grades

Stop yelling and think about it…

Recently, a local school district decided that high school students should receive no grade less than a 60 for each quarter.  According to the county’s Superintendent, Frank Till, “the whole idea was to not fail students early in the semester and (to) give them a chance to get their act together.”  Needless to say, there was quite the uproar when WRAL reported the Superintendent’s decision.  It did not take long for the article’s comment thread to move from curiosity to frustration to outrage to absurd.  Just since this morning, the comments have more than doubled (and I’m sure they continue to grow as I write).  Clearly, grading is a hot topic for teachers, students, and parents.  Grades/assessment/evaluation are at the core of who we are as an education nation.  Unfortunately, grades have come to be what defines many students — and teachers to a certain extent.

While I completely understand the frustration and even the arguments from those opposed to the idea (don’t forget I am a teacher), if you really think about, what Superintendent Till did actually makes sense.

Let me break it down for you.  Our current state-approved grading scale is:

  •  A (100 – 93)
  • B (92 – 85)
  • C (84 – 77)
  • D (76 – 70)
  • F (69 – 0)

If you break it down into percentages:

  • 8% of the grading scale is for A
  • 8% of the grading scale is for B
  • 8% of the grading scale is for C
  • 7% of the grading scale is for D
  • 69% of the grading scale is for F

How does that distribution even begin to make sense?  Education is one of the only places where 60% of mastery is failing.  A ten point scale to 50 actually makes more equitable sense, and to be honest, there is a lot of well-respected educators or educational experts who think we should abolish grading altogether.

Like I said, I understand the frustration with the Cumberland County decision.  Initially, it does seem like teachers are just giving out grades.  I mean..come on…if a student gets a 30 then they deserve a 30.  You get what you deserve and you deserve what you get.

Right?

But what about keeping in mind the mission of every school and teacher…to educate.  Whether a child (yes a child…some of these children are 10, 12, 16 years old that we feel deserve to learn these MEGA life lessons) receives a 32 or a 62, the message is very clear…THEY FAILED!  Why does the numerical value matter at all?  At least in Cumberland County, teachers hang onto the idea that they can re-kindle that student’s desire to learn, and students’ still have hope for re-focusing and re-committing their 2nd semester to learning.

Sure a few students will abuse the system, but isn’t that the case now and won’t that be the case later and always.  I mean seriously, adults abuse the system every day, all day and for the most part that goes unnoticed.  Why all of sudden – when a decision is made in the interest of students – is their such an outcry to teach students the lessons of the real world?

NEWSFLASH–The real world is nothing like school and it never should be.

Bottom-line…if a student is going to fail, then “handing” them a 60 will not stop them from doing so.  So if you are worried about teaching someone a lesson or making sure a 15 year old gets what they deserve, then stop worrying because they will probably still fail.

But if you are more interested in teaching students to love biology or realize the importance of math or embrace the brilliance of literature or cherish the history of our country, then you have to understand this decision is a step in the right direction for all students.

Academic Punishment

We all know a teacher who punishes students academically because of a poor behavioral choice.  I will never forget in 11th grade when I was writing a paper for my English class, I turned in a final copy and had cited Wikipedia (yes…wikipedia had just been created) in my list of resources.  Well apparently, somewhere through the explanation of this paper, I missed the memo on not using wikipedia to develop my research findings.  As the straight-laced student that I was, I did not intentionally use wikipedia just to spite the teacher…I genuinely made a mistake.  Instead of allowing me to correct the paper or taking this opportunity to teach me proper researching techniques, my teacher failed me on this assignment.  Thanks to that big fat ZERO, I was unable to get anything higher than a C in the class, and I had to work incredibly hard to get a C.  I made a poor behavioral choice yet I was punished academically.

At the time, I didn’t really have any issue with the punishment.  I messed up so I needed to be punished.  I felt like the punishment fit the crime.  However, now that I am a teacher, I have no idea what she was thinking.  How could she justify this punishment?  Did the punishment truly fit the crime?  My research was sound, and I proved that I learned the information therefore I must have deserved a ZERO because – in her opinion – I accidentally used a “questionable” source.  Seriously? 

I don’t really like using the word punishment at all, but as a 7th grade teacher, I do have to correct behaviors often and sometimes repeat offenders or grandiose offenders do result in punishments such as silent lunch, in-school suspension, etc.  A re-ocurring war of words that I along with my Dumbledore-like army (yes…HP reference and side note — I’m neither Harry Potter nor Dumbledore) is one that has risen to prominence within my school.  So many teachers continuously take points off assignments for late work, give students a ZERO for not getting something signed, or reducing letter grades for not following the proper format.  While I understand their reasoning, I do not agree with the premise.

When I refute the academic punishers, I always hear, “It is our job to teach the children responsibility” or “They didn’t turn in the work or follow my instructions so they don’t deserve the grade.”  However, teaching students responsibility and assessing a student’s responsibility are 2 very different things.

Instead of simply punishing a student academically, teachers need to learn how to effectively and fairly correct the behavior that is impeding a child from turning in work on time or following formatting instructions.  Those are important components of school, but are not a part of our state-mandated curriculum.  Teaching a student responsibility and organization is a part of the teacher hidden curriculum, but grading a child’s responsibility and organization is not fair to any student.   We should only measure and assess our students based upon what they know not how soon they can get a paper signed by their parents or whether or not they put their name on the correct side of the paper.  There are other ways to correct behaviors beyond grading penalties.  In my experience, students who do not turn work in on time or repeatedly misinterpret instructions are the very students who will NOT respond to grading penalties anyway.

While grading is slowly becoming my arch-nemesis, I think everyone would agree that just because a student turns in work late DOES NOT mean that they do not know the material.  When teachers punish the behavior with grades, they are hurting the students academically.  That’s like benching a football player because he can’t swim.  The punishment does not fit the crime.