Sunday, 2 February 2014

My Grading IEP

I used to like math. I liked how everything made sense, how math quantified the abstract, and used numbers to tell a story. A story with clear answers, gradually revealed, all of them fitting together to reveal a larger puzzle.

Then, abruptly, math stopped making sense. There were no clear answers any more. I became confused. Worse, I became sad, as I was now struggling to deal with something that I used to enjoy... something which had now become a chore. A chore I wanted to avoid.

Wait, hold on, wrong subject... silly me.

I should get a clue.

I used to like grading. I liked how everything made sense, how grading quantified the abstract, and used numbers to tell a story. A story with clear answers, gradually revealed, all of them fitting together to reveal a larger puzzle.

Then, abruptly, grading stopped making sense. There were no clear answers any more. I became confused. Worse, I became sad, as I was now struggling to deal with something that I used to enjoy... something which had now become a chore. A chore I wanted to avoid.


Let me be clear on two points right from the outset:
1) Grading on standards (rubrics) rather than points is a philosophy I agree with.
2) Grading on standards is the single biggest reason I am considering leaving the teaching profession.

You may not believe this, but ten years ago (as a student teacher) I used to enjoy grading. I'm hyper organized, and I thrive on repetitive tasks. More than that, grading was a chance to see what was getting through, and what still needed work. The only real issue was volume - I remember suffering complete burnout one year teaching summer school, having to take a day simply to catch up.

Still, the process itself wasn't so bad. Then (pretty early on) I was introduced to the communication rubric, and T's/C's (technical/communication errors). Which was also fine. Better in a sense, as it meant I didn't have to deduct silly half marks for sign errors. I could flag "T"s and mark overall communication.

But soon after I needed to create my own rubrics. Then dispense with points. Then have tasks that could address various levels. The grading became a matter of "professional judgement". I distinctly remember saying to someone, "Why are am I being asked to mark like an English teacher??"

I am a mathematician. I have spent most of my life devoted to studying and embracing numbers. To me, "using my professional judgement" means deciding whether this is a 2 or 3 mark question, and whether that's a half mark off or a Technical flag... not saying "ah, that's a 73%". WHAT? No, that's... I don't know, what you do when you're marking an essay.

Picture yourself as a computer technician. You are an expert at troubleshooting PCs. Except you never see them - everyone keeps bringing you their Macs to repair. Um, sure, they're computers, and you'll get better at handing them as you go, but it's hardly what you signed up for, right?

That's how I feel.


Standards Based Grading does make sense. It's more flexible, perversely less arbitrary, and makes the student think about what they did rather than tally up points. Again, I'm NOT against SBG. But to use an analogy, using Macs rather than PCs also makes sense. (Oh snap!) That doesn't mean you can simply haul off Mr. Root's PC and give him a Mac, claiming "here, this is better". You also need to give Root:

1) INCENTIVE. Humans are creatures of habit. You can't merely tell me SBG is better. You need to explain why. More, you have to do it in a way such that I UNDERSTAND - which may be very different from how someone else understands! In my case, this has been accomplished, so I don't want to dwell. I am on board with having this albatross around my neck.

More Magic: The Gathering
with Monty Python at the MtG Lair
2) SUPPORT. An albatross is not easy to cart around - one needs both time, and strategies, in order to learn how to deal with it. I've been extremely lucky here, in that the math department at my school has been beyond supportive. Plus there's twitter and other online communities. After five years, my misery is almost completely internal, there's not much more anyone else can do for me.

3) UNDERSTANDING. This is the killer. Do you understand that SBG is an albatross for me? Even if it isn't for you? Maybe the bird is smaller than it once was, but the idea that I can look at something and say "That's Level 3-!" (72%) instead of "That's Level 2+!" (68%)... that's HARD. That's DAMN HARD. It's not math! More, it makes ABSOLUTELY no difference whether I'm getting good at it or not - it's HARD! Even after five years! Can you understand that?

I called this post "My Grading IEP" - Individual Education Plan - because in Ontario we have such IEP plans for students. For instance, students have one if they need proximity to the instructor, or prefer verbal cues, or if they are gifted in some subject. Well, I'm telling you that I have an IEP as far as grading papers goes. I NEED EXTENDED TIME.


No, please, hear me out! I am not saying this lightly.

I know, some of you are saying "suck it up", or "I've been there it gets better", while others are ready to offer me coping strategies. (Don't say "return to points", that's not an option. Hybrids don't seem to work for me.) Thing is, I've tried some coping strategies. Doing 5 papers per night to have 25 by end of week? It doesn't work for me; I can maybe mark all of page 1 for a set of 25 in a night, but not 5 individual papers. Partly because I need to get a sense of that page for the class, but also because I'm a lot more "all or nothing". I'm working on it.

Put a few checkmarks and circles on a paper, no comments, then move on? Or mark with highlighter? That doesn't work for me either, because firstly, if I'm still marking all of page 1, then 2, then 3, by the time I go back to tally up the level, I'll have forgotten exactly what the problem was. Effectively, I'd end up marking the test twice. Secondly, it would involve turning off the editing part of my brain, and a year ago I babbled on about how I can't seem to do that either.

At present, my method is to go through and mark all my papers... then instead of 20 seconds to tally up points (because what points?), I take 2-3 minutes to decide what part of what expectations have been met, most likely assigning a level to each of them, and averaging the expectations together in my head to arrive at a final percentage I can live with. For a class of 30 students, this is 60 TO 90 ADDITIONAL MINUTES.

I'm not going to claim this is a "math" thing either. For all I know, English teachers have it harder - at least I'm being asked to completely realign my thinking as I move to a new system. My suspicion is that they're being asked to completely realign their thinking while working within the SAME system. Going back to my analogy, it's like keeping the PC but after years of Windows XP you're expected to transition immediately to Windows 7. Not so simple.


This always hits home at the end of January. During the semester, I can artificially create time, by spacing out my evaluations. Can't do that during exam week. In the span of 5 days, I have over 9 hours of duties (administering exams), 3 sets of exams to grade, 3 sets of report cards to generate, plus an entirely new semester to prepare for. Oh, and throw in 3 sets of summative tasks to grade too, since I never have time to get to those earlier, what with spending time SETTING exams and finishing final tests.

It is hell for me.

This year, the week before exams, I was seriously considering falling down the stairs as an "out". No joke. Possibly the only thing that kept me from doing it was the fact that I don't actually want to paralyze or kill myself.



I completely understand if "suck it up" or "heck with SBG" is still your response at this point. Fine. I know we don't have IEPs in the real world. Everyone has to do the same job in the same amount of time, whether you're a teacher or a doctor or whatever. However, I will say again: Standards Based Grading is the single biggest reason I am considering leaving the teaching profession.

Why? Because it is an internal issue.

Problem students come and go. Any issues with colleagues aren't a source of extended stress to me either. Even government politics and policies have a limited life span, albeit on a somewhat larger time scale - and by the way, I don't see SBG as a policy, I see it as a cultural shift.

All of that is external. Marking on rubrics, without points, without using the math that has been at my very core for so long... that's internal. That's a chore. That's something I'm constantly wrestling with. It is exhausting me. And I don't know how much longer I can deal.

Do you know anyone else like me? Are YOU like me? Because that's why I'm writing this. You're not alone. Then again, this whole post may still make no sense to the majority of you! Either way, feel free to drop me a comment below.

I know perception is part of the battle too.

By the way, I switched to a Mac over 5 years ago. Liking it. Found that transition to be tons easier - go figure.


  1. I say: ditch SBG!

    While I agree with lots of SBG, philosophically, I'm increasingly skeptical that it provides anything like huge learning differences for kids. (I spent a while chasing this idea on my blog.)

    No grading policy or philosophy is objectively good. There are just things that work for different people.

    I don't think anything that I said there was helpful, but anyway, I think it would be a shame for the profession to lose you over something like SBG.

    1. I feel the same in that the philosophy makes sense - which, caveat, may be the only link between Ontario and the SBG that's happening down in the states. And it's not that it's not working, it's that it's taking FOREVER, and making things a misery. Of course, teaching to expectations is mandatory, so there's that.

      Appreciate the sentiment, regardless. Also like your post about "4 things more important than SBG" because it references other things that have been on my mind. I'll toss it in here for anyone else who wants to read:

    2. I guess what I'm saying is that if SBG takes a ton of time then that's part of the costs of SBG. SBG can't be both right for your students and overwhelming. If SBG takes you a long time, then that's to the detriment of SBG and it counts against it.

      I'm also skeptical that SBG really does much for learning once you put together an assessment scheme that includes cycling, frequent assessment and timely feedback.

  2. I agree with you 100% Greg. I feel exactly the same way. You add so much creativity to your math lessons, and you do so much else for the students and the school, it would be a huge loss if you left teaching. But, I hear ya, loud and clear! Unfortunately, I don't have any good advice for you except, start with a leave of absence if you need to.

    1. Thanks; I keep meaning to look into the mechanics of an X over Y. What's the most frustrating for me is that I WANT it to work, and thought it might with time, but I have yet to be in a good place come exam time.

  3. Hmmm. This is a tough one for me. As an employee at a private research and development firm, my gut-instinct is to say "Suck it up". I mean, I've been working 60+ hours a week for the last 7 years (paid for less than 40 on average), and making WAY less than your average teacher for that entire time. Over the last year I've been working 70 hour weeks (occasionally pushing up to 80 with unpaid Saturdays and Sundays) in order to attempt to combat the increasingly poor economy.

    So, there's a part of me that always wants to slap teachers that complain about long hours. But it's a small part of me.

    Because, see... fundamentally, just because *I* have to work ridiculously hard (and most people do) doesn't make it *right*. If I had any power to control things like actually working a reasonable number of hours a week, I would totally do so... sure, it's lamentable that I have to work so much longer and be paid so much less than you, but the flip side is that I don't want to take these things away from you as a result!

    It's like... okay, you have an apple. I don't have an apple. The solution to this problem is not taking away your apple... it's finding some way that either I can have an apple too, or at the very least that you willingly share some of your apple with me. That make sense?

    Back to your problem: may I suggest an alternative? This is going to come across as a little callous, but... let your standards slide.

    Gasps of indignation! Horrors!

    No, seriously. I'm forced to constantly remind my team that I don't need perfection... I need great work that's done quickly. And of those two qualifiers ("great" and "quick"), "quick" is the more important by MILES.

    Don't be sloppy! Don't let your standards slide to the point you're doing bad work, of course. But switch your focus from doing your current quality of work faster, to trying to think about how to do fast work with a degree of quality.

    How would that work? No idea. I'm not a teacher! But I believe you can come up with a way. You're a smart guy, after all. :) Good luck!

    1. As far as the hours thing goes, appreciate your sense of "rightness". I think part of the problem comes from the stereotypical "40 hour work week" (including lunches). I've analyzed my hours as on average 9.5 per typical day, which manages to come in under 50 hours in a week - and of course you're doing even more than that. (Full analysis is here: )

      As to the matter at hand - yeah, perfectionism is a problem. I think you're onto something there. I tend to agonize over levels far more than I should, even attempting to pull in mathematical averages for exam totals across strands. COULD I do it faster? Probably. Would I be able to LIVE with myself? ... Hm. That's a question I think I'll have to balance with not being of much use to people in the state I end up in, at the rate I am going. It's definitely food for thought.

    2. I agree that the "40 hour work week illusion" is certainly a problem. Of course, the almost-three-months-of-vacation thing also hurts. But I'm trying not to be sour-grapes about this, honestly. I'm just jealous.

      And I sympathize with the battle against internal perfectionism. I do. But I think you have to find balance in all things. And if your perfectionism in this case is harming you, then I think it's a sign that you're off balance.

      It's not settling. It's becoming better at your job.

  4. The saddest thing I read today : "...I am considering leaving the teaching profession."

    Hope it doesn't come to this, G!

    1. Aw, thanks. Actually, I hope it doesn't come to it either, but I am having trouble finding a workaround I can live with. Leaving is definitely not high on my list of possibilities, but the chance isn't 0% -- which puts it higher than I'm used to. But then again, things look their worst immediately after the hurricane has hit. A few weeks of thinking things over should help.

  5. Hey, Michael. Good to see you back.

    Hey, drama queen. Don't be silly. SBG is moronic. Doesn't help with learning. You can achieve the same thing by tossing in test questions on prior topics. Don't quit teaching. Your cartoon characters would cry.

    1. Well, and it's not strictly SBG in Ontario, but the philosophy of teaching expectations and teaching without points. (As was pointed out to me on Twitter, perhaps not so much that last, but it's kind of tangled up with the first.) At the least, I'm not about to quit without giving myself time to deal with the big picture. Plus cycling topics is something I want to think more about too. New semester, new perspectives; I will consider my characters, and people as well.

    2. It's not so much cycling topics. I just tell my kids that they could get a question on any topic we've covered previously.

      That's separate from cycling topics. So, for example, I could be building a test on quadratics that has two questions on linear equations or incorporates a linear equation into a word problem. Cycling is when I give kids a lesson on systems of equations, say quadratics and linear, so they get a chance to review linear. Or use orthocenters and medians to review coordinate geometry concepts.

  6. First, let me offer vibes.

    It sounds like marking has gotten fuzzy, which doesn't mesh with math well. SBG sounds like a good idea, but the implementation doesn't sound like it was developed with math and, to a lesser degree, science in mind.

    Using your metaphors, when switching to a new OS, the user is usually sent on training to deal with how the new system works. At the same time, it doesn't sound like you're changing from PC to Mac, but from Mac to Linux without the training needed to exploit the OS fully.

    At the same time, you need more time. I don't think you're alone there. The two weeks that you're given doesn't seem like enough, not with the class sizes you have. Five fewer per class might help out, but that needs political will, something that most jobs don't have to deal with.

    Maybe teachers should have TAs at the secondary level...

    1. Ooh, I like the Linux analogy... given I don't recall exactly what it is, so I'd struggle even more. Mite perplexed by your mention of "two weeks" - it's pretty much "two days". (Have all your exams? Great, then 36 hours later, you're teaching a new semester. Granted, marks aren't due for a little time after, but wha?)

      Don't think teachers should have TAs though. Then they'd probably want us to do more research, or something else -- that's part of the reason I didn't think post-secondary teaching would be a fit for me.

    2. Linus is an open source Unix, to be very general. I was looking at the complexity. :) Ah, I misread one of your earlier blog posts - two week exam period, not even two days to mark.

      I've been trying to figure out a way to either increase available man-hours for all of teaching or reduce the number of students and assistants, maybe student teachers but I don't know the processes involved there, seemed the best way to reduce total hours by increasing the number of humans involved. Of course, reducing class size might work better. Or teaching teams, so that two teachers mark the exams, each taking half.

      I don't think the problem is you as it is a problem with the situation - there are only so many hours in a day and you're being overworked.

  7. One thing I've done is assign partial credit to problems such that students get "about what I'd have rated them as" when I add up the points. So if the first five problems are generally about Standard X, then they'd be worth a total of 4 points, with the simpler questions (or parts of questions) worth fewer points than the more complex parts. I've found this makes the grading a lot quicker while still giving results that match what I expect when I grade the test more holistically.

    This might work better because I also tend to favor shorter assessments focused on one or two standards whenever possible.

    1. Yeah... I tend to call that a "hybrid system", and people in my department have experimented with it in the past. I find it tricky to be marking something qualitative in a quantitative way though -- but then again, I don't seem to be having much luck with doing it in a qualitative way either!! So I'll keep it in mind; thanks for the input.