Unhelpful Grading Practices (Pt. 3 of ??)

When points and learning diverge, we get jewels like…

6. Extra Credit

Two things that annoy me more than anything else: 1) Those chairs with the uselessly small and unnecessarily tilted desks attached, and 2) students asking for “extra credit.”

Built with good intentions, it does little to meet its desired need.

What is it, exactly, that students are asking for when they ask for extra credit in a points system? Does it come from a desire for deeper understanding? Or a desire to further demonstrate mastery? No, in many, or most (or all?) cases, it is a way for students to get better grades without mastering a) the content or b) the grading game.

I don’t blame students for it. It is a natural consequence of a points-based system. When you’re allowed to dock points for neatness, timeliness, and conformity, it is not too much of a stretch to give extra points for Kleenex, crossword puzzles, and ability to hold one’s bladder. Even “challenging” extra credit benefits students of different abilities unequally.


7. Fake Curving (known alias: Point Pixie Dust)

What I mean by “fake curving” is what students mean when they ask “are you going to curve this test?”: Are you going to give us free points? Usually, this means adding the difference between the highest grade in the class and 100% to each student’s score. A main problem with this simplistic (or even more sophisticated) attempt to make grades look better is that it completely detaches the learning from the grade. It eliminates any incentive for students to remediate lapses in understanding. Students under this system need only to aspire to score higher than peers, rather than fully master the material. Our focus should be on helping our students learn, not helping our students get pretty grades.

To a large extent, fake curving is our way of correcting for teaching a topic poorly. But we’re not only sending the wrong message to students, but we miss out on real (gag) teachable moments:

  • If a question is bad (or fails to address the topic you intended to assess), throw it out. Don’t give it free points. You can even fix the question, and present it as a post-test assessment or class discussion. (Sidenote: Misfit questions are great for clickers!)
  • If the whole class struggles with a topic or test, address the problems directly in class. Then, give them an opportunity to reassess. One of the big takeaways from Brookhart’s book on feedback is that feedback without an opportunity to remedy is useless.


13 thoughts on “Unhelpful Grading Practices (Pt. 3 of ??)”

  1. You have such a great way of explaining the flaws in these grading practices! You are saying what I have thought for many years, but I’ve never sat down to put it out so succinctly.

    This post hit 2 of my pet peeves — extra credit and curving.

    Extra credit? Never heard of it, I tell them. Or it’s against my religion. They laugh. They know it’s bogus.

    Curving — Let’s take it to the absurd: If a test has a low average and I curve it up, then if a test has a high average, I’ll have to curve it down…! Sometimes, I even say it with a straight face — that this test average was too high, and I had to curve it downward. Some kids get that I’m joking, but others are scared for a minute or two. Then I make the point that I don’t curve.

    Again, thank you for sharing your insights.

  2. On a points system, EVERY test is curved. Some teachers curve it afterward like you state. Others curve it before when deciding the point values for each question. Do hard questions deserve more points or less points? How much to take off for missing units — each time or just once per exam? Those little decisions all add up. I think Jason Buell tweeted about having teachers all grade a student’s exam and the resulting variation in the grade at the top of the paper was astounding. All because different teachers assigned (and took away) differing amounts of points.

    That’s what I love about SBG. Does this student’s response show evidence of mastery of this standard? Done.

    1. You seem to be equating “curving” (which is the process of adjusting the reported grades to match some desired distribution) with “arbitrary scoring”, which is a completely different problem with grading.

      SBG in no way eliminates the subjectivity of grading or variance in assigning values. It eliminates (until the end of the semester) assigning relative values to different standards, but not the arbitrariness within each standard.

    2. Frank,

      I really have gotten a lot out of what you have written about SBG. Thanks!

      I’m still trying to wrap my brain around grading. I want to try SBG for Physics this year, and I’m trying to figure out the logistics of grading, or I guess “assessing” on a test, where there are various types of questions (MC, short answer essay, and problems). I don’t want ‘grading’ to be even more cumbersome than it already is!

      Also, I wonder if I’ll get arguments about giving, say, a 3.0 vs a 3.5 on a rubric, since every little point isn’t quantified, even though, as you pointed out, the points are subjective by the teacher.

      I’m actually thinking of doing sort of a hybrid system to start, since I’m completely new to SBG. Heck, I only heard of it a month ago! But, I do have certain projects and group activities that I want to ‘grade’, and I’m not sure how I would do that in the SBG context.

      I’m still puzzling it all out…!

  3. Love this series. Extra credit makes me want to throw up.

    The curving thing kills me too. This is the one that I think is so insidious:

    You get test results and take a look. If there are too many Fs you decide your test might be too hard, so you make the next one easier. Too many As, and it’s too easy, next one is harder. And yes, I used to do that. And yes, I used to do that for my class grades too. “Hey, I’ve got too many As, my class must be too easy.” Previous me makes current me very sad.

    1. The same thing happens with SBG, as teachers decide each year what standards are required for their course and what level of performance constitutes mastery. There is no easy solution, as we are all torn as teachers between wanting to teach the kids everything and wanting to meet them where they are rather than where we wish they were.

      When you have to create the curriculum, teach it, and design the assessments (as professors have to do for upper-division classes), it is very tempting to adjust things to make the results be what you think they ought to be (adjusting how much is covered, how you teach it, what homework is given, and how difficult the assessments are).

      Perhaps the best way to keep grades meaningful is to have an external assessment, like the AP tests, that can be used to recalibrate your grading system each year. If your A students consistently get 5s and your B students get 4s, you can be pretty sure that you are teaching the material of the AP class at the intended level. It is unfortunate that there are not many disaggregated external assessments suitable for SBG, so that we could diagnose where our personal expectations and assessments are missing the mark.

      1. @gas Sorry my comment was open to misinterpretation. In trad grading we adjust our points for questions, our weighting, the number of tests, etc to get the “correct” distribution of scores. That’s where it sneaks in. On the other hand, if you’re way off the mark in setting your expectation level, and you’ve got to adjust it, that’s something different. That is, in trad grading we use changing the allotment of points to change the distribution. In SBG, we adjust our standards of learning. The latter can certainly be justified, the former not so much.

        As you stated, calibration is certainly always an issue. For AP classes, passing the AP test is the sole reason it exists, so certainly the AP test is a good standard to use. Most of us in the K-12 can do pretty well with a healthy dose of vertical alignment.

  4. One of my biggest pet peeves: the “curve”. Isn’t adding 4 points to everyone’s score a linear shift? (especially when your test is magically out of 100).Sure the % increase applied to everyone’s old grade is higher for the lower students and lower for the higher students, but still. If you want to curve a test, then go completely objective and fit everyone into a normal distribution/curve. That’s a curve.

  5. @Ryan Buck
    Years ago, in a hyper competitive district (11 “valedictorians” that year), I demonstrated what a normal distribution was for an exam where the lowest score was 88%. No one took me up on the offer to “curve” the exam.

    “Extra credit” — it’s called “instead of credit” in my book. They want credit for “respirating and occupying volume” instead of understanding the material.

  6. Came across this controversy today! I do not give extra credit but today for the first time in my 3 years of teaching chemistry offered test corrections. Would this count as extra credit??

    1. I see it this way: I give grades to show how well a student knows chemistry. If a student knows more chemistry than my grade reflects, isn’t that a failure of my grade?

      One bit of advice: put in your syllabus that all retake/retries are at your discretion. I’ve had to tell more than one student that I wouldn’t allow a retake because I didn’t think they’d do any better. They had to prove to me otherwise before I’d even let them take the retake. In a 2min. conversation you can tell if the student is going to do any better the second time around and it may save you the 10min. of making/grading a retake. (I’ve even done retakes verbally through conversation and kept notes of the conversation as my evidence)

  7. In deIn defense of “curving”:

    The 100 point scale is just as arbitrary a decision as a curve. Maybe your “A” student should be getting a 65/100, or maybe they should be getting a 97/100. Doesn’t it depend on the test and how you grade it?

    I switched over to a “curved” grading system a while ago, but, rather than basing the curve on the students responses, its based upon the questions themselves. If the question is an important one to show mastery of the standards, that question is worth about a grade level’s number of points (8 pts. in my district), while a student can skip a difficult or esoteric question while only losing a quarter grade level’s worth.

    It means more work on my end, and it can be confusing, but if a student bombs a really hard question, they can still get an A if everything else is near perfect, while if they bomb a basic need to know question they can lose any chance of getting an A. I feel that my grades show evidence of mastery as any others I have seen, and yes, I often do “curve” my tests by giving everyone points. Unlike traditional “curving” though, it is more of a reflection of the number of test items and how I grade them than attempt to “raise my scores”.

    1. Forgive the odd “In deIn defense” copy/paste error. That’s what I get for running this through a spell-check.

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