Thursday, March 26, 2009

I Hate Grades.

I hate to admit this, but grades (A,B,C,D,F,I, etc) used to be the one constant in my teaching career. I would give assignments, grade the assignments, put the grades in the grade book, weight the grades to reflect the importance I placed on different kinds of assignments and tests, then determine the final grade based on a mathematical equation.

Truthfully, that is what I did, and I reveled in the certainty of it. When questioned about the English grade of a particular student, I would always refer to the grade book. (The fact that I use the term 'grade book' lets one know how long ago I started!) I would show the grades that fell into each category on my perfectly organized and documented spreadsheet. I would talk about percentages as if they were the law. I would fill in empty blocks in my perfect book the moment that the student had passed the 'allowed' time for make up work. Those zeros were non-negotiable and unquestionable in my opinion.

Slowly, and thankfully, I changed. Somewhere along my teaching path, I found new constants in my career. I learned that I was competent and effective and inspiring and compassionate. I could see learning as a process, a path, a reality that is as different for my students as the age at which babies learn to walk.

I found that my students could teach me as much as I teach them. I learned that learning is a journey that I am a part of, not the end-all-be-all leader of. I guide, I advise, I encourage, but most of all I watch and listen. I tailor what is happening in my room to make my curriculum valid for each different group and each different individual.

I absorb the newest in brain research, and I create assessments that are authentic. I ask my students to think deeper than they ever have and answer questions that there is no real answer to. I encourage them to give a response that they are unsure of. I tell them there are no 'rights' and 'wrongs' as long as their answers are tied to the text and show thought.

Then, I have to give grades. Grades are ridiculous. We have standards and benchmarks that set the goals each student should meet or exceed by the end of each school year. Yet, we have to grade each and every assignment that's sole purpose is to give students the opportunity to practice the skills they are supposed to accomplish in a school year. OK, not each and every assignment.

We do, however, need to give grades at the end of each quarter. I do not segment the standards into four separate quarters. I teach so that my students are able to use the English skills needed for competency in a coordinated manner. I want them to be able to synthesize research, reading, writing, speaking, listening, media, and language into their every day lives. Some of them may be naturally gifted in one area and need to work conscientiously on the others. I do not care how they get there or how fast, as long as they have the language skills they need to accomplish their life goals.

Yet the world continues to focus on those stupid letters. Insurance companies give discounts to students with good grades. Parents reward students who have all A's or all B's. Students ask whether or not an assignment is going to be graded, with the intention of not completing those that will not be. Grades have to be turned in at the end of every quarter. Students want to have all A's because colleges are going to look at these grades for admittance to post-secondary education.

Really? I can understand if students and parents need feedback on the 'quality and quantity of effort' being expended while working toward the year-end goals. When have we ever graded a baby who is learning to walk on the walking they are doing at the end of each nine week period? The goal is that they learn to walk. Does it really matter how fast they learn it as long as they eventually get it? True. We call and give updates to all interested parties on each and every unsteady step! We should be able to find a way to give updates on the 'progress' toward the year-end goal without the stigma attached to the A,B,C . . . system.
I have actually worked on this. I have a system for keeping track of my students' progress toward their year end goal. I can mark whether they are novice, partially proficient, proficient, or advanced in each of the benchmarked areas. And they too can decide how proficient they are in each area, and we can discuss what they need to do to do better. They can see their progress after each unit of study or each practice assignment.

How does this work? It does not. Because at the end of each quarter I have to submit the same A,B,C,D,F,I that cause all the fuss in the first place. I hate grades. I love progress and accomplishments. Grades do not show either.


  1. Since I'm pretty sure grades aren't going to go away any time soon, the way in which you assess students should reflect the things that you value. I have the luxury, as a bilingual teacher, of grading my students based on progress and their ability to accomplish tasks AT THEIR LEVEL. If progress and accomplishments are important to you, find ways to incorporate those things into your rubrics. You can find a way to justify pretty much any grade because, well, you're the professional. :)

  2. You have a very interesting view on letter grades, one that I can identify with. I was always the student who did whatever it took to get my "A", but sometimes I still left the class with no more knowledge on how to apply the subject to real life than when I entered.

    I'm on my way to being a teacher (I'll be entering my own classroom in Fall of 2010), and I am constantly seeking words of wisdom from experienced teachers. It looks as if your blog is going to offer me a lot of insight, I'm so glad I found it! If you don't mind me asking, what grade do you teach?