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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Grades: The Educational Dinosaur of Our Time

By Starr Sackstein — March 18, 2014 6 min read
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Today’s Guest blog is written by Starr Sackstein. Starr is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher in New York City and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed.

There is a palpable anxiety mounting. Report cards are coming and students are wondering “What am I going to get?” Rather than a confident awareness of learning, students believe they sit at the mercy of their teachers who seem to arbitrarily assign letters or numbers to their names with little regard for learning.

Perhaps based on how much teachers like them or how well they ‘play the game’, adolescents fail to comprehend that their grades are actually supposed to convey a level of proficiency in specific subject matter.

Achieving a grade, seems a very passive experience for many students. They show up. They do the work or they don’t or do enough to get by, but seldom have a deeper metacognitive awareness of connection between their learning and mark assigned.

The Challenge

The system has been dysfunctional for some time now, but teachers and administrators are comfortable with the dysfunction. Parents have bought into it because it’s what they know, and students strive for grades as the carrot just out of reach to secure their futures.

Since no one has challenged the traditional system of assessment in a long time and all of the current structures in place support the traditional even through college, there has been no impetus to move forward with a change; if anything there has been an earnest rebellion against change.

Students, parents, teachers and administrators are attached to their justice. When rules are in place, they must be followed to hold all stakeholders accountable. So how are we supposed to hold students accountable if we stop grading them in the traditional sense?

Living in the past

Society is not as it was 100 years ago when public education was aligned with the needs of a burgeoning industrial society. Assembly line learning that herded students through curriculum based on their age and less on their aptitude like a conveyer belt of empty focus.

This society prized obedience and following rules but had little to do with the mastery of skills. It instead focused on completion of tasks and with set completion came the promise of success.

Students need only play the game will, show effort and intention and they were guaranteed forward mobility.

Kids were shuffled from grade to grade as long as they could “pass” their classes and ultimately were rewarded with a passport into the working world in the form of a diploma. It granted them access to a life that could support families and for some more education to move into highly qualified fields.

This system functioned well enough for a long time. It had its day, but those days are over. Judging students based on a narrow set of rules, tests and compliance doesn’t adequately prepare them for this life or communicate anything about actual aptitude.

Living in the now

Acknowledging that our students are not like we once were and recognizing how it is important for teachers, parents, communities and school decision makers to not live in the past is essential. Technology has vastly changed the way kids are receiving information and the way we are sharing it. The skills that this society requires are different from those of early educational founders.

A grade once represented success. An A, the highest show of it. If a student failed, it was accepted that that student was either below average or non-compliant. Either way, the child was denied access or held back even if they were capable of learning. No one took the time to know they were capable. No one differentiated.

In today’s world, children with incredible skills and non-traditional strengths have opportunities they never had before. Pedagogy is shifting to support creative, authentic learning that is mastery based. The Common Core encourages teachers to raise the bar on learning, to encourage the development of these skills.

In conflict with this thinking is the testing culture associated with the Common Core. A philosophy that deeply exaggerates the separation between the haves and have nots. It seeks to put a number on a child’s intelligence in one sitting, singling out opportunity for growth in one summative swoop.

For example, AP exams seek to test the upper echelon of student understanding, but instead trade practical educational growth for multiple choice questions difficult to prepare for despite the hours of test preparation spent. No matter how many practice tests a child takes, there is no guarantee that the exam will display real understanding.

Conversely, students who pass the exam may not be successful in future educational endeavors. Moving to a portfolio approach allows for students to display growth and aptitude in learning over time, reflectively moving forward with the skills needed to persevere in life.

The seeds of where we need to go next are germinating. Twitter has born an army of dedicated educational professionals who aren’t afraid to buck the system anymore. Developing a culture of learning that encourages students to be aware of what they know and what they can do and that which cannot be labeled in just one sitting, one number or letter.

This is why we must move toward a standards based assessment model that accounts for students’ learning on all levels with great specificity and thought.

Progressing toward the shifted paradigm

What if we did away with grades? What if grade extinction was imminent? Would the system fall into an ice age of unrecoverable collapse OR would we thrive, as we cease to exist as we once did?

As more research is done and greater understanding of specific student needs are acknowledged, it is incumbent upon the educational institutions to change the infrastructure of school systems to maximize student learning and communication about it.

One grade per subject in middle school and high school cannot possibly adequately convey an understanding of learning. What does any of that even mean?

We must start considering what achievement really is and how to universally assess it, so that mastery level is something we all understand - no longer an arbitrary number or letter, but a reproducible skill evident to all witnesses based on the standards necessary to forward movement.

Children should no longer be penalized for late work, or attendance as they have less to do with learning and more to do with obedience. Group work cannot only elicit one shared grade as it doesn’t accurately portray the learning of individuals in the group. Achievement must be what we seek to communicate and hold students accountable for.

Understanding the necessity of following rules and developing habits of mind like doing timely work in addition to learning is essential, but assessments and grading shouldn’t be lumped to together with it. Behavior should modified as needed - separately. If disciplinary action in needed, then it should be taken for these poor work habits or perhaps pedagogical reflection would help support a culture that shifts away from punishment and one toward support. Children who are truant or disciplinary challenges usually have special learning needs that have gone unrecognized or corrected.

We need to do a better job of helping kids succeed, rather than rejoicing in their inability to jump through hoops. There can no longer be one right way to show proficiency and mastery of learning and no set time limit to achieve it.

We can all agree that people come in different shapes and sizes, with different learning styles, strengths and challenges, so why should we use one antiquated approach to report what they know?

Education must embrace that equity has little to do with justice and everything to do with meeting needs. If we universally support a deeper awareness of standards based learning, grades will actually mean something substantial.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.