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Changing the Conversation: Grades vs. Learning

If a report card is reflective of a students' learning, why does it only happen a few times a year?

Why do high school students only get 1 grade per class?

What does that grade actually mean?

This and many other questions have recently plagued my traditional beliefs about what it means to achieve and then equally as importantly how to communicate that achievement.

I used to think that getting As was everything. An overachiever myself, hungry for validation, I worked tirelessly to acquire knowledge and impress my teachers. Some would have called me a teacher's pet or a few other choice names that we call people in favor of teachers.

But I didn't care. I loved the feeling of learning and the recognition I got for doing it well. Bs simply weren't good enough.

No one pushed me to be this way. I was intrinsically motivated by the grade and the feeling of accomplishment I had when I knew I aced it. It was exhilarating and when I see my students this way, I get it; I get them on a deeper level that may never understand.

My brother, on the other hand, needed to be bribed. He was naturally smart but didn't enjoy school for learning. So my parents paid him for every grade of 85. I remember being angry that this rule didn't apply to me. It wasn't fair. 

Justice had a lot to do with my sense of achievement. It was so as a student and as a teacher. How could a person who didn't work as hard I did deserve the same grade? How could that be possible?

All that changed this past year though.

It started with a feeling that something wasn't adding up. Maybe it was during a group assignment when I gave a grade for the product or maybe it was because of late work or compliance, I'm not sure, but it happened.

Averages didn't seem accurate for learning, even when weighted differently. How could two students get the same grade when their learning profiles were so different? There had to be a better way to communicate with parents and students about what their students know and could do.

So I started reading as I often do when I need answers.

First, it was Ken O'Connor's Repair Kit for Grading. It lingered. It made me question what I considered achievement. It made me consider change and then I read more. Mark Barnes, Alfie Kohn, Rick Wormeli etc and I felt ashamed for having done things as I had. All the injustices I had served in the name of justice and learning. All I could say now is "sorry, I was misinformed."

Here are some of the realizations I had about achievement:

  • Learning and achievement are all about what students know and can do based on the standards. If they can demonstrate their ability to be proficient or effective by achieving mastery of a skill or standard, it doesn't matter HOW they do it, just that they did. 

  • It has nothing to do with compliance. So I should never take points off of a kid's work because it is late or not done exactly how I asked it to be done. I should never be that specific.

  • Grades have nothing to do with behaviors - these are two separate but important issues and one should never muddy the other. Behaviors should be handled separately. They certainly have little bearing on what kids know and can do.

  • Standards were written as a benchmark for the skills kids should be able to know and do and that is how we need to communicate learning to kids and families. Therefore report cards should be like my son's elementary school ones - broken down by standard, given a measure of mastery against them. No average grade.

  • Summative assessment, although valuable at the end of a full unit or year should never be used to punish kids for what they have or haven't learned.

  • Grades should NEVER be a punishment, period.

  • Homework shouldn't be an additional hoop to jump through, but rather a supplement for formative feedback; it should never be graded. After all, learning ends when you put a grade on something.

  • Narrative feedback on assignments or in conferences is the most effective way to help kids grow. Providing specific, regular feedback on learning helps kids become proficient on the standards.

  • It's not enough to tell a student they aren't doing something correctly, we need to provide them with possible ways to do it better or they won't learn.

  • There is more than one way to meet a standard. Not all kids will do it the same way and that is perfectly acceptable. Some will take longer than others. This too is acceptable and responsible.

  • One size doesn't fit all in learning, so our teaching practices shouldn't either. We need to be flexible when working with kids to help them find achievement success.

So one of a few things is happening right now. You are either nodding your head in agreement or shaking it in disagreement or feeling very guilty (as I did) for never seeing what seems so obvious now. Learning isn't about grades, it's about mastery.

So what are you going to do about it?

This year I plan to document my journey. I know it won't all go perfectly, but that's okay, I'm learning. It may take me some time too.

*This post originially ran on my Education Week Teacher blog Work in Progress on 9/3/14

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