on a given task.
While it is certainly possible to use any set of letters or numbers to summarize your report of a child’s academic progress or individual performance, in most academic situations the letters A, B, C, D, and F function like common currency in our society. Everyone assumes that these letters communicate specific values, and it is expected that an A is better than a C, and proportionately a C is better than a D or F. If you choose to use any other means of communicating academic progress (e.g., a scale of 5–1, where 5 is outstanding and 1 is unacceptable, or a scale with alternate letters, where S=superior, E=excellent, G=good, F=fair, and U=unacceptable), make sure that you provide an explanation of your scale with the report.
2. Objective and subjective evaluations require different grading methods.
Many local school systems and even a few state departments of education try to standardize grading by designating a range of percentages to each letter, but these efforts generally fall short of the level of precision that administrators desire for the simple reason that academic tasks vary greatly. Some school work can be evaluated objectively in the sense that the answers are clearly right or wrong (e.g., spelling tests, math quizzes, tools that examine accurate recollection of facts or definitions, grammatical analysis, labels on diagrams, etc.), and thus the end result is easily quantified with a percentage score. Other tasks require an extensive rubric of subjective judgments, such as rating scales for thought progression, thoroughness of research, accuracy of documentation, quality of presentation, interaction and progression of discussion, and more (e.g., essays, research papers, speeches, literary discussions, scientific experiments, performances in the arts, etc.). The following diagram lists adverbs and adjectives that would be appropriate for describing a student’s performance in subjective areas, so that you can effectively begin to work your way from anecdotal descriptions to letter grades.
3. Mastery learning must be distinguished from the disciplines of content exploration as students mature.
Much of the learning during the toddler, preschool, and primary years would be described by the education community as “mastery-oriented.” In other words, the lesson ends only when the student completely understands how to do what is required: recognize letters and sounds, decode words, count and compute accurately with basic arithmetic facts, etc. What this means by way of report cards is that children earn either an A or an F—they know the material or they don’t. And if they don’t, more instruction and practice need to be provided until they do.
During the middle school years, the basic skills learned in early childhood should be expanded and applied to a variety of content areas. Thus, in the realm of home education, fourth grade (or when the student is 8 or 9 years of age) would be an ideal time to begin documenting progress on a traditional report card.
While the high school years certainly require increased growth in content exposure and understanding, the focus must now be adjusted to include quality of performance and a comparative evaluation of the amount of content explored within a specified time frame. Grades that are recorded on high school transcripts should reflect both mastery of material and the character issues that influence achievement (e.g., punctuality, thoroughness, enthusiasm, resourcefulness, creativity, attitude, etc.).
Many home educators fail to recognize the importance of this transition and continue to practice the “mastery learning” evaluation philosophy throughout the teen years, thus taking extended periods of time to achieve an “all-A” report card and doing their children serious harm by failing to train them for the “real world,” where the schedule is not “all about them.” Some practical suggestions for avoiding this trap include policies such as a letter grade per day reduction if a project is completed late or no extension to study another day for an examination because “life has been a bit chaotic here at home lately.”
4. The more specific your course or project objectives are, the more accurate and consistent your grades will be.
No doubt, all of us are familiar with this warning: “If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it.” In the evaluation realm, we might change the statement to say, “If we don’t know where we’re going, how shall we know if we have arrived?” If the project descriptions in your daily or weekly lesson plans are limited to phrases such as “Cover pp. 148–165” or “Write a book report” or “Finish Chapter 5,” you will not be equipped to discern the level of success your child has achieved. Instead, you will have locked yourself into a position of checking off the assignment with a “Pass/Fail” evaluation that indicates little more than the fact that the material has been read. Unless you specify up front some details about the degree of success you require to earn an “A” with reference to comprehension, synthesis, analysis, communication, etc., you will have no yardstick to measure the comparative “B” or “C” grade.
Remember the days when you were a student. If you cared about your grades at all, it was very important to you that your teachers clearly identify their expectations. Your children are not much different. Take the time to list the goals for each project on index cards, and review the assignment thoroughly with your student at the outset. Then ask your student to keep a time log on the back of the cards as he works to fulfill the goals. The card should be returned to you with the completed project so that it can become part of the permanent record file that you will use to determine final grades and ultimately to prepare high school transcripts.
When you list the goals for any project or course, be sure to use behavioral terms so that the student knows what he/she is supposed to do to demonstrate that learning has taken place. For example, a course in “Child Development” that is completed for high school credit might include some of these objectives:
1. Commit to one school year of assisting the teacher in the Beginner Department of our church’s Sunday School.
2. Arrive 30 minutes early every Sunday to greet children as they arrive, and play appropriate games with them.
3. Participate in Sunday School activities as directed by teachers.
4. Assist with cleanup.
Detailed objectives for specific activities or segments in the course might be written like this:
1. Listen to assigned workshops in child development, and outline the content.
2. Add to your outline examples of these principles as you have observed them at work in children’s lives.
3. Choose one principle to implement in your Sunday School “lab” experience.
4. Write a summary report about the results.
Yet another project example could look like this:
1. Research at least six indoor games that are appropriate for the children.
2. Teach the games to children during the wait time before Sunday School starts.
3. Evaluate the effectiveness of each activity.
Teachers’ editions of textbooks are very helpful when writing objectives. You don’t have to use everything that is printed there, but the time you save by skimming over the ideas will be well worth your effort. A teacher’s guide usually offers valuable assistance in figuring out the formulas by which you will determine final grades for courses, i.e. answering questions about how much weight you should assign to tests vs. quizzes vs. practice drills vs. rough drafts, etc. when averaging the final grade. Since every course is different, most teachers’ editions for textbooks also provide a sense of direction for how the material was intended to be used, what information is deemed essential, and what is considered optional according to conventional school standards.
Finally, objectives should not be limited to what educators call “the cognitive domain” (or exercises with the mind). Be sure to apply the knowledge that you want your children to accumulate in practical ways that are demonstrated in “the affective domain” (expressed by the heart with attitudes and feelings) and “the psychomotor domain” (things we produce with physical activity).
5. Wise teachers refuse to be intimidated in the grading process.
Ironically, the same issues that worry home educators also trouble professional educators—so take courage from the fact that formal education credentials don’t guarantee concrete answers to all the questions. Parents often ask, “How do I know that my grades are the same as everyone else’s grades?” The answer is simple: No one’s grades exactly match another person’s grades. In fact, no human being is able to evaluate consistently from day to day or week to week. That is why we establish guidelines, write objectives, read an essay two or three times with some space in between the readings, have a prepared evaluation rubric at hand for scoring purposes, and occasionally ask for a second opinion from a trusted friend or colleague. It does take some effort to achieve internal consistency!
Both parents and teachers are also concerned about inflation and deflation of grades. Our culture tends to err on the side of assigning grades that are often too high in order to help students improve their self-image and encourage academic interest. Some authorities are fearful that giving a “bad grade” will result in litigious retribution or classroom rebellion, and others are anxious to a fault that their students like them. There are also home-educating parents who are fearful of listing all the A’s a child has indeed earned, lest the transcript be questioned as a demonstration of nepotism, along with others who say, “I could never give my child a bad grade.” In every case the inflation or deflation of the student’s grade reflects an erroneous understanding of the whole evaluation process. As educators we do not “give” children grades. Our responsibility is to record the grades they have earned and to make the evaluation process as accurate as possible by establishing clear goals for each educational task in advance.
The educational process—wherever it takes place—requires identification of three things: what the student needs to learn (objectives), how he/she will go about learning it (methods and materials), and how we all will know that the learning has taken place (evaluation). Grading is both a science and an art. As every great chef knows, a good recipe is tweaked through lots of culinary experiences. The dish may vary slightly every time it is served, but the “proof of the pudding” and the reliability of the kitchen increase with conscientious practice. Many of the tasks that take enormous concentration at the outset become automatic with repetition while discernment and confidence improve. You can become a master at evaluation and grading!
Accurate GPA Calculations
Every subject that is listed on a high school transcript must have a quality evaluation (grade) and a credit assignment (usually expressed in terms of Carnegie Units) attached to it. After you have gathered this information, you can calculate the student’s GPA by following these simple steps:
1. Make a chart or grid that provides space for five columns. Label these respectively as Subject, Grade, Grade Points, Credit, Extension.
2. Fill in the grid with the list of subjects your student has studied, the grade earned, and the appropriate number of grade points for that grade (usually determined on a 4.0 scale where A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0). Note that some folks prefer to use decimal increments to reflect plus and minus grades. This practice varies by locale, as do the actual decimal increments. Since your homeschool is not a satellite of the local public system, you do not need to feel obligated to match what the schools in your area are doing. You have the freedom to set your own policies, but you also have the responsibility to communicate clearly what your procedures are.
3. Pretend that you see a multiplication sign between the Grade Points column and the Credit column on your chart. The number that you will write in the Extension column will be the product of the numbers on either side of that multiplication sign. If you also pretend that there is an equal sign between the Credit and Extension columns, you’ll get the calculation absolutely right!
4. Add the total number of credits.
5. Add the total number of extension products.
6. Divide the extension total by the credit total to achieve a final GPA. Most colleges require that this number be rounded to two places behind the decimal point.
It is best to avoid using Pass/Fail grades for high school courses. Since “Pass” achieves only one grade point, it calculates as a “C” grade and thus negatively affects the final GPA. If you don’t want to grade a high school course with the customary A-B-C scale, then list the item as an activity rather than a subject in the academic history section of the transcript.
Never compute GPA’s for each school year and then average the results for the four years to achieve a final GPA. Because each year will likely have a different number of subjects in it and the subjects may have different weights, depending on whether they earn a half or whole Carnegie Unit of credit, it is crucial to count each course as an individual entity.
A “weighted” grade is appropriate for courses that are advanced, such as college courses taken during the high school years (these should be listed on high school transcripts), AP courses, or Honors courses. To “weight” a grade, simply add one extra point to the Grade Points column for that subject before completing steps 3–6. In effect, this extra point will give you a 5-point “A” on a 4-point scale, and so on.
Copyright 2009, The Old Schoolhouse®. Used with permission. All rights reserved by the author. Originally appeared in the Spring 2009 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the trade publication for homeschool moms.