Before you click onto the next article in disgust or disbelief, please give me a chance to explain. For decades, grades have been the primary form of communicating and reflecting student mastery. A myth that has taken hold, but ironically no one thinks grades are able to communicate learning with any sort of accuracy or consistency. Teachers feel compelled to "grade," (the verb form) any and all student work, believing that a letter or percentage will indicate to students and parents a measure of skill. Students feel conditioned to only pursue summative values and to get "As and Bs" to make mom and dad happy. Parents feel reliant upon teachers to instruct, assess, and communicate learning outcomes through the assignment of grades.
Somewhere along the line though, all parties have lost sight of what grades are supposed to represent. Depending upon who you ask you are likely to receive a wide range of responses. Teachers feel boxed in and forced to report grades, students are trapped "earning" them, and parents understand what "good" and "bad" grades mean. But none of those understandings are close to the role they were meant to play; their primary function is to communicate mastery of performance and today they do anything but that. It's a mess.
What's a better, more accurate way to reflect student skills and competencies, growth, and indicate level of performance?
First, I get that grades are so entrenched in our system that they will not go away overnight. That they matter to Higher Ed because of the admissions process includes GPA, (Grade Point Average) but that metric only applies to high school. I'm asking you to suspend that refutation for just a moment and consider the entire scope of the system.
Grades are Inflated.
Ask most teachers and you'll probably hear the same insight. Part of the reason is the cycle of interaction that happens between teachers, students and parents. Parents rely on grades to communicate their child's progress (more on this in a bit). Students feel pressured to get "good" grades and work hard. Teacher assesses work and assigns a grade. That's the typical cycle, but there is a next step. If the grade assigned by the teacher does not align with the parents' perception of their child's work, there is usually an awkward conversation that ensues. One way teachers avoid this awkward conversation is by inflating grades, either through awarding "bonus" points or by skewing assigned grades toward the higher end of the spectrum. So by "padding" the results of the student's work, the true picture of a student's learning gets lost.
Grades Remove Intrinsic Motivation
Grades and the havoc they impart on the teaching and learning process impacts the desire to learn for learning's sake. When the goal of education is the grade at the end of an assignment, a specific period of time, or course, the intrinsic motivation to excel in other realms of life that may not have extrinsic rewards is much more difficult. How do we encourage our children to work toward a goal that may not have a tangible benefit at the end? By focusing and stressing grades as parents and teachers, we force our children to believe that the destination is more important than the journey. This message comes across loud and clear to our kids. Many kids feel pressured to cut corners, sacrifice ethics, and take easier courses, all in an effort to achieve better grades instead of better learning.
Now, teachers own a part of this cycle as well. Do we always assign meaningful work? Do we always assess for growth? Do we always communicate expectations? I believe we are getting better at this but we certainly have some work to do. We complain about students only being interested in grades, but how much of that do we, as teachers, create ourselves? Reflecting back on my practice, I warrant to guess that we contribute a great deal.
Grades Are Poor Communicators
Somewhere along the way, there became an unspoken agreement that grades are effective communicators of student learning. And somehow we as a society have taken this bait; hook, line and sinker. The variability of student grades from teacher to teacher, course to course, school to school, and state to state are so great, I can't believe that we realistically put any stock in what they measure and what they communicate. At best they are an accurate snapshot of where a student is but they do not provide parents or students meaningful feedback for improvement or even growth.
If we want our kids to be better learners, the adults in their lives have to demand for a better way to communicate individual learning. It's difficult for all parties involved in this dilemma to be transparent, but shouldn't we put the needs of our students at the forefront of our decisions? What if a learning community asked for a better way to talk about student learning? What would that look like? Parents, what do you need to know about your kids learning? How could that best be communicated?
So parents, as those report cards come home in the coming weeks, ask yourself and your child, what do these grades tell us about your learning? Can we create in our children a mindset of growth and intrinsic motivation that will allow empower them for a lifetime?
Let's all work together to make this happen.
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