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Grades. Do They Help or Hurt?

I start with a series of questions. What is the purpose of grades? Who do they serve? Do letter grades (or percentage marks) reflect “learning” or do they reflect “doing?” Let me offer some scenarios as a jumping off point to address these questions.

SCENARIO 1: Jill is enrolled in an 11th grade English language arts class where a fair amount of writing is assigned. This student is a talented writer, consistently producing work of high quality that impresses the teacher. She receives high marks on her papers and is awarded the grade of “A” as the summative mark. Does the “A” grade reflect the degree of her learning or did this student receive an “A” because of the skill she brought into the class?

SCENARIO 2: Marcus is a disciplined student. He tries his best, even in his freshman algebra class. Even though math isn’t his favorite area of endeavor, Marcus never fails to complete and submit his assigned homework and he spends a considerable amount of time memorizing the algorithms applied in arriving at the correct answers. On the unit test he scored 87% correct responses, earning him a respectable grade of “B” in the grade book. His score on the unit test indicates that he applied the algorithms with 87% accuracy. But does it reflect a reliable level of understanding of the intricacies and beauty of the mathematics he is studying?

SCENARIO 3: Julio and Ginny are both in the 7th grade choir. Neither of them elected this experience. It’s required of all 7th grade students. Both kids have pleasant voices and, when checked by the teacher, do a respectable job in memorizing their parts. Julio is a quiet boy, following directions and demonstrating respectful classroom behavior. Ginny, on the other hand, is a social butterfly and, much to the frustration of the teacher, must be constantly reminded about her incessant talking which frequently disrupts the flow of the class. When it was time to award end of course grades, the teacher gave Julio an “A” and Ginny received a “C.” Did these grades accurately reflect student learning or were they based on something else?

Jen Douchette is a high school writing teacher. In May 2017, she posted a piece on the Greater Madison Writing Project site titled “Reaching a Crossroads: Reconciling Gradeless Philosophy with a Standard Classroom.” She wrote: “In my 14 years of teaching, I have found grades to inhibit student growth. Grades are teacher-dictated, formal, and final. As a writing teacher, I always offered students rewrites if they were dissatisfied with their grades, but I found the vast majority just accepted the score as final because students define their worth by the grade they receive. The grade impacts their confidence, performance, motivation, and classroom demeanor. Students work to the level they feel expected of them, and the grade has always been that barometer.”

Two phrases jumped out: “Students define their worth by the grade they receive.” And “Students work to the level they feel expected of them, and the grade has always been that barometer.” Against that framework, what did the grades in my scenarios suggest to the kids?

Jill’s “A” grade reaffirmed what she already knew. “I’m a good writer.”

Marcus’ grade of “B” reinforces the notion that he can get through difficult subjects if he just memorizes enough stuff.

Julio is reminded that compliance is rewarded, while Ginny is led to conclude one of two things: “I’m not a good singer.” Or: “That teacher doesn’t like me.”

The bottom line is this. None of these kids received grades that were based on their growth in the given area of pursuit. These marks, which will remain a permanent documentation of their participation in a course, fail to convey anything substantive about what the student actually learned.

If we assume that the purpose of this enterprise called schooling is learning, and if the grading system doesn’t accurately reflect what students are learning, one must ask: “why bother?”

Returning to Douchette’s dilemma, she wrote: “Our educational system is built on grades and designed around placing students in categories in order to quantify their intelligence, but I’m not trying to reinvent our educational system. I just want to figure out where I fit into it, and I wonder if there is a better way to intensify our students’ drive for learning. Now I speak a language of feedback and growth. I focus on a gradeless writing classroom, a classroom where I never put a number or letter on a piece of writing, a classroom that is fluid and student-focused. Sometimes the students direct their own goals and learning, and sometimes I direct their goals, but all of it is focused on what they need to learn and how they will prove their learning. I believe in rigor and high standards, but only if those standards are designed to foster growth, the students respond to the rigor, and the grade reflects growth. When the grade does not reflect learning – which it most often does not – I question the validity of having a grade at all.”

In a system that requires attention to a prescribed set of standards, and a system deeply invested in traditional letter grading, it will require insight, courage and creativity to forge different and more meaningful paths to assess student growth and their depth of learning. If we truly aspire to teach and assess children in ways that boosts their confidence, their level of motivation and degree of engagement, we must look in new directions.

What might these new directions look like? In offering the following suggestions I am only trying to spark some new thinking. New directions require action to escape the gravitational pull of the status quo. That action may come from pondering “what if . . ..”

· What if . . . student work was reviewed, and feedback was given, not by the teacher but through a collaborative peer process? The teacher doesn’t abdicate his or her authority, only the assumption of a nuanced role. From judge and arbitrator to coach.

· What if . . . students, in consultation with the teacher, establish personal goals and benchmarks for their growth in relation to the standards? A personalized approach would certainly increase the level of student engagement and student ownership for their learning.

· What if . . . any written feedback issued by the teacher focused only on the positive elements of the student’s work, followed by a “next time” statement? “You clearly understand the inquiry process. Next time, offer a bit more evidence to support your conclusions.” The “next time” statement reinforces the idea that learning is ongoing, it builds upon itself, and the student can assume a degree of control.

· What if the awarding of a summative grade was not the product of averaging grade book entries? Rather, the grade is the result of a consultancy process between the teacher and the learner.

o “How did you do on your goal(s)?”

o “Describe what you have learned.”

o “What direction would you like to take next?”

o “If you were to give yourself a grade, what would it be? We may not agree but we’ll discuss it and come up with the grade that will go on your report card together.”

No surprises. No resentment. Rather a common understanding of the student’s current status and where they need to go to fully achieve their goals.

Now I’ll answer the questions posed at the beginning of this piece.

What is the purpose of grades? In a perfect world, grades would be an accurate reflection of student growth and learning. However, the present system fails to deliver this aspiration. Grades function more as reward and punishment, the carrot dangling at the end of a very long stick.

Who do grades serve? They satisfy the expectations of parents and the system’s reporting requirements. But, that’s not who the grade is for. It should be for the learner, a component of the roadmap for their learning. The process of learning is dependent on useful and timely feedback for growth to occur. Our traditional grading practices have little to do with offering the learner constructive support for their personal growth. Instead, they often serve as roadblocks that hinder any hope of enthusiasm for learning, as observed by Jen Douchette and documented in many studies.

Do letter grades (or percentage marks) reflect “learning” or do they reflect “doing?” If grades truly reflected student learning, we would be able to lay any number of transcripts or grade histories side-by-side and be able to have a clear idea of what each student knows and what he or she can do with that knowledge. Even within systems governed by standards, such an expectation is elusive. The scenarios I posed earlier were not the product of fantasy. Rather, they are situations that can, and do, occur in every school building every day. The professional tendency is to fall back on evidence of productivity or behavior, not learning. Productivity is easy to monitor and is easy to record. However, rewarding “doing” over learning serves no one, especially children, as it is counterproductive to the pursuit of the education kids deserve.

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