Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Who will pack your parachute

Here is a guest post by Cherra-Lynne Olthof. She teaches middle school math, language arts and social studies. She tweets here and blogs at Teaching on Purpose. This post was originally seen here.

by Cherra-Lynne Olthof

Battle River School Division I applaud your new grading system. I have a few slight issues with how you really are still using percentages, but on the whole you are breaking new ground and I applaud you. You’re trying to change the system and that needs to be acknowledged.

When we changed our grading system in my middle school from percentage based reporting to skill level based reporting there was huge backlash from our parents. They said that percentages were much more accurate and this new system was “wishy-washy”. As a teacher I knew the real truth….the percentage system is actually the easy way out, while the skill based reporting is far more work and requires much more effort on the part of the teacher.

Concern #1: This promotes teacher laziness.

Here’s me teaching using percentages. Assignment, Assignment, Quiz, Quiz, Test….aaaaaaand marks plunked into a computer based reporting system that spits out an average. Little to no effort on my part really, other than the time to physically mark it. And I can get around that by making it mostly multiple choice so a machine can do it for me. And so simple to justify because when a parent says….how did my kid get this mark? I have 5 marks to show them. And our entire conversation revolves around that – the mark. I don’t even need to show you the assignments because when I put a mark sheet in front of you that a computer program processed for me, you won’t even question it.

The skills based system requires that I have much more knowledge of my learner because if I am called to justify the mark I have assigned I must be able to provide evidence in the form of the child’s work. And I must be able to clearly demonstrate what your child CAN and CANNOT do. It’s the reason my students put together portfolios of their best moments. Because then our conversation is around the skills of the child and not the mark. Each time your child hands something in I must sit there very carefully and really look at what your child has proven himself capable of. This isn’t so easy. Throwing your kid’s multiple choice test through a scan tron machine takes me 10 seconds. The funny thing is….parents will accept this as a more “truthful” assessment.

Concern #2: Why change the system that works? Can’t teaches stick with percentages but just add comments?

Dylan Wiliam has 5 strategies to improve student learning. None of them involve percentage based grades.

Wiliam has shown in previous research that when students are given a grade along with feedback that students only look at the grade. They asked students with this type of assessment two questions, “What was your grade?” (Pretty much all of the students reported back immediately and accurately.) “What did your teacher say about why you got that grade?” (More than half the students were clueless because they hadn’t read it.)

Other researchers have shown the same findings (as evidenced in this blog post by Joe Bower.)

Concern #3: Although not said outright like this (because it would be mean), basically the concern is….but how will I know how my child compares to others?

There’s a danger in comparing kids using percentages. When we first switched our system we used this example to say to parents…..who is the better student?

Student A: Unit Test Mark – 75%

Student B: Unit Test Mark – 75%

The parents had no response. Was this a trick question? And so I said to them, what if I could tell you that one of these students is clearly ahead of the other? They were confused.

So I provided slightly more information. Both these students wrote a test on adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions. There were 5 questions in each section. Each student got 5 questions wrong. Who has a better grasp of them material? No one knew. So I went deeper.

It was revealed that Student A’s mistakes were quite minimal. A few calculation errors here and there. The mathematical reasoning behind their skills with fractions was sound, he was making simple mistakes like multiplying 4 and 6 and accidentally writing 20 instead of 24. But on the whole, clearly understood how to add, subtract, multiply, and divide fraction. Got 1 wrong in each section, 2 wrong in multiplying fractions. All errors that the kid recognized immediately and had nothing to do with process. 5 minutes of corrections and it was done.

Student B got everything correct……until it came to dividing questions where he got every single question wrong. He didn’t have a clue that the second fraction needed to be inverted BEFORE multiplying to find the answer. This is a processing error. And since the outcome clearly states that students need to be able to add, subtract, multiply, AND divide fractions…..? This student would not receive a passing grade in my class. He clearly cannot do all four and we need some extra work here.

Same mark…..but 2 completely different students with 2 completely different grasps on the concepts. The problem is that when a kid goes home and mom says, what did you get on your test? Kid responds with 75% and mom says, “That’s great! Go get washed up for supper.” Conversation over. Kids usually don’t flip open the test to see why they got the 75%. The scary thing is that many of their teachers don’t either……

In the new grading system when mom says, “What did you teacher say about your test?” My student would respond with, “I need to practice dividing fractions. I did everything else right but I got all those questions wrong.”

See how the conversation changes from what the mark is to what the skills are?


Everyone is always so concerned about how we can possibly know who is on top, who is the best, and who is clearly on the bottom. The problem is that percentage grades don’t give us the whole story, especially when we bring averaging into the mix.

I heard this story once and it really hit home with me.

Two students take a course in parachute packing. At the end of each week they are asked to pack 5 parachutes and then they are tested for effectiveness. If the parachute was packed in such a way that it would fail to open when the string is pulled, the student is give 0. If it would open, the student is given a 1. Marks are reported like this…

Student A has learned nothing in 5 weeks. His accuracy is the same at the end as it was in the beginning. 1 out of every 5 parachutes he packs still won’t open. Student B finished with a lower mark and started off really poorly. But consistently packed every parachute accurately in the last two weeks of the course.

But if all you were given was their grade in the course to choose by……who would you have chosen?

Student A has the better mark? I’ll pick him. (Good luck with that, hope the odds are in your favour!)

Neither! I’m not taking anyone unless they got 100%. (Fair enough, you’re missing out on the experience then.)

And this would be my answer….I’ll take Student B. He’s proven he can learn and improve and now has a 100% accuracy rating. Let’s go.

Obviously analogies are meant to prove a point and this wouldn’t really happen but think a little deeper about what the question is asking of you. It asks…..which student is truly the stronger of the two? The one with the better mark? Or the one who has proven he can learn and improve even though he started off as a failure?

As a teacher, my dream class is the one filled with Student Bs.

Anyways…..just something to think about…….

All I know is this. When I began skill based reporting I found that as a teacher I knew my students far better then I ever did when reporting percentages. My time spent assessing increased under this system as did my time spent preparing quality learning assessments.

Who’s being lazy? It sure as heck isn’t me.

Confession: It’s those days when I’m tired and exhausted that part of me wishes we had a percentage based system. Because that was SO much easier than what I’m doing now. And I rarely had parents question my marks. Then I remember that the way I assess now is far more valuable and I suck myself back up to return to what I know is good teaching.


  1. Fantastic post which clearly describes learning as it should be assessed. Thank you.


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