Grades…

I have been in education for over 40 years.  Yes, I was a student for 19 of those years, but I feel confident that those years were intergral in helping to shape my perspective.

From this experience, I have a very simple attitude towards grades. The traditional grading process is antiquated. Period.

When the Kindle first came out, I remember so many friends saying that they would never switch to using digital readers (some are still fighting the good fight in this area). They would say “I love the smell of the book” or “I love the feel of the book and the pages in my finger tips”.  My response was that even though people once loved their horses and buggies, and loved the smell and feel of the ride using that method of transport, I have never in my life seen a horse and buggy on my commute to school.  It is about time we put the traditional grading model out to pasture.

I taught English for 17 years, during which time I became quite the grammar guru. But to this day, I still consider myself to be at best 90-95% proficient in comprehensive grammar.  So what are realistic expectations for our students? What do these numbers, percentages, letters really mean? Can we continue to pretend that the same grade on a Geometry test on triangles for 8th graders in Enid Oklahoma means the same thing as a test on the same content for 10th graders in Tampa? Heck, the same score may not mean the same thing as a test down the hall in Enid.  Further, what formative, growth oriented message do these number grades send?

Not only is the ambiguity of what the grades mean at archetypal murkiness, but the reception of the information these grades provide is far too negative a summative finality in the minds of students and parents.  If a student receives a 75% on a test, he/she doesn’t plaster it on a t-shirt and walk around saying “Hi, I am a 75%”.  Yet, it certainly feels this way sometimes.

Further, when parents talk about how their child doesn’t talk to them about school, I always ask about the questions the parents ask.  If the question is “what did you get on the test?”, then the response is simple and generally followed up with a generic statement (often coupled with emotion in one direction or the other).  “I got an A!”- to which the parent response is “Great”! Or “I got a 75%” to which the parent will then cross-examine the child in a way that rarely manifests real information about the learning experience.

I alway suggest parents ask a question more akin to: What parts of the test did you really feel good about and why?” and “What parts were most challenging- how do you think we can better prepare for next time?”  These are disarming questions that are about the learning and performance, not about numbers and emotion. As educators, we should be helping this process by restructuring how we communicate with students and parents about the learning that is happening in our schools.

For 11 years, I worked in a school that was very grade-centric.  Even there, I never felt like the grades were telling much of the story about the learning that was happening.  I always de-emphasized them with students and parents.  My only goal was to send my students off in May much better than how they arrived in August.   That typically meant different things for different students.  What allowed me to “get away with it”, was that I was very proactive in my communication with the students and their families.  There were no surprises and I made good on my promise to support student growth during our 9 month marathon together.  My hard earned reputation for doing so made the latter years easier when dealing with the grade-minded families.

What I communicated then is how I encourage my teachers to communicate now that I am in a school that does not communicate progress with grades, rather through weekly narratives and trimester narrative reports.   Yes, we do score student work, and we do keep track of percentages etc.  But we use the data to shape our communication and plan of action.  We always start with skills that students are mastering nicely, then we identify elements that need more work, and we finish with an explanation of the plan of action to improve.  This last piece often includes what we will do in the classroom, what the student needs to be doing on his/her own, and finally the healthy manner that parents can support the progress.  While this sounds like a laborious process, especially if a teacher has 130 students, the work on the front end is worth the time.  Not every student will need extensive narratives, and many students will be strong or need work on the same concepts.  Plans for improvement will also be similar across groups of students.  As a result, keeping a document with comments for each of the three steps will allow for efficient bulk edits, and copy and pasting.  Some simple personalization will go a long way in these communications.

Instead of getting a report with 75% on it and wondering what does that mean, parents and students will now get a note that says:

“Johnny showed mastery of addition and substraction this week.  He still needs to work on his multiplication skills.  We will work on some different strategies here at school, and we have given Johnny some additional practice and links to Khan Academy that he can view at his own pace.  At home, please feel free to help him review his work after he has checked his answers against the answer key.  Let us know if you have any questions”

Again, this takes longer- BUT it is worth the time to share real information about student progress and plans for moving forward.  Technology has made so many things easier and more efficient- this type of communication is a great example of how we can use simple digital tools to communicate without using number and letter grades.

Finally, the clarity of this communication brings parents into the conversation with real information, real terminology, and a sense that teachers and schools really know their child and are supportive of his/her individual needs, thus creating a partnership between school and home that truly benefits the student.

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