Ask a group of elementary parents to raise their hands if they think the grades their students receive are totally objective. Not all hands will be raised. Perhaps, more hands will be raised in the secondary level, but not the entire room. Grades have been the historical indicators of what students know and are able to do for over a century. Grades are the language in which teachers communicate to students and parents. It is how principals gather information about the work the teachers are doing and how successful they and their students are. But, the truth is, grades are and always have been slippery.
Grades are earned and assigned. They determine class rank and course passing. They reveal strengths and areas for development. But, there has always been subjectivity in them. Don’t we all know the struggle for a student who has tried so hard and needs the passing grade of 65 to be promoted or to graduate? There have been times when leaders intervene and instruct teachers to change the final grade from a 64 to a 66*. There are times when teachers find their conscience leading them to do it themselves. We have no experience of grades being lowered with the intention of preventing a student from advancing.
Each time we live in this environment where not all is objective, integrity comes into play. If a grade is to be a communication of what students know and are able to do, then what does it mean if it can be changed, for any purpose, without being a reflection of the student’s efforts? Although appreciated by the student and their family, no doubt, the other side of that message is that the system works for them, but does not for everyone. Then, again, grading is a blend of art and science, of the objective and of the less so.
In the worst of situations, a grade change decision gets out and the community knows grades can be changed with the right amount of pressure or under the right circumstances or for the right person. It undermines the reliability of the whole system. But, now parent portals are opening. The idea that parents can log in and see their child’s grades as the school year unfolds is a valuable use of technology engaging parents in their child’s progress. And, it makes the process and the act of grading more public.
A 21st century demand for transparency is calling for courageous leadership, and for good reason. The sensitive nature of revealing the truth about grading, how it is done differently in each classroom, by each teacher, and the wiggle room that exists sometimes, requires a bit of courage on the part of teachers and of the leader.
This is not an issue that can be placed on the back burner. The opportunity provided by the opening of parent portals, and the demands for transparency call for expert leaders who can ask questions like:
- What are our grading practices?
- Do they need to be unified or changed?
- How is grading used and for what purpose?
- What are our un-discussed issues regarding grading?
- What role does grading have in student success?
- If we are to openly communicate the grading process for students and parents, what are the things that must change about how we are presently doing business?
If these questions are dealt with in frank and open discussions, interesting information raising new questions will arise...
- What forms of feedback and coaching are present in the learning process in our classrooms?
- Are we grading fairly, enough or too much?
- What would happen if we reduced the number of grades given?
- What would happen if we eliminated grades all together?
- If we move to project-based learning, how will students’ work be evalauted?
- If we change the learning/grading processes in our school, who do we need to bring into the conversation and how?
This is a local decision, one that can be made without external interference or demands. A parent portal offers opportunity for connection and communication between teacher and parent; a way for parents to get information about the learning status of their child’s progress. The parent portal offers opportunity for leaders to open a larger conversation about how grading takes place, why it is done that way, and the value of continuing that model, reasons for abandoning it or changing it.
But, first leaders must really know the practice(s) used by the faculty as they assign those grades. The time has come for consideration of why and how we grade and making the process transparent. Conversations will begin when leaders are willing to open them. Technology is pushing the need for this conversation, and a movement is growing pushing leaders to step into the arena.
The time has come to reexamine how students are evaluated within schools, discussing it openly and honestly, and making decisions about how to best motivate and engage learners while capturing their achievement.
* Assume the final grade includes four quarters plus a final exam, thus 5 contributing numbers. Then 66x5=330 versus 64x5=320 so the difference is 10 points not the two points between 64 and 66; a bigger leap than it appears on the surface.
Mark Barnes’ “throwing out grades” can be a conversation starter.
The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.