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?