As a first-year English teacher, I joined the department of the high school where I had graduated only five years earlier, becoming a colleague with teachers who had taught me. That introduction to the field allowed me behind the curtain, and one of those secrets was being handed a sheet that detailed every grammar and mechanics error students were likely to make in their writing and the amount of points to be deducted from their grade (writing was assigned the traditional content/grammar grade then).
One fragment, by the way, was an immediate deduction that resulted in an F in grammar.
This was department policy, and my efforts to navigate that system were akin to Sisyphus, his rock, and that damned mountain.
Since then, well over thirty years ago, I have become a non-grader, but I also have investigated and adopted concepts about grading (since we all at some point must grade) that I believe are incredibly important in the context of seeing grading (and feedback) as a part of instruction—and not something we do to students and their work after we teach.
A teacher recently asked on NCTE’s Connected Community about subtracting points for grammar in student writing, and this is an ideal entry point to rethink how grading (especially of writing) sends instructional messages to our students.
My first caution is about a serious flaw with traditional grading that is grounded in viewing assessment situations in a deficit model whereby we have students start with an unearned 100 points from which we subtract credit by identifying errors. This fosters an atmosphere of risk aversion—which is not a healthy environment for developing literacy.
Therefore, we can send a much healthier message about student performances of learning if we acknowledge that students begin all assessment situations with zero and then give them credit for what they accomplish, what the artifact of learning demonstrates—and not where they fail.
I learned this concept of grading through my Advanced Placement training that encourages viewing writing holistically and then reading for what students do, not conducting the “error hunt.”
Conceptually, then, we must change our language and then couch our grading in a drafting process that gives students the space to take risks while receiving ample feedback as they revise and edit their writing.
Our language about writing must stop referring to “mistakes” and “errors,” while also not asking students to “correct” their work.
Instead, we should delay addressing if our students are being conventional (grammar, mechanics, and usage) until late in the drafting process when we can agree a piece of writing is worth editing (see LaBrant). The question is not if and how much to deduct for surface features not being conventional, but when to consider those issues relevant to the drafting of the piece of writing.
Our feedback during the drafting process is our instruction, and then, most of us at some point must abandon each assignment, requiring that we assign a grade, an act that also is teaching students lessons—ones that should match our philosophy of teaching/learning as well as what we want them to embrace about writing and literacy.
Here, I recommend that we take a holistic approach (I love the upper-half, lower-half concepts of the AP 9-point scale rubric*), but I also believe we should help students learn that all aspects of writing contribute to that holistic response.
The two categories we should be using to grade writing, I think, are revision (if and how students demonstrate content, organization, diction, style) and editing (grammar, mechanics, and usage). When I have graded, I weighted those categories to reflect my main lessons about what makes writing effective by using a 20-point scale articulated as 10 points for content and organization, 5 points for diction and style, and 5 points for grammar, mechanics, and usage.
In all assessment, we should be seeking ways in which grading is both philosophically matched with our instruction and a seamless aspect of our instruction.
If you are teaching students writing quality is holistic and that surface features are less significant to meaning than content, organization, and diction/style, then calculating a grade based on deducting points for errors contradicts (and probably supersedes) your lessons.
Therefore, reducing the grading of writing by students to a set of points to be deducted fails as assessment and instruction.
While most teachers have no real option to de-grade the classroom, we can step back from deficit views of student work and grading in order to embrace grading and instructional practices that create positive learning environments (where risk is encouraged) and celebrate what our students accomplish in their journey as readers, writers, and thinkers.
* The process for scoring a written response to an AP Literature prompt includes thinking in terms of a range of scores 9-8, 7-6, 5, 4-3, 2-1. Above 5 is upper half, and below, lower half. As you read, you are constantly monitoring holistically if you believe the essay is upper or lower by focusing on in what ways the student is fulfilling the expectations of the prompt and remaining accurate in the analysis of the literature being discussed. Typically, that process allows the reader to return to the rubric to refine the grade after completing the essay. If you know the response is upper half but only marginally so, then returning to the 7 and 6 rubric descriptors help refine the final score.