My Modified Grading Strategy

My Modified Grading Strategy preview image

The first time I experienced an unfamiliar grading policy was when I first started teaching high school chemistry in Michigan in 2015. At my school, we are required to offer (or have options) for retakes on summative assessments. There have been mixed feelings at my school about the retake policy because it can be perceived as a way for students to intentionally not try on a test and wait for a retake. My first reiteration of a retake policy, while creative, created more work for me. First, students were required to meet with me to go over mistakes and provide evidence of studying. I had to take the time to write a completely different test. In A.P. Chemistry, I was concerned this retake policy would inhibit student's ability to study for major comprehensive exams (like the A.P. Exam) and keep up with weekly new content. I was also concerned with putting in more effort (to the retake) than my students were - which I have seen be detrimental to perseverance and success on the A.P. Exam. I needed to get creative in a different way that would meet my school's policy and also prepare students for the A.P. Exam.


About the AP Exam and Studying

I want to first start by saying that I trust and appreciate the grading process for A.P. Chemistry - it is unlike any I have ever heard before. I actually have met or know many of the teachers who have made and grade the exam. That level of trust motivates me and has me more focused on preparing students for the content than trying to find what is wrong with it. That being said - the A.P. Chemistry exam is a comprehensive exam that tests a student's conceptual skills while connecting topics and content. What to focus on and how to study is a crucial area of focus.

Figure 1. Content Unit Breakdown from the 2022 Course & Exam Description.


Figure 1 shows the exam weighting of each unit on the AP Chemistry exam. When looking at this - I pose the following question: “When do you cut your losses?” In asking that - I am having us think about how much time and to what emphasis we spend on the units. It is obvious that Units 3 and 8 are the most heavily weighted; those are the units that I spend the most time in,  try to make connections and ask questions about all the time. It is this weighting that also comforts me as a teacher to “cut my losses” and move on to smaller units (like Unit 1 or Unit 5) if I feel like we are spending too much time in it; we can always save it for review.    

When you look at released practice exams and their scoring guidelines the most important thing that gets overlooked by what students are used to is you do not need a 100% to get a 5. It’s also important to know that what a 5 constitutes is different each year and depends on the student results. I have participated in conversations with readers of the exam and they recommend students spending most of their time answering questions they know - while skipping and then going back to the questions they do not have a quick answer or flow to. In sharing this information with students - I try to invoke the “cut your losses” mentality: know what you know and focus on answering that. The understanding of how the A.P. Exam is graded has provided a comfort and confidence within me to teach (as opposed to debilitating me). I wanted to come up with a way for students to build that confidence of knowing when to cut their losses.

In thinking about what this “cutting losses” and building confidence looks like - I had to look at an example scoring of questions. Many free response questions require training to grade and navigate answering. The biggest feedback I hear from readers is “ATFQ” ; that is ANSWER THE FREAKING QUESTION. I had a dilemma. How do I get students to focus on answering the freaking question whilst also learning to build confidence to cut their losses? How do I also do this while only having them for 60 minutes a day? How do I come up with something that does not sacrifice the time it takes for me to grade? I had to come up with a unique grading system centered around my summative assessments. 

To not sacrifice time in class - I do not give big unit exams - but rather short quizzes every two weeks. I usually tell students two weeks (or more) in advance what topics will be on this quiz, including any review topics from previous units. I do not use class time to review. The quiz will be given in one 60 minute period, but may not take all 60 minutes. I just assess whatever we have learned in the previous two weeks - and find or create free response questions that cover the topics. 

I tend to not put multiple choice questions on the quiz since I start every class with A.P. Style multiple choice questions as my openers. The A.P. Style multiple choice questions come directly from A.P. Classroom and often connect to the topics or units we have learned. I retype those questions into an application I use called SLIDO  and time them for 90 seconds, so students practice pacing themselves for multiple choice questions.  


Here is where I had to get unique with my quizzes:  There are more questions/points on the quiz than are required to earn a 100%.

Why? The A.P. Chemistry exam does NOT require students to earn a 100% to get a 5 - and so I want to carry that mindset to students on quizzes.

How does this work?  I tell students the topics/type of questions on the quiz in addition to specifics on additional questions that I call “HELP.”  I call it “HELP” for several reasons: (1) completing or understanding these questions will “help” them - long term - be successful on A.P. Chemistry topics, (2) so these questions are not confused with “extra credit” as in it is extra work not required - or the taboo around doing extra credit just for points and (3) earning credit on these “HELP” questions will help their gradebook by being applied to missing assignments or low quiz grades. The “HELP” often includes questions on topics from previous units or quizzes to motivate students to study cumulatively. It does not harm students to miss these questions. If anything it helps students to answer these questions if they remember them better than what we currently know. I chose to delineate a separate section of “HELP” questions to smooth the transition from the usual way of taking school summative assessments topic by topic; that way students can be motivated to retain and learn concepts in a cumulative way. As we move toward the end of the school year, the “HELP” begins to become smaller and smaller (or disappear) as students are expected to know all the units and topics cumulatively on the A.P. Exam.  

How do I grade it?  With ease! I never have to worry or have that conversation of “should I give this student the point?” I actually go on the harsher end of grading and either give or do not give the point for questions that I am unsure of. I also decide on what the total points will be out of AFTER I grade all the quizzes. I grade ALL questions, evenly and consistently with typical A.P. chemistry scoring guidelines, including the “HELP” questions. To determine the total points, I usually look for the mode grade and decide that is the most amount of points that a student would need to earn to get a 100%. For my classes, a mode is a better representation of scores rather than the average. (The average can be decreased by students who missed the quiz or are outliers; just not a good representation of my data.) Any students who score more points than the total required for a 100%, can use those points for any missing assignments or previous low quiz grades (a creative method of credit recovery). I am also able to gather data on questions that require review and the topics of the most missed questions (or lowest scoring questions) usually end up on a future assessment as HELP.

This method of grading often saves time for both myself and my students on having to worry about retaking an assessment from weeks ago, and has us dedicate our time to our present work. 

Figure 2. My slide preparing students for quiz.


Figure 3. My Quiz #1- Composition of Mixtures


Figure 4. How I prepare students for my 3rd Quiz


Figure 5. Quiz #3 - Intermolecular & Intramolecular Forces


This way of grading has helped my students focus on studying past and current topics - whilst learning not to waste their time on quizzes trying to answer a question they’re unsure of. I have also seen it decrease students' anxiety with test taking knowing they have choices in their success; this is opposed to students having internal breakdowns when they know they are going to get less than a 100% because they are unsure of their answers or second guess themselves, or just have a bad day. This approach to testing has removed the “all eggs in one basket” mindset and has made my students learn to “cut their losses.”

With my current school's grading policy - I have leaned into grading quizzes and tests like this outside of A.P. Chemistry. I have seen more students focus their conversations around tests and quizzes about the content and not the points. My students say “Why is question 4 wrong, I thought XYZ” rather than “Why did I get 2 points off here?” It also keeps grading responsive and live. Students will not know what the “cut-off” on the total points is until all of the tests and quizzes have been graded. This lowers the stress in teaching and grading; what if I made a bad question? What if a lesson was not as successful as it could be? That negligence should not show up in a student's quiz or test. It also should not take up more class time - especially in a consistently cumulative and scaffolded subject area like chemistry.

Although I offer this way of grading - I still do have to follow my school's grading policy which requires we offer a retake. If a student is not earning the HELP points and would like a retake, I must (and do) offer a similar version of the quiz that I generate from A.P. Classroom. In doing this, my administration can see I am abiding by our grading policy. However - because of the way I assess, I rarely have to offer retakes and students feel better about learning. I have also suggested this way of grading to some colleagues who teach other A.P. courses to help ease the stresses of grading in an A.P. class; for example, a friend & colleague teaching A.P. English would create projects in which students needed only to complete certain parts to earn full credit, but could go beyond to earn credit recovery points.  

By the time I have students take the A.P. Chemistry exam - they feel confident. They do not waste time. And with questions they are not confident about - they truly learn to cut their losses.