Monday, July 30, 2007

The Matter of Grades

From the two keys words in my title, questions:

Do grades matter?
How do grades matter?
Should grades matter?

I am blissfully far away from the endless cycle of grading papers and generating grade reports during the school year. From this distance, I can ponder the matter of grades. SERIOUSLY, it wasn't in my thoughts at all until my friend R. talked to me tonight about her super gifted and talented son J. working on a summer project for his super G and T school, which evolved into our rant about grades.

First, a high school story. I remember being puzzled as a junior about how I got 90's in honors physics, despite being clueless about the course material and feeling like I flunked each test (but got 90 on those same tests). I certainly did not know the "grading system" of any course. FYI - I attended a prestigious magnet high school in New York City that required a standardized admissions test.

Fast forward to now. Teachers (in my school, district, area) account for every blessed tenth of a point of a grade, no exaggeration. We use a spreadsheet to calculate each student grade and make that itemized grade report available to every student/parent.

In no particular order:

Problem A: Some students and some parents (and some teachers and lots of administrators) think grades are the most important indicators of student success in school. They (these people) are WRONG. Grades are inherently subjective and, in some unfortunate cases, arbitrary.

NOT a problem: my grading errors pointed out to me. Seriously. What do I care? When I was untenured, making mistakes made me very afraid of losing my job (another topic for another day). Now, I just check to see if I made a mistake and correct the mistake. The REAL question is, why are you challenging the grade??? Do you truly wish to understand your errors or my evaluation system or how to improve? Or do you think grades are the most important thing and therefore the teacher should get it right?

Problem B: Some very smart administrators and politicians realize how subjective all school grades are and therefore implement HIGH-STAKES, STANDARDIZED TESTING. (In New York State, we have Regents exams that must be passed to obtain high school diplomas. We also have high-stakes testing in math and English language arts, grades 3 through 8, plus science and social studies in grades 4 and 8.) They use very smart people who know things like statistics that most teachers (such as yours truly) did not study in college to make TESTS that must be very accurate and objective and scientific and yield useful data about student achievement and performance, and - TA DA - therefore, teacher and school performance!

NOT a problem: teaching students how to take the high-stakes standardized tests. Yeah, a few years of test experience in our pockets, we can teach students what to expect on each part of each test, strategies for multiple choice tests, graphic organizers to help write responses. So hurray for the students who are naturally gifted with test-taking skills and for those who acquire the skills, and bummer to those who are neither OR who had a bad morning, skipped breakfast, got into a fight with parent/sibling/significant other/best friend/bus driver/teacher/anyone, really DON'T CARE BECAUSE IN MOST CASES THE SCORES DON'T AFFECT SCHOOL GRADES AND STUDENTS UNDERSTAND - WHAT IS THE BIG DEAL? WHY SHOULD I SHOW YOU WHAT I KNOW ON A PIECE OF PAPER TODAY?

Problem C: the testing scores are used to evaluate teachers and schools. What's the single most predictive factor of student success? SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS. Go check the studies, the statistics, your own community. Is there wealth in your community? The higher the wealth, the higher the student performance on high-stakes testing, the higher the percentage of Ivy League college acceptances. Of course, politicians would rather control teachers and schools (i.e. threaten their jobs) than fix poverty. Much easier to give to teachers and schools the job of overcoming poverty. Many many schools choose to focus on the subjects that are tested, at the expense of subjects not tested.

Not a problem for ME: I find a teaching job in a suburban school district where most students have comfortable home lives, and some students have struggles in their family life or other personal circumstances to overcome. I spend a disproportionate amount of time helping students who struggle with disadvantages (including the disadvantage of wealthy parents who spoil their children and expect me to do the same). Year by year, I set my own goals for teaching and learning, then I do my best and have fun.

PROBLEM FOR OUR SOCIETY (which includes me) - kids who don't fit the institutional model of "good student" learn to hate school very early in their school career, as in first grade, because they can't sit still in a chair and read and write. And if they decide they hate school, I can turn cartwheels teaching reading workshop, writing workshop, graphic organizers, reading/writing strategies, differentiate instruction up the whazoo, use every educational philosophy known to humanity - and some days I really try - these kids still lose. (Kids who hate school turn into parents who hate school. Those parents have no problem trash talking teachers in front of their children, as I personally witnessed in Wal-mart.) And we, as a society, failed them.

This post about grades has evolved (naturally, since I wrote it) into a discussion of my most passionate beliefs and and most puzzling dilemma about the education of our youth. Does anyone else care?


jenamoured said...

I care probably more than any other educator I know. And, though I am really just starting out, this is why I'm such a huge proponent of alternative education.

The fact of the matter is this: The system just isn't designed for everyone. In fact, it's not designed for a large majority of students. And as more time goes by, I'd really like to try to work that system into change, or create a completely new system of its own, that's actually built around teaching and learning rather than constant formal assessment.

There is an alternative high school here in Richmond called Open High. It operates much like a community college, and students can come and go. Also, there are no grades. Students are evaluated with oral and written feedback over the course of time, and they accrue a portfolio of sorts that shows how they've grown and changed and excelled. That's something I'm really interested in.

Anyway, all that to say-- I feel ya.

jenamoured said...

Also- I think that grades matter only to the people who are receiving them. If students had never received grades, it wouldn't be such a big deal. Even in schools that don't give letter or number grades, parents still push teachers to qualify the feedback with a traditional grade.

Grades really don't matter in the long run. There are so many factors that play into why I earn a given grade that the grade can't even be truly representative of any kind of performance.

I think it's much more important to monitor progress and give consistent feedback. However, I think a revamp of the entire school system would be necessary for us to revamp even the grading system. Traditional school and traditional grades go hand in hand.

roller coaster teacher said...

Thank you, J! It's so good to hear someone who makes sense, so I know I'm not crazy. Do you teach in a "traditional" or "alternative" setting? Sometimes, I believe there are enough of us working hard in different ways to make significant improvements in students' learning experiences. Other times, I just want to stay home and homeschool my own kid.

For some comic relief now, I'm going to take a HP character compatibility test that I read about in another blog.

jenamoured said...

I teach in a traditional school in an alternative capacity. I'm constantly trying to make the classroom less of a 'classroom' per se, and more of a student driven opportunity to find relevant knowledge. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

And yes, sometimes homeschooling is really terribly appealing.

roller coaster teacher said...

J - I really like some of the language you use in this discussion. May I quote you, with proper credit (as in, "according to fellow educator and blogger")?

I think I keep trying to find authentic reading and writing tasks for students because if they WANT to do the task, they will care HOW and WHAT they do. I feel as if my core mission as English teacher is to help them see themselves as readers and writers, every one, no matter what life/career choices they make. Then, as a teacher, period, I want them to think for themselves and care about their own learning.

jenamoured said...

Sure, quote me all you want. Maybe some day I'll be internet famous!

I think it's a constant struggle to find authentic reading and writing tasks because one task will never be authentic for every individual in a class.

One thing I really like and am interested in is text sets-- you probably know what they are, but for those who don't, text sets are a set of texts (books, magazine articles, websites, journals, magazines, etc) built around a given topic. I think that getting students to build text sets on their own can be an authentic task for both reading and writing, because students must read and evaluate the texts they'd like to include, and rationalize (in writing) why they included those texts.

Maybe this is a little ambitious, but it seems that an assignment like this could open many doorways for learning as well as satisfy many objectives. The only way to know is to try it, I suppose.

Critter said...

I have never been one to feel like grades mattered. I think some of the smartest people I know do not test well. It's so funny when we go out into the "real" world and apply for jobs they just ask if we have this degree or that experience never what grades did we get.

roller coaster teacher said...

Critter, I'm with you. Some employers do care about the prestige of the school/college you attended, and the higher prestige schools use grades to screen applicants.

Like jenamoured said, I would much rather students (of any age) care more about their progress in obtaining knowledge than the grade itself.

J, I've never thought of having students create text sets - intriguing!

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Interesting post!

Anyone who complains that grades are "subjective" is out of touch with current thinking on grading. Of course they are subjective and there's no way they can't be.

Grades should be based on a teacher's professional judgment backed by sufficient evidence of academic achievement or lack of same.

Over reliance on math (or using bad math) is not a key to good grading.

In fact, subjective classroom grades, if appropriately linked to standards, can be good predictors of scores on standardized tests. Just another case of getting the grading process aligned with standards.

For a good treatment of the subject, go to and find Ken O'Connor's new book on grading.

Keep asking those questions! :)