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Grades: The Bad and The Ugly, There is No Good

The end of the third quarter of school is here and I, as a teacher, am furiously trying to get papers and quizzes graded so that the school can print report cards. I am checking student averages, and handing back papers, and trying to get students to turn in past-due assignments in the hope that they will earn that minimum threshold passing grade. It’s all too familiar, and it’s all completely pointless.

For those who are not intimate with the actual inner workings of a school, you probably believe that a student’s grade is reflective of what they know and can do in a particular subject– or at least it should be. But it’s not. A grade is much more reflective of effort, rather than a student’s actual ability. Teachers typically deliver lessons or devise learning activities and then give assignments and assessments to give students opportunities to practice a skill or determine if they understand it. But oftentimes assignments are never turned in. Thus the students with “good grades” are usually the ones who simply bothered to do their work.

In order to hold students accountable for the work that’s been assigned, I (and other teachers) start tracking down assignments from students way after the fact so that they can have a passing grade. By that point, the assignment has lost all meaning because it was done out of context, and the grade becomes the primary objective rather than actually mastering the skill. What’s more, in most schools a 60% is considered passing; however, most people would not agree that a 60% constitutes mastery, or even proficiency.

Year after year, students are moved from one grade level to the next without ever actually mastering the skills they need in order to progress. There are attempts at interventions, particularly at elementary level, but these still often only allow the student to achieve a passing to average grade. Furthermore, because of limited resources, these interventions are usually only targeted at the lowest performing students. There are even more students who are underperforming yet do not qualify for any kind of additional services. These kids are relegated to “average" or sometimes “lazy” and get passed along, never really achieving their full potential. All of this is because schools prioritize an arbitrary metric we assign to students that supposedly measures performance.

So if the standard grading system is so bad, why use it? I imagine it’s the same reason we continue to rely on standardized tests to measure the performance of a school. Grades provide us data that we can then manipulate into a story about a student. It’s easy. But grades do not provide a complete picture and, I would argue, are pretty useless when it comes to determining if a student knows or can do something. As a high school teacher, the evidence of this is in the fact that many of the students that I have worked with lack very basic skills that they should have mastered in elementary or middle school.

I give the traditional grading system a “D.” It doesn’t measure everything it should and it doesn’t truly serve the needs of students (or teachers), but it’s easy, because it’s familiar and it’s lazy because it’s the bare minimum. But it’s passable, so schools carry on. They never make attempts to change because there is no need. And the result is students who are as apathetic about personal improvement as schools are.

The traditional way of “grading” students leads to so many falling through the cracks and missing fundamental skills, and it actively promotes laziness because we set the minimum threshold so low. Most people are not going to argue that it’s a perfect system, yet there’s no alternative when you’re in a traditional school setting. Even if a teacher were to attempt to completely revolutionize her classroom, it can only be done to the extent that it works with a traditional grading system. There is a better way. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we have to try something new and be willing to fail and try again in order to figure it out. So here I am, again, stepping outside the system in hopes of trying something new. Stay tuned.

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