What has grading become but the ongoing race for points? Invariably, around the 2 or 3 day mark before the end of the grading period, I start hearing that all too familiar question, “What can I do to get my grade up?” What students really mean by this is, “What piddly little task or busywork can I do so that you will give me a better grade without me having to do much work.”
It happens at all levels not just with the lower performing students. In fact, your higher students looking to move a B up to an A, or the A student trying to move a grade from a 95 to a 98 or 100 are more apt to ask this question than your lower performing students. You see, our students have learned to play this game. They know that if they just hold out, teachers and administrators will give in because grades today say more about the teachers and the system then they do about our students. The lower performing students simply choose not to play the game. They know they will eventually be passed on. Higher performing students know that if they just beg, whine, or demand, teachers will find a way to raise grades. Both groups know how to chase points, or not, learning be damned!
We have utilitarian teachers who have reduced grading to a tool to supply the classroom. “Bring in some calculator batteries and I’ll give you an extra A,” “Take your test home and get a parent signature and I’ll give you 5 extra points on your test,” “Come to tutoring and allow me to correct the problems you missed on your test and I’ll give you back half of those points,” and “Come to class on time and I’ll give you a free homework pass.” Sound familiar? Is that what grades are about? Do we not see the absurdity in these practices?
Points have become synonymous with success. So much so that getting an “A” in a class is no longer good enough. High School students feel they must now earn GPA’s of 5.0 and 6.0 if they are to have any chance of getting into their colleges of choice. But if an A means to show extreme levels of understanding and learning beyond the norm, what can be higher than that? I guess it is suppose to be a relative thing. If a 4.0 is a good thing, then a 5.0 or 6.0 must be better, right? Who wouldn’t want a 6.0 over a 5.0 or a 5.0 over a 4.0? Ridiculous!
The results are quite predictable, we have bastardized our grading systems so much, that they have become virtually useless in their intentions – to indicate with some degree of certainty the level of mastery to which a student has risen in a particular content area. States are free to arbitrarily set measures so that an A from a student in Louisiana has no correlation to a grade of A from a student in Massachusetts. Heck, an A in a school in one district has no relationship to an A in a school in another district within the same state. The same can be said for schools within the same district and classrooms within the same school building.
On another front we have teachers and administrators with big hearts, perhaps they carry a little guilt from their educational experiences and childhoods, or they just want to fool themselves into believing that grades can be used as a carrot. This develops into a practice in which if students just try their best, that is all we can ask and they should get good grades. Grades are no longer about learning but about being sweet, helpful, trying, just showing up, or simply for not causing problems. What we are saying is that in exchange for a behavior, we will reward students with passing grades. These folks believe these practices to be motivators, but they are not. Students know this game and they play it well. Students living in this world know how to negotiate for favors and for grades. “If you’ll give me a piece of candy, I’ll do my work,” “If I turn in this missing paper, will my grade go up?”
The result is that we have a grading system in American education that is meaningless! In no way can it be used to predict a students understanding of concepts or to compare them to their peers. I know many of you are thinking, “Well we shouldn’t compare one student to another anyway. Learning should be about individuals achieving to the best of their abilities.” OK then, again, why grade at all?
This is all pure and utter madness! If we are to have a grading system at all, it needs to have integrity. It must have meaning. It must indicate a level of achievement against some standard. If it does not, then why have it? There are many loud voices in education that say we shouldn’t be grading at all. I am not quite in that camp although my views on grading have drastically changed in recent times. I think grading has a place. But we must reevaluate our practices and the results we are getting from them. I think there are better ways and I will elaborate more on them later. In the meantime….
Stop the insanity!