Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Grades, Huh, Yeh...What are they good for?

Okay...The title was my lame attempt at humor, calling on the well recognized phrasing from the song "War." Perhaps I wanted to go on to the next part of that phrasing..."absolutely nothing."

I'm not sure that I would say grades are worth nothing, but the reality is that grades are not a good indicator of what a student has learned. I know most teachers state that students have to earn the grades, like earning an allowance. What some students have learned all too well is that jumping through prescribed hoops in a prescribed manner gets them the grade they want. Taking that grade home and showing it to their parents results in smiles and hugs and dinners at their favorite restaurant and new video games. Grades have become the carrots that get kids to perform as we would have them perform. Grades are what we use to control kids. And they work for some kids and not for others. Those for whom grades do not work are considered failures.

So the purpose of grades is to control kids, to sort kids into categories of those we like and those we don't like, and to delude us into thinking that kids are actually learning what we want them to learn (which sounds like another mind-control objective). So, there are a lot of evils related to using the grading system that has defined education in America for over 100 years, but we seem to be stuck with it for the time being. (I stated that the grading system defines education. I think this is an important statement, for one would think that the grading system is only a part of education and that education defines the grading system. I am suggesting that it has been and is quite the other way around. I hope to address that topic at a later date.)

If we are to use the grading system, how might we use it best?

I will contend that the first step is to establish a clear understanding of the meaning of an A, B, etc. What are we saying about a student's work and learning when we award that student with a grade? After that, we have to consider the impact of giving a student a low grade or a high grade or an average grade. We cannot avoid the fact that awarding a student a grade is labeling that student. A student who earns an A is a star. A student who earns a C is just average, okay, nothing to write home about, but he'll do in a pinch. A student who earns a D is an annoyance. Why can't he work harder? Why doesn't he try to be like the other students? A student who earns an F is a failure--a failure as a child, as a student. We're likely to be paying his way through life forever. How can we avoid labeling students with grades?

The two questions posed here are deeply related, for it is the integrity of the grade that is in question. When a grade has integrity, it relates directly to how well a student was able to demonstrate an understanding of the concepts posed to be learned. When a grade has integrity, it is also only an indicator of where the student's learning is at that given moment in time. A grade of integrity provides direction for the student. The student is directed to revisit concepts for which he failed to show proficiency. Therefore, a grade of integrity has the potential to change to show that the student has mastered at this time what he had not mastered earlier. A grade of integrity also relates to the learning of the student relative to where the student began as a learner, rather than relative to his classmates.

We all know that some students come into the classroom far ahead of their classmates. We want them to move to 100 yards of learning and they are starting on the 90 yard line. Other students come in having done all right. They are on the 50 yard line. Still others are on the 10 yard line. At the end of the semester, the stars and those average students have crossed the 100 yard line. But those who started the furthest from the goal only made it to the 80 yard line. They failed.

But let's consider the learning that took place. The stars moved 10 yards, and for that we heap the glory on them. The average kids moved 50 yards, which certainly seems like more of an accomplishment. But those failing kids, they moved 70 yards. They didn't meet the goal set by the teacher for the class, but they showed the greatest improvement. So, why did we give them an F?

There is a lot wrong with our grading system. Maybe we should start with something new.

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