The first quarter is over and the first grading reports have been issued. The interpretation of grades by parents can have a significant impact on the mindset of their child. Grades are external motivators and research is showing that using external motivators are actually a deterrent if the goal is to encourage real learning. Richard Curwin in a recent Educational Leadership magazine states that “Rewards, punishments, incentives, threats, and other external strategies create finishers, not learners.” All parents want their child to succeed and for better or worse, the most visible measurement of that performance is the grade. There are many issues with the standard A,B,C,D,F traditional system. The primary issue is that a single mark cannot be an effective measure of something as complex as learning. There are simply too many factors that go into a grade for it to be very precise in the measurement of any one thing. For example, if a poor grade results from not turning in homework, isn’t that really more about a weak student skill or habit and very little to do with what has been learned? Maybe that student performs very well on tests, but is severely penalized for not doing work. Single grades most often don’t separate the habits from the learning. A second significant issue is that no two teachers use the same standards for establishing a grade. An “A” in English has no relationship to an “A” in science, or social studies, or math.
Grades present an enigma for parents and schools. A familiar mantra is “You have to get good grades to get in college!” and colleges do indeed consider a grade-point average for college admittance. Undeniably, grades are important, and they are the reality of this particular time despite all that is wrong with the system. We at TNCS are taking a very hard look at assessment that is meant to encourage and support real learning, this type of assessment is called formative assessment. Students are given a specific objective and work toward mastery of that objective. They are encouraged to repeat and practice until the objective is mastered. Formative assessment is focused on learning! If students are really learning and are assessed in ways to direct that learning, then performance measures based on the learning objectives should be fair and real assessments of the learning and not a hybrid of many other factors. We are moving in the right direction, but change will happen very slowly.
Having conversations about grades with a child is important. An awareness, however, that a grade is a flawed measure should be kept in mind. What is most important is helping a student learn to reflect on habits, skills, and effort. Developing good skills and habits and a willingness to invest effort are what ultimately builds the long term foundation of personal success, not whether a student got an A,B, or C in a particular class at a particular point in time. A grade can be the entry point to such conversations, but it is important never ever to associate a grade with a child’s perceived value and self-worth. Students should never leave a conversation about grades feeling as if they have been measured as smart or dumb. Students perceptions of a message being given can be very different than what is intended and that is fragile ground. Whenever possible obtaining information from a teacher about skills, habits, and effort will help gain a better understanding of what a grade may really represent. As mentioned in a previous blog, middle school goal setting is centered on skills, habits, and effort and not performance. Being aware of and discussing progress toward the stated goals is a much more meaningful conversation than the grades. There is even a voice in the ongoing conversation of whether grades for 5th, 6th, and maybe even 7th graders should even be given. Focusing almost entirely on formative assessment free from all of the pitfalls of grades would seem the best system if indeed learning is the most valued objective. There is a lot to think about and many conversations surrounding assessment are needing to happen. Make yourself part of that conversation!