Monday, July 23, 2012

Grade Contract: Why My Students Excelled With It

Fourteen out of the 16 years I taught in a Math/Algebra classroom, I used grade contracts.  The two years I didn't, my students scores on the Texas standardized tests went down and overall academic success was reduced, as well.  I immediately put the contract back into place and the scores jumped back up as did student outcomes.  Perhaps the biggest positive was that  my students loved the contract.

I taught middle school.  The Grade Contract came about because I was troubled when a student received a lower grade and, not having any other recourse, simply tossed it into a notebook or trash can.   I wanted them to go back to the assignment, revisit it, sit with me and gain the missing pieces that would ensure their mastery of the concepts.  However, there was little incentive to do so.  That's where the grade contacts came in.

Every year, I would provide the contracts to the student and explain the process:

  1. Contracts were voluntary.  Parents could absolutely decide their child would not participate (but in my 14 years with them,  not one parent ever did.)

  2. Students AND their parents chose a grade of A or B.  This meant that the student agreed to correct each and every assignment to their selected grade of A or B.  No exceptions.

  3. If a student and parent disagreed on the grade choice, the parent always won.  Period.

  4. Student corrections could not simply be a piece of paper with the correct answer.  (Ex:   Wrong answer was False, student turns in True)  Instead, the students must show their work completely and explain what the mistake was and how they corrected it.

  5. Students must turn in the original assignment with the corrections.  Losing the original work meant the entire assignment would need to be redone.  (Students RARELY lost their assignments.)

  6. My role in the contract was to keep the students and parents very well informed of any missing grades or low grades that needed corrections.  My role was also to provide support to the student to remediate and strengthen their skills so they could meet their contract grade.

  7. The parents' role was to encourage and motivate their students to complete the work.  When notified of a missing or low grade, the parents also agreed to support their students in their efforts to correct what was not understood to achieve their contract grade.

  8. The students' role was to do the work in a timely fashion and seek support whenever it was needed.  Oh, and the students had one more job - to celebrate with their parents when the took home that A or B. :)

The realities:

  1. Students immediately saw themselves as an "A" or "B" student.  I taught in an economically challenged area and the students dealt with some very real-life struggles that many students don't encounter.  Many of the students who previously saw themselves as a "bad" Math Student immediately changed their own perceptions.  "I'm an A student," they'd proclaim! :)  Of course, they always could have been but there was something about the contract that made it real for them.

  2. Parents and students loved the security of the contract.  They especially liked the idea that all of the concepts covered were considered important for mastery.  Most importantly, students and parents expressed openly that the contract helped with differentiation because students who needed some more time or support to master concepts was given that opportunity.

  3. Student grades improved.  In fact, few students who chose a "B" actually made a "B." Most made "A's."

  4. Standardized test scores improved (In our high stakes state, that was a BIG deal.)

  5. The first 60 days of the school  year meant that I was making a lot of contact with the parents and the students.  Inevitably, students didn't turn something in or their grade was low and they didn't correct it and I had to ensure that they knew about it.  If we couldn't get it rectified, then I needed to contact parents.  I made a lot of phone calls and worked extra time with a lot of students.  It was the most rewarding (and exhausting) experience!  I learned who my students were, learned their learning styles, and built relationships with them and their parents.  Hard work? Yes!  Worth every minute?  Absolutely!

  6. Not ever student made their contract grade.  I did have students who made C's and D's.  In all cases, these were students who had not been successful in previous years and had failed Math at least once.  In this case, I'd say they were a success.

  7. Yes, I had some students receive failing grades.  It breaks my heart to say that some of the students did fail.  This situation was very rare but it did happen.  And, because of the contact I had with the students and their parents, this only occurred with the parents and the student being 100% aware of the situation and how it had come to this grade.  When the situation occurred, we jumped right on the grade contract again and worked towards the next semester's grade.

  8. I threw my bell curve lessons out the window and had a goal of an all A class.  We came close but we never quite earned 100% A grades.

I often travel and provide professional development on the use of a classroom website as an instructional tool.   On my Sample Classroom Website that I use to provide the trainings, I have this Grade Contract.  Over the years, it's always been a joy to have someone stop by to share that they are using their classroom websites but also have had great success with the grade contracts, as well.

It may seem like an unusual idea but it was a powerful concept that improved student success in my classroom and gave the students an opportunity to focus on mastery and not a "one-time-grade-or-fail" philosophy.  They knew my goal was that they get the concepts that would help them as their education moved forward.

Below is a copy of the Grade  Contract I actually used with the students and their parents.   I'd love to hear what you think about it so please share your thoughts and, if you've used a grade contract, please share your experiences.

Grade Contract


What is a grade contract?

A grade contract is an agreement between parent, student, and
Mrs. Mortensen that the student will earn a grade of A or B.

Why do I offer grade contracts?

First of all, I KNOW that you can earn the grade that you
and your parent(s) select! Secondly, by correcting the work
that you might have had trouble with, you have a better
chance of really understanding the important material!

Who chooses the grade?

The student and parent must agree on one grade, circle it,
sign and return the attached paper. A parent and student may
also fill out the grade contract form found on my class website
at Mrs. Mortensen's Website. In cases where the student and
parent do not agree, the parent's choice will be the grade that is

How does it work?

When the student turns in an assignment, it is graded and
recorded in the gradebook. If the grade is the same (or
better) than the contract grade selected, the student will
have met their contract requirement and simply files the assignment
in their binder. However, if the student earns a grade lower than
their contract grade, they must correct the errors and turn in the
corrections and the original assignment. The assignment will then
be graded again and the new grade recorded in place of the original
grade. This process is continued until the student has earned their
contract grade on each assignment.

Why do I have to turn in the original work?

You must turn in the original work so Mrs. Mortensen will know
what errors need to be corrected.

What happens if I lose the original paper?

If you lose the original paper and you have not met your contract
grade, you must complete the entire assignment again. It is really
important not to lose your papers!

What happens if I just can't make my contract grade on an assignment?

If you find you are struggling with an assignment, and you just
can't seem to understand how to correct it, ask for help. Ask
Mrs. Mortensen, your parents, or a friend that understands the
assignment. You may also come to tutoring. If we work together,
you will meet your contract grade.

Can I just put the correct answer on my corrections?

Um, nope! For every math assignment, you must always show
your work! If you just put the answers, I'll need to ask
you to do the assignment again and show your work to receive
credit! The goal of the contracts is to be sure you really understand
all of the material and showing your work helps me see that. Don't worry,
you will understand!

What is Mrs. Mortensen's responsibility in the contract?

It is my responsibility to teach, grade your assignments and
corrections, and give you as much extra help as you need to meet
your contract grade. I also get the fun of giving out all those
excellent grades. It is important that you know that my role in the
contract also means informing your parent right away if you are missing
work, not doing corrections, or need to schedule some time for extra

What is the parent's responsibility in the contract?

The parent's responsibility is to discuss the grade contract, decide
on a contract grade, notify me when concerns arise, and encourage
their child to earn their contract grade.

What is the student's responsibility in the contract?

The student's responsibility is to turn all of their work in on
time, make corrections for any work that is below their contract
grade, ask for help when necessary, and to show off their progress
report and report card when they receive that awesome math grade.

Can I turn in late work and still make the contract grade?

Work is expected to be turned in on time. I will call home if
an assignment is not turned in because a zero means you are not
meeting your contract grade. If an unexpected problem comes up, talk
to me as soon as possible so I can work with you. If possible, bring
a parent note explaining the problem.

Can I change my contract grade?

Yes! But, in order to change your grade, your parent must send me
a note or an email requesting the grade change. If your parent does
not agree to a grade change, your contract grade will remain the same.
Please remember, your grade choices are A or B.

Does my parent have to sign the contract?

No! There is a place on the signature slip and in the online form
for your parent to sign if they choose for you not to participate in
the contract. If you do not participate, you will simply receive the
grade that you earn on the assignments when you turn them in the first

Does this apply to every assignment, even tests and projects?

This definitely applies to daily assignments and homework. Whenever
possible (and time permits), test and projects may be corrected.

Can I earn a grade higher than my contract grade?

Yes! In fact, it is common for a student and parent to choose
a B-contract but earn an A, instead.

Can I earn a grade lower than my contract grade?

It's possible for this to happen. However, it is rare.
Usually, I am able to contact you and your parent long before
this situation occurs and we work together to earn your contract

Does the grade contract apply to every class?

This contract is for Mrs. Mortensen's Math or Algebra classes only.

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