Sunday, February 17, 2013
Do We Know What Grades Mean?
I have spent a good share of my professional time over the last few years trying to figure out what grades mean. As I’ve monitored the grades of my own children and talked with parents about the grades of their children, I believe grades are used inconsistently and without a confident understanding (by the educator) as to what a grade means to him/her. I am not saying anything unfair or negative about any public educational institution. I am encouraging parents to ask questions about the value of a grade their child “earns” in a class. Robert Marzano (2006) notes “classroom assessment is to inform teaching and improve learning not to sort and select students or to justify a grade.” Also, according to Marzano (2000), in the early 1800s, Harvard developed the grading system that public schools mirror today. We’ve been using the same grading system for over 200 years. That’s a long time to implement a system that allows for no changes in culture, not to mention changes in any kind in people. That means we are using a 200 year-old system to assess learning and teaching in spite of the advancements in brain research, differentiated instruction, special education, the focus on aptitude and intelligence, the growing emphasis on state assessments, the numerous learning challenges that face today’s student because factors that are out of our immediate control, and information about various learning styles. Typically a grade in any traditional classroom is a combination of homework, quizzes and tests, projects or labs, attendance, behavior, effort, and journaling. According to Tomlinson (2000) “Grading should be closely correlated with class goals based upon a philosophy of learning and teaching and should reflect what a teacher believes about learning.” What does that mean exactly? It means that a grading philosophy should be clearly communicated to students in writing, educators should grade solely on achievement to provide a clear picture of a student’s growth, and a grading approach should encourage rather than discourage student learning. Educators spend a great deal of time grading student work. Our children spend a lot of time completing work for various classes. Schools use grades to determine eligibility in extra and co-curricular activities. Grades are used to calculate GPA and are directly tied to scholarships for those students pursuing post-secondary education (which we tell our children they must have in order to open as many doors for employment as possible). Schools award students with the highest grade point average medals and certain distinctions at graduation. With such high stakes connected to grades, teachers should be able to articulate their grading practices clearly and with confidence. Did you ever stop to consider that our kids are concerned about their grades because grades are dangled in front of them every day? Yet most teachers hate it when a student only cares about a grade, as they want the student to learn something from the assignment. Doesn’t that seem a bit backwards? The most serious flaws in our grading protocol today are using pop quizzes as assessments, grading students based on characteristics such as behavior, effort, or attitude, and assigning a zero for work not turned in. There is research to support how poor these practices are and how such practices can discourage a student from learning, but suffice it to say, all of these practices are common in the public school system. There are healthy ways to integrate these practices into the learning environment but not as a reflection of a student’s learned content knowledge. The most immediate practice by educators in the public school needs to be to take the mystery out of grading. There is no mystery in effective classroom assessment. Students should be let in on what is expected at all times. Otherwise, the power granted to educators to assess student learning is used to harm a student rather than to encourage a student.
n Marzano, R.J. (2000). Chapter 2. What are Grades For? Transforming Classroom Grading. http://www.ascd.org/portal/site/ascd/template.chapter.shtml.
n Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). Grading for success. Educational Leadership.