Teaching Opinion

What’s in an “A”? A Grade of Any Other Letter Doesn’t Smell as Sweet

By Starr Sackstein — January 21, 2016 2 min read
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When it comes time to set goals with students, inevitably there are several students whose highest aspiration is to achieve an A in all of their classes. They don’t really have a plan except to do all of their work and do it on time or to try harder which isn’t terribly specific (and likely won’t help them make the mark).

I’d be lying if I said that a part of me doesn’t die a little when this happens.

After all this time and effort helping students try to understand that grades don’t tell the real story of who they are as learners and still, they want an “A” to make mom and dad happy or to get into the college of their choosing or to prove their intellectual prowess.

I can’t blame them for that, but...

An “A” isn’t what they think it is; it’s a blatant lie masquerading as success.

In school, to get an A, often we are really asking students to play a game of abiding by the rules and doing what is asked. Students achieve this A by being complicit and sometimes by getting lucky. It’s fair to say that most A students aren’t necessarily the brightest or most talented kids, but rather the ones who are motivated and hard working. (I’m not saying motivation and perseverance are bad things, I’m just stating that just because some kids try hard doesn’t mean they are masters of learning).

Every teacher has a different understanding of what an A looks like and therefore it is often hard for students to achieve an A with all teachers because it isn’t always clear what those expectations are.

Grading makes it all too easy to control learning and minimize the power of actual growth and reflection. It makes the school experience about arbitrary computation and less about application and synthesis.

It’s time that we reconsider (and I’ve been saying this for a while) what we value in schools, shifting the control into the hands of students and making achievement about mastery of content and skills, to be determined by on-going conversations and reflection.

The truth is that although grades are what we know and what we have always done, that doesn’t mean they are appropriate or ever were. They solve a problem, but they don’t even do that well. Accountability is important, but what students take away from school is more important and when we put too much focus on the grades over the learning, we are sending a mixed and confusing message.

Perhaps systemically, we can start the shift to standards based grading and then eventually to no grades at all, giving students the opportunity to take joy in what they take in rather than worry about how they perform on tests and their report cards.

Moms and dads out there, what you would rather, your child enjoying the learning experience and being able to talk about what they know and can do as well as being able to apply it to other areas of their lives or getting that hundred that looks awesome on the fridge but doesn’t mean anything except for that one moment in time?

I’ll end with a challenge today - take the test that adorns the fridge down after about a week or two and ask your child if he/she remembers what was on it. I bet they remember the score, but they don’t remember the content. If we switch the expectation away from one time testing environments and shift toward on-going formative assessments, the learning is continuous and connected. This should be the goal.

How can we continue to shift the way we think about achievement in school every day? What would that look like at your school? In your class?

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