Friday, April 4, 2014

Grades Matter?

Funny how things come together sometimes.  An interesting convergence happened yesterday...

Coming on the heels of my reading Justin Tarte's great blog post: 10 questions to start the 'grading' conversation at your school, I began considering those points:

1). Do you include student behaviors (effort, participation, adherence to class rules, etc...) in student grades?
2). Do you believe in grade reduction for work that is turned in late?
3). Do you believe extra credit and bonus points should be a part of a student's grade?
4). Should academic dishonesty result in a reduced grade?
5). Should group work be graded on a group basis or on an individual basis?
6). Do you include pop quizzes and timed assessments in your overall assessment structure?
7). Do you believe every activity or assignment that is completed should be graded and recorded in the gradebook?
8). Do you average all of a student's scores throughout the course of the semester?
9). Do you believe all students should be doing the same assessments for it to be fair?
10). Do you believe there is a place for zeros in grade reporting?

When you read them, do you feel there are "right" or "wrong" answers to those questions? While I am personally diametrically opposed to some of those practices, and I do have a position on all of them, I also understand both sides of the arguments after 20 years as an educator, and I find almost all of them to be significantly worthy of discussion and debate.  And that discussion and debate is incredibly important and worthy of our time.  But I have business to attend to throughout the school day... so I went about my typically atypical day as an Assistant Principal at a very high achieving public high school...

I ended the day with a big highlight of every year for me, when Marc.Brocato invites me in to see his freshman English class do a "Poetry Slam."  I love this experience every year for so many reasons.  One is that I enjoy seeing the brilliance of our kids evidenced through writing that is deeply personal to them and I always enjoy the performance that comes along with their presentation as well. There's something special about how sharing a little piece of yourself with an audience can help create a memory that makes it become a piece of them as well going forward.  Something that they might carry forever in their hearts and their minds.

No adult has ever said to a friend from high school, "Hey, remember that awesome worksheet that Mr. Jones gave us in 9th grade?" Or upon reflection of their high school career, "the thing I remember best about Mrs. Peterson's class was that awesome biology test, I will never forget it."

But, just try and walk away from a group of earnest 9th grade students pouring their hearts and souls out for you and not have something stick with you forever.


This afternoon, students took turns presenting their poems about personal topics ranging from the power of parental advice, to faith and love for God, to fairy tales meeting with the reality of teenage angst, to breaking down racism, to the grip of mental illness and societal expectations, to how being an individual is cooler and more valuable than trying to fit in and be cool or having valuable things.

And then came... Jacob....and everything came together for me.

"I feel a little funny presenting this with the Assistant Principal here, he may not like this, but..." was his opening salvo, which met with giggles from the audience.

But no one was laughing by the end.

Here are the thoughts of a 14-year old student, who is only beginning to get on the grading treadmill at our school:

"Grades Matter"  by Jacob Manchester

Grades matter, grades matter, grades matter.
Over and over again, this thought has been contrived into the ignorant minds of your generation,
our generation.
Yet when spoken, the sounds echo through the corridors, reverberating, changing,
Suddenly Grades are the only thing that matter, grades are the one only thing that matters,
grades are the only thing that matter!
But you see, grades are but a number,
a number attempting to place itself upon something it cannot,
something priceless.
Knowledge is priceless.
Yet we continue to listen.
and I am no different.
I too am ignorant, and with my peers will struggle in the future as consequence.
and how can I blame those placed before me for this inconvenience,
they have only listened to those “wiser”.
They are not at fault,
but those who take that oh so justificating grade and stamp it upon the foreheads of those too ignorant to stand against it,
Those who take the blood red ink and spill it upon a paper of innocence,
my soul splattered across it,
Those who take the dreams of a child and shatter it upon their mighty pen,
Those who treat knowledge as a letter,
those People, are the ones at fault.
They are simply imprinting random letters upon our laborious work,
our hopes crushed beneath.
Like a game they assign this work, only to shatter our dreams upon oaken desks,
their demonic desires contented.
you would be lead to believe these “standards” mean something,
Yet in reality are of mere imagination, imposed by each teacher individually,
holding no justification beneath them.
The letters used, are absent of meaning.
The grade, merely ink on a page, no sense supporting them,
labeling kids freely and openly as they so desire.
They're attempting to supply knowledge, yet all they bring is anxiety.
Grades are but a number and shouldn't define you, They can't define you.
For if grades are the only thing that matter,
than knowledge cannot,
and the true purpose of them, is erased.

As I said to Jacob in my feedback, if you thought I would be offended... clearly you aren't following me on Twitter...

As he is featured front and center in this blog, let me take a moment to explain my thoughts and concerns about grading to him:

Dear Jacob:

Typically, the reason for grading students is to be able to label them on the basis of their academic performance and then sort them into various categories in order to, theoretically, better educate them.

Grades, however, in general, are a relic of 19th century schools designed to sort the factory workers from those who will fill the various levels of white collar jobs at those same factories. The inherent problem with this practice is that the process of sorting and grading is often incompatible with the goal of having students learn as you have already discovered and stated so eloquently.

The fact is, that in the 21st century, most people learn best while doing so cooperatively and in groups, whether these groups are meeting in a conference room or meeting virtually, as they do in video conferences, "chats" on Twitter or groups on Google+. Individual knowledge, experiences and viewpoints invariably benefit others in the conversation, as does explaining things to one another to help everyone understand topics. The smartest person in the room IS the room as "they" say. However, traditionally, teachers have concerns over how to give individuals credit and appropriate grades for their individual contributions and that can get in the way of truly collaborative efforts. And, of course, learning.

In today's global marketplace, people work cooperatively, sometimes in different parts of the world, to solve problems. But grades force individuals to compete with one another rather than cooperate. Schools are virtually the only place on earth where people are forced to learn and work competitively rather than cooperatively with others.  How exactly does that make anyone "college and career ready" in this century?  And while we are on that topic, how does standardized testing of individual students support that readiness for the real-world workforce that doesn't have anyone working individually, but, in fact, needs them working collaboratively to share and combine strengths, interests, expertise and knowledge?

Learning in order to take a test in order to earn a grade is not learning, it's compliance and competitive memorization. And what if you aren't one of the students who happen to be good at that? What if self confidence or competition isn't your strong suit? Or what if it's the start of the 3rd quarter and your grade has already mathematically eliminated you from passing for the year? What's the point then, if you are here for a grade rather than for learning?  And what's the likelihood that you will extend yourself to learn for the next three months?

But competition is good, you say.  Doesn't competition better prepare our kids for that global marketplace? A marketplace where, we are often told by education "reformers," that we are falling behind?  Tell me about one other workplace environment that exists where people work and get performance evaluations that say you are an 83 to the company, or a B for the year. What does that even mean? Let's not even get into the fact that a number or letter grade has been shown to be so ridiculously subjective, arbitrary and lacking in inter-rater reliability that in most schools, most grades are pretty much worthless (see the 10 questions above). I could (and may) write another whole post about how grades often get subterfuged by add ons like homework, compliance points, keeping a neat notebook, class participation and other factors that have nothing to do with progress or learning.

So why do we continue to do this when we know it's wrong?

Why do we still believe that grades actually prepare kids for anything? Wouldn't individual, authentic narrative feedback on a student's progress be more effective and support their learning every day of the year? If we took the competition out of schools and allowed students to work together and learn together and help one another, focusing their energy on improving themselves every day- based on real feedback of progress towards a learning goal- wouldn't that create many new opportunities for engaging work? Wouldn't it reduce student's stress? Wouldn't kids actually learn?

Would you hire a contractor who was great at taking tests or would you prefer one with an extensive portfolio and references?

Why would you want less for your child's education?

Ask a 14-year old.  He can tell you what really matters.  Why can't the adults seem to figure it out?