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Putting peer grading to the test

Schools continue a practice that could be efficient, insightful, embarrasing or illegal

While the U.S. Supreme Court mulls over the merits of “peer grading” allowing students to grade the assignments of other students the Steamboat Springs School District has decided to continue the practice.

In the Steamboat Springs Middle School peer grading occurs in almost any class and involves homework, pop quizzes and papers.

“All the time,” Carly Earp said.

While peer grading can lead to embarrassment if an assignment is not done correctly, students say the positives can outweigh that particular negative.

“If it’s totally wrong,” sixth grader Whitney Lewis said of peer grading situations that can lead to embarrassment. “But, it’s alright afterwards. I’d rather have students grade my paper than wait a couple of days.”

“Sometimes, it’s really embarrassing. On a spelling test, if you miss a word, a really easy word, then they know,” sixth grader Barbara Lezin said.

Another sixth grader, Tyler Ostrom, said he was once embarrassed when he had to walk up to the teacher to whisper a lower than average grade, as opposed to having to call it out in class as the other students did.

But, he said he also sees the practical side of having students grade assignments like homework and pop quizzes.

“It goes really quick. We get to do a lot more stuff instead of the teacher grading all the stuff throughout the day,” Ostrom said.

This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments over an Oklahoma mother’s claim that her son’s privacy rights were being violated when students read aloud his grades in class.

In 1998, Kristja J. Falvo sued the Owasso, Okla., Independent School board claiming that having students grade each others’ homework or tests was a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Unlike most of the country’s educators, Steamboat Springs has already had to change its policy because of the case.

Colorado was one of six states affected by the ruling of the 10th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that prohibited peer grading after it heard the Falvo case.

The decision stated that graded assignments and tests exchanged between students could be considered “education records,” which fall under the confidentiality protections supported by the FERPA and that parents must give written consent before they are released.

After the 10th Circuit decision was handed down, Steamboat Superintendent Cyndy Simms said the district consulted Denver attorneys to see if the district needed to comply with the lower court ruling.

In a letter to the school district in March, attorney Christopher Gdowski wrote that the lower court ruling would find the school in violation of FERPA if students graded assignments, passed out graded work, or called out grades. But a violation would not occur if students corrected papers anonymously or parents gave their consent.

Gdowski recommended that the district hold a 15-30 minute staff training session to discuss the Falvo decision and obtain parental consent for peer grading.

As a result, this fall parents had to initial a consent form that gave permission to have students, volunteers and parents grade their child’s work, and hand out graded work.

For some schools such as the middle school, it also gave permission for students’ grades to be released if they qualified for an academic honor such as the honor roll or valedictorian.

If one parent does not give written permission, then that student’s class cannot have peer grading, Simms said.

While the Supreme Court is deciding if peer grading intrudes on students’ privacy and not the merits of the practice, Simms and middle school principal Tim Bishop both said that peer grading has a much greater educational benefit than saving teachers’ time.

“As to saving teachers’ time,” Simms said, “it might do that. But, it’s not the main reason. (Peer grading) gives immediate feedback and a look at someone else’s paper, to look more closely and be able to see errors you didn’t before.”

“Whenever you’re evaluating someone’s performance you become much more aware of the rules,” she said. “It’s a good learning practice for kids elementary to high school.”

Bishop said peer grading is used mostly in classes like science and math and allows teachers to give pop quizzes to gauge student comprehension.

“A five-question quiz is a great way to get immediate feedback to see if students understood the material. If they didn’t, teachers can reteach it in a different way that day,” Bishop said.

Even with the benefits of peer grading, the issue of not embarrassing students is still important, Simms said.

“For students having a really hard time, it’s definitely a reality and needs to come into the conversation,” Simms said. “In the long run, we don’t want to embarrass a child or humiliate a child. And, this year we did have to make some changes.”

Bishop said the middle school teachers stress that students should never ridicule other students and if that happens peer-grading stops.

But, even with the changes, students admit that they have been embarrassed.

“For writing, it is sometimes embarrassing and frustrating. If you work on something very hard and (a student grader) doesn’t get what you are trying (to) say, it is frustrating. Teachers are easier, you’re able to explain it to them easier,” Lezin said.

Even with the embarrassment, Lezin said she thought peer grading should be allowed and has its perks.

“When I get a good grade and someone sees it, then sometimes I get a good feeling,” she said.


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