Opinion | ETHS should adopt a more holistic grading system

With the school year in full swing and students adjusting to in-person learning, teachers are also passing out syllabuses and course expectations. The multi-page documents cover class etiquette, phone policies and, of course, grading. I have always found it daunting to see the breakdown of how my grade in a class will be calculated, and especially so after a year where classes were structured, to say the least, very differently. During remote learning, finals were removed and assessments scarce. The purpose of them seemed irrelevant when a student could easily look up answers to Algebra questions or the title of an Oscar Wilde novel. However, we are no longer remote, and a part of returning to normalcy means a return to testing in school. 

Michael Pond, a Civics and AP US History teacher, was an advocate for the removal of finals and transition to the Block schedule, and since ETHS’ removal of finals, he no longer holds tests in his classes. 

“So now, with the removal of final exams, I don’t have testing anymore. And, typically, the only time that I would have a test would be for final exams,” says Pond. “Now, obviously the two classes that I teach are two very different animals. In Civics, I can be almost 100 percent skill-based, and then also show demonstrations of those skills through projects.” 

Pond also acknowledges that students in AP US History are preparing for the AP Exam, and need to develop skills to tackle that test. Rather than testing students, he finds other ways to prepare them. 

“With AP [US History,] it’s a little bit harder because I’m trying to balance out my responsibility as a teacher to students who are taking an AP class because they want to challenge because they want to see what they can do because they want to look at for college because they’re trying to get a grade bump, all those things. And those students who really care deeply about the actual College Board exam, and they’re trying to score a certain point level.” Pond adds, “So I try to do both of these things. In the pandemic, what I did was, I had students coming to me after hours to get that extra practice of working towards the exam, and I was trying to focus more holistically on skills and depth of research.” 

An important aspect to note is that, while teachers such as Pond attempt to remove testing from their classes, ETHS does mandate all classes to have some form of summative assessments make up the majority of a student’s grade in the course. 

“Every academic department requires students to complete common assessments, which are designed by ETHS to address one or more standard that is central to each subject area. The assessments are complex tasks that are part of the curriculum such as writing a research paper, designing a scientific experiment, or creating a personal-fitness portfolio,” states the ETHS website. 

ETHS’ intention with required assessments is to gauge a student’s comprehension of a subject. However, testing is not always a reliable source for a student’s true understanding. Often, it can represent them at their worst. 

Researchers from Northwestern and Texas A&M conducted a study in which the cortisol levels of students are tested on days they have tests, and on days they do not. They discovered that “students who showed the largest variations in cortisol between testing and non-testing weeks tended to perform worse on tests than expected given their classwork and performance on non-high-stakes tests, among other measures.”

The effects of test stress can filter into many areas, beyond student’s performance. The preparation of a test can be daunting and cause unnecessary distraction and pressure on a student, causing them to shirk other responsibilities. 

Instead of focusing the majority of a student’s summative grade on test scores, alternatives to grading can be made. For instance, summative assessments consisting of projects where students can represent the skills they have learned over a longer period of time or increasing the grade value of classwork and homework. 

The removal of finals was an attempt to make ETHS a more humane space, aware of the stresses those high-stakes tests put on students. To continue being dedicated to that commitment, testing should no longer be the most significant determinant of a person’s grade, if even used at all. Grading should shift to a more holistic approach, which analyzes a student’s overall dedication and performance in the entire course. This would mean the homework you stayed up to midnight completing would equate to the same value as a test; because a student should be viewed by the culmination of their accomplishments and hard work, rather than their ability to perform well on a specific day.