The traditional model for grades in a class lacks the flexibility required to reflect what I really think of a student. When I used weighted categories (e.g. 50% exams, 30% homework, 20% class participation), I found that some of the students passing my class didn’t really seem to deserve it, and some of the students failing my class really should have been passing. “Well, adjust your weights,” you say, and that’s a good idea: I made several improvements and was progressively more satisfied with my results.
One test of the 29 I’ll give this semester deals with simplifying exponential expressions. If a student gets 100% on each test except the exponential simplification test, on which he gets a 0%, his average will be 96.5%, A+, Honors. He doesn’t have to worry about exponential simplification at all, and he can just move on and never learn it. I’m not suggesting that this hypothetical kid be made to retake Algebra 2, of course. I’m suggesting that he be required to learn exponential simplification.
So, in my class, I require that every student earn at least a 3/5 on every single skill that we study. Then, I require an overall average of 75% on top of that minimum requirement. Students get some leeway, and they do not need to master every single subject (I understand that there are time constraints involved in my students lives, and that they may not really care about my class). However, they can’t just do well on a lot of skills and decide they’re not even going to bother with one. I am not willing to send a kid who can’t simplify exponential expressions at all to the precalc teacher.
The same philosophy can extend to homework. If you think homework is vital, make it a requirement of passing. If you don’t think it’s vital, don’t. Averaging test scores with homework scores is harmful because it dilutes the meaning of your tests and the meaning of your homework. Averaging mathematically destroys information!
At my school we only have three grades, Pass, No Pass, and Honors. Each grade has certain clearly stated requirements that I give the students at the beginning of the semester. I think that a teacher using letter grades could more clearly define what a C was and what an A was by stating the objectives vital for that award than he or she can by trying to come up with a formula to fit every student. We shouldn’t be afraid to use some criteria that cannot be expressed with percents.