So here I am blogging for Week #1 of the second round of #IMMOOC. It was such a great experience last time that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn some more from all of the participants. I have “met” so many dedicated educators as a result of the first #IMMOOC and will be forever grateful to George Couros and Katie Martin for taking their time to put these on. So…let’s get to the point of this blog post…If I was starting from scratch what would my school look like? What would stay and what would go?
Obviously the answer to this question can and does fill whole books so I will deal with just one major change…getting rid of grades! I say this having given the topic a lot of thought over the last year. Grades just seem to be one of the root cause of the issues that we have in schools. This is a hot topic that causes much disagreement among educators and the public. Grades, not true learning, are what motivate many students. Grades are the way that schools say, “see what our students know.” Grades in and of themselves aren’t bad, but it is the power that we have given them over time that has become detrimental. If I were to look back anecdotally over my twenty-three years in the classroom, high grades were many times not a true reflection of the talent of a student. There were many instances where those with the high grades simply knew how to play the game of school while those with lower grades had a myriad of reasons for not getting higher grades. Many of those were related to boredom and/or home issues.
The popular feeling among many educators that failure is necessary for student growth runs head on with most grading systems that involve the idea of punishment for making mistakes. The punishment is a set number of points deducted from 100. These lost points are never able to be retrieved. Don’t even get me started on extra credit! The motivation for students is to not lose points. That sounds great until you look at how this plays out in the real world. Every point is a battle! It is a battle in the mind of the teacher, student, and parents. I cannot count the number of times that I had discussions with students or parents about one or two points. From a teacher’s perspective, they have taken the time to grade according to a rubric or set of standards. Through this lens, those one or two points seem to be a carefully arrived at through something akin to the scientific process. Truly being honest with ourselves would allow us to be able to admit that this is fantasy. As much as we try to be consistent and fair with grading, there are too many variables present. Did I grade the first papers when I was relaxed and motivated? Did I finish a class of papers at 2:00 am? Add to the mix that there are some schools who give only letter grades, while some give percentage grades. To make it even more confusing, some grading scales use 90-100 to earn an A where others use 93-100. The district in which I work has college credit granting courses that use different grading scales for the high school and college credit. Earn a 92% and you will receive an A for the college portion and a B+ for the high school credit. Imagine how that goes over with students and parents!!
There are many more examples of the negative impact of grades on the educational system. When I bring this idea up to other teachers and administrators the reaction is almost always same…”Yeah but that’s how it has always been and it is what colleges look at when deciding on acceptance standards. It is so ingrained in how we educate students that there is no way that it can or will change.” But…I have been given the power of a blank slate, a tabula rasa! Standards based grading seems to me to be the best system for being able to hold students accountable for their learning. In a perfect world, there would have to be no accountability because everyone would learn because they wanted to and were motivated. While that would be awesome, I am not so pie-in-the-sky as to believe that is ever really possible. Teachers would learn to evaluate student work according to standards on a scale from not-meeting to exceeding. This would be much “easier” than applying a percentage grade to student work. This work would be looked at in terms of standards that were attempted. I would personally use a system where a student would always be judged by their best work as to further encourage progress over points. There wouldn’t be a penalty for scoring low on an early attempt at a standard, only room for growth. Quality narrative feedback would help guide students to areas where growth was needed. This would truly allow students to experience the benefit of “failure” in leading toward mastering a standard.
A whole new societal mindset would be needed to throw out grades. There are individuals who are trying, but society as a whole still clings to grades. Starting in elementary/middle schools would probably be easier simply from the standpoint of colleges not being involved. High schools have the added problem of doing what colleges expect. Until colleges change their focus on grades, high schools will have a tough time trying to reform grading practices. But, I can still dream!