R – I hate grades. I love assessing, I don’t mind “grading”, but I hate grades. What’s the point? “I got a B”. SO? What in the world does THAT mean…
As school teachers we are required to give grades for the work that our students do. I think I’ve made it abundantly clear how I am biased towards standards based assessment which eliminates grades completely. But even at schools that incorporate standards based assessment, and especially so at the secondary level, teachers are still usually required to eventually transfer standards scores to grades (which defeats the point… thanks a million, post secondary schools for mandating grades). My take on this is that a) this is a shame, b) if you are required to give grades, make sure they have “teeth” in them. Be sure that you – and your students – can clearly articulate the distinction between an “A” and a “B”, and between a “B” and a “C”, and so on. ESPECIALLY when it comes to music classes which can otherwise easily be perceived as non-academic (which defeats us all… thanks a million, the handful of music colleagues who don’t believe that students should be assessed).
Next month when I submit my grades for my classes, I am going to have to transfer my standards over to grades. When I do so, the process is straight forward. If a student received all “4”s, it’s an A+ for the term. If it was an even combination of “3”s and “4”s, it’s an A for the term. Virtually all “3”s? A-. In essence, an A in our school is looked at as exemplary work. Well, if a student meets every single expectation I had for them (a “3”), is that not exemplary work? If I made all 3’s a B, that student would be ineligible for the honor roll… but yet they MET my expectations! How could I possibly justify that (“hey, you met every expectation I had for you but that wasn’t good enough…”)? Of course, in the end the question ends up being rhetorical because the answer is dependent on opinion, which actually makes my point about the futility of grades to begin with.
Now for the students who have earned at least one “2” by the end of the semester. This is where the transfer to grades becomes interesting. With Music Theory, it’s an automatic “F” for the semester. Period. The good news? Because the students know that ahead of time, they re-take any and every assessment they receive a “1” or a “2” on until they show proficiency in that standard, so that by the end of the Semester, they all have received all “3”s and “4”s in each and every single individual academic standard. The net result? Every Theory student who passes my course is granted at least an A-. And I know what you’re thinking, “but if everyone gets an ‘A’, that isn’t fair and it shows that your class is easy…”
Even though I acknowledge this statement to be an unfair generalization, mark my words, there are only two scenarios by which the vast majority of your students receive an “A”: the first is due to an absence of rigor, the second due to a predominance of rigor in a course that requires proficiency in articulated standards to pass.
How about my choirs? If a Chamber Singer earns more than one or two 2s, they are dropped from the course, due to a failure to commit to the minimum expectation I have for them day to day and concert to concert. And for my non-auditioned choirs, every 2 or 1 in the daily assessment of working towards the standards, or an end of the term standard score of a 2 or a 1 earns anywhere from an F to a B+. It depends on the standard, the number of 2s or 1s, daily work towards meeting the standards, and so on. A 2 in standard i., “Sings with dropped jaw and light bulb space” cannot be treated the same as a 2 in standard c., “Sings utilizing correct solfege or numbers” or a 2 in standard j., “Engagement”. Is this still subjective? Yes. Is it ten times less subjective than what I used to do for my first 20 years of teaching? You betcha.
Grades. I still don’t want to give them. But when I do, (A.D.D. moment here, I can’t say that phrase without conjuring up the image of the Dos Equis Most Interesting Man commercial) I do everything I can to ensure that they have teeth behind them, validity, and direct connection to what students are being held accountable for in an authentic way. The connection to standards and standards based assessment makes this possible for me. I enthusiastically recommend considering at least a variation on the same. I don’t pretend to know what I’m talking about here as any authority on this topic any more than any other blog post I’ve put out there. But this is where my head is at right now. And as is also the case with every other post I’ve written, I’m more than open to other thoughts that could get me to shift my thinking. This is a complex topic with no hard and fast rules to it.
And though my premise is that there is no substitute for individual accountability, my instrumental colleague at York Middle School, Jimi Neel, showed me this great video last year which drives home the point that we are always aiming our ensembles toward the highest level of proficiency.