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NYC Helpline: How To: Assessing Prior Knowledge
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Report Cards for Middle School
Completing End of Term Procedures

Report Cards for Middle School  Lisa Peterson

At the end of the first marking period of my first year of teaching, I can remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom surrounded by piles of papers, wondering how I was ever going to translate them into report card grades. I managed to do this; but for my first few years of teaching, the process was somewhat arbitrary. I would look at all the grades, count long and important assignments two or three times, and average it all together. I would write some appropriate comments on the report cards, put whatever assignments were available into a folder and explain it all to parents as best as I could.

The process got much easier for me (and much clearer for the students) when I transferred to a school where the principal required us to establish grading criteria from day one. (I have always taught in schools that use numerical grades along with a limited number of comments. The process will be very different if your school uses narrative report cards.)
At the beginning of the year, we need to decide what components will determine a student's grade and assign a percentage to these components. For example, in my middle school humanities class (a combination of language arts and social studies), my grading criteria are as follows:

  • Projects: 25%

  • Tests and quizzes: 25%

  • Reading journal: 15%

  • Homework: 15%

  • Notebook: 10%

I record information about each component on a separate page of my grade book. When it comes time for report cards, I enter the component grades on an Excel spreadsheet and use a formula to calculate the grades in one click. Many other teachers I know have purchased special software designed for this purpose, which takes even less work and has the added advantage of printing out individual score reports. If you don't have easy access to computers, you can simply weight each area equally and average them with a calculator (although this doesn't give you as much flexibility in weighting different areas.)

I like this approach for many reasons. First, I can adjust the grading criteria each year to make sure that student grades truly reflect their performance in my class. Some things we do are more important than others, so they should count more heavily towards the final grade. Second, I can reward student effort. By simply turning in all homework and keeping all class notes and handouts, students earn 25% of their grade. Because effort also plays a big part in the grades for projects and the reading journal, students who really try are practically guaranteed to pass my class, even if they have difficulty with test-taking. Conversely, students who take tests well but don't complete assignments can't slide by without doing any work. Finally, knowing exactly what is expected of them helps students become more responsible. The criteria provide guidance for students who want to improve their grades. On the other hand, adolescents love to test adult limits, so having clear criteria prevents students from trying to manipulate the grading process. While they don't always appreciate it at the time, students do understand that their choices affect the final outcome. As one young man said to me after conducting a quarter-long homework strike, "At least I KNOW why you failed me." Not ideal, perhaps, but hopefully a lesson in making good decisions!

As a new teacher, you may find it difficult to set grading criteria because you are constantly experimenting with different ways of doing things. It's fine to change the criteria after a quarter as long as you inform the students. You also might want to include relatively open components that allow you some discretion, such as "participation" or even a "miscellaneous" component. The object is for your grades to reflect a student's actual performance. A student shouldn't be passed or failed based on the criteria if you truly don't think that judgment is deserved. This doesn't mean you should blithely throw out your criteria on a regular basis, but you may need to be flexible as you experiment to find a set of criteria that accurately reflect student achievement.

Another difficulty that I had as a new teacher was that units tended to run over the length of the marking period. It was hard to use projects as 25% of a student's grade if the project wasn't even finished. It's fine to use grades for part of a project, such as the notes, and then use the remainder of the project grade during the next marking period. It's also fine to give a mid-unit test if you don't have enough test grades and haven't finished a unit.

As you set grading criteria, here are some components you may want to use. Don't try to use too many; it's more manageable for everyone if you stick to five or six.

  • Journals

  • Projects

  • Tests and quizzes

  • Notebooks/folders

  • Lab reports

  • Book reports

  • News summaries / magazine article summaries

  • Participation / discussion

  • Homework

Any other activity you do regularly in your class can be included. Behavior, however, is usually awarded a separate rating and shouldn't affect the academic grade.

When report card time rolls around, using your grading criteria should make your life a little easier. You can communicate to students and parents exactly where the students' grades came from and exactly how they can be improved. If you have your students save samples of their work from each component, you can easily demonstrate what you mean. Finally, the criteria can help you focus your comments in a meaningful way.

 

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