letter grades: the big farce

Rwarning, lunatic ahead. If you don’t want to read a rant by someone certifiably crazy, please close this window of your internet browser now before you read any more and get sucked in. Or at least read it through a pinhole box.

One of the reasons I seem to find myself happily writing about standards based assessment all the time on this blog is because it helps me keep my mind off of a negative: letter grades. I think I’ve finally hit the breaking point of my tolerance for them. The problem is that the further I move away from them, the more of a righteous sham they appear to be.

The biennial Maine Arts Assessment Conference occurred this week with over two hundred attendees driving to Orono, Maine to take in workshops by over 30 teacher leaders – fellow colleagues – who have immersed themselves in arts assessment. It was astounding to see and hear how many arts teachers routinely utilize standards in their classrooms. As recently as two and a half years ago, the leadership of the Maine Arts Assessment Initiative had some very pointed discussions over whether or not we could even DARE to use the word “assessment” in the title of our state conference; in the Winter and Spring of 2011, it was still largely considered the dirty word. And while I still hear concerns and criticisms about standards based assessment from time to time, the  difference now is that those who swear by them are beginning to outnumber the ones who avoid using them. But it goes deeper than that. They too are viewing letter grades with a wary eye. And the “a-ha” moment stories about letter grade inadequacies are growing. Here’s a smattering of my realizations about grades over the past 6 years since I first began implementing standards in my work at York.

Grades are irrelevant. Steve gets a 90% on the 5 paragraph essay assignment. Joe gets a 78% and Zach got a 64%. Question: whose spelling was best? Whose use of conventions was spot on? Who is able to compose that essay seamlessly in the 5 paragraph essay format that was requested? Wanna guess? That’s my point: all you can DO is guess. The parent doesn’t know what “Essay #4: 87%” means. And I bet you all my Tom Seaver baseball cards that one month later, neither does the student. And I’ll bet you all my Carl Yastrzemski cards that two months later, neither does the photoTEACHER. The reason I use this example is because I assign a 5 paragraph essay to 200 teenagers each year, scored with English department criteria. Until I went to standards, this is precisely how I assessed them (and trust me on this, precisely how long we remembered what the grades meant!). When I went to standards based reporting, everything changed. Zach’s spelling and use of conventions was immaculate. But he didn’t actually stay with the writing prompt that was given. Steve wrote the most amazing essay and made me so proud with how articulate he was on the given topic. Best one I read all year. And he didn’t go two sentences without a spelling or punctuation error. When I went to standards based reporting, he was referred to his English teacher for remedial assistance. Standards: Steve, there are some foundational things you need to work out before you can really move on in High School and beyond. Grades: great work Steve, you just made honor roll!!!

Grades draw attention to a “bell curve”. Grades tell you how a student measures up against other students. Standards tell you what a student knows and to what degree they know it. But we live in a culture where it is more important to have winners (valedictorians), runner-ups (salutatorians), lesser winners (honors students) and not so much winners (“but-at-least-you-got-your-diploma” and did particularly well in a class or two that you found interesting or enjoyed). Consequently, it would be unfathomable to have an educational climate where the diploma and graduation meant, concretely and merely, that every student had demonstrated proficiency in every single essential standard of every single subject area. Wow. That would be pretty awful….

Grades are static. You enter a grade in your grade book, it’s there forever (unless, of course, for some teachers, it’s the lowest grade – in which case it simply “disappears” at the end of the term… keep reading). It means that understanding on time is what’s primarily valued. Have you ever heard of a quiz grade being eliminated a month later because someone took that same quiz again and scored higher the second time around? That’s because in GradeWorld, it’s called “cheating”, or “playing” the teacher… or rewarding laziness. Or something. You know what it is in StandardsWorld? Learning. Student demonstration of academic content (not to mention growth!). Man, I really hate grades.

Grades have always been a problem. If grades have always “worked”, then why are our schools in such trouble academically? Why “A Nation At Risk”? Why “No Child Left Untested Behind”? Why “Common Core”? Did it ever dawn on anyone that holding students accountable to the specific learning targets we want them to know and be able to do would result in student knowledge and understanding of the specific learning targets we want them to know and be able to do? That really requires a membership in MENSA or a last name of “Marzano” to understand???

Grades bypass actual learning. Let’s look at this from a specific example that every teacher confronts: the “lowest grade” as it translates to the overall grade. Maybe the lowest quiz grade, test grade, whatever. The lowest grade. How do teachers view it? If a student gets a 64% on a quiz, but gets all 90’s on the remainder, the overall grade ends up being around an A-. No problem, right? Wrong. There is material the student does not know or understand. Traditional grades absorb that shortfall into the fallacy that an A- is really good. What it REALLY means is that the student did well on most material, but not all. But because the verbal score is good, the material the student didn’t know is considered completely irrelevant in the long run. “The kid got an A-, what’s wrong with that?” I’ll tell you what’s wrong with that: 1) you have just sent a message that the material you assess is not that important because it’s OKAY if the student doesn’t get pieces of it; each individual piece isn’t reeeaaaallllly essential knowledge, 2) the grade doesn’t identify the piece(s) along the way that the student was unable to show proficiency in. Are you aware that if a car is built absolutely perfectly, with the greatest degree of manufacturing skill ever known to mankind, it’s powered by sunlight, the seats are made of silk… and the steering wheel was never installed, it won’t get you anywhere? Grades aren’t concerned with that. A perfect car with one piece missing out of the thousands that are required to build it? Hey baby, that’s A quality work!!! Standards would have never let it roll off the assembly line until every essential part was in place. Grades not only would have allowed it, they would have been unable to articulate the missing piece. You don’t believe me? Ask yourself this question: did you ever have a teacher drop your lowest quiz grade before calculating your final grade? Me too. To this day I have never been held accountable for that material I didn’t know – – – because I did well in everything else! Standards based assessment? Not only is the lowest quiz grade not removed, there was no lowest quiz grade to begin with, just a standard score of 1 or 2. And standards requires the learner to show proficiency of a 3 in that before they can pass the course. Lack of comprehension: Standards teacher draws attention to it, Grades teacher removes or buries it. Have I mentioned that grades make me angry?

Grades are subjective. This last year, for those of you who teach in a state with a leader who is competent enough to avoid bringing this train-wreck upon themselves, Governor LePage decided to assign “grades” to every single school in the state. Yup, he did. Some schools got an A, some got an F and others got everything in between. Here’s what some of the concerns were from the field: “He didn’t tell us what the criteria would be ahead of time”, “we don’t know what the grades refer to”, “these grades don’t tell our communities what is going WELL in our schools”, “these grades don’t reflect WHAT is going well in our schools”, “these grades don’t factor in external criteria we have no control over”. In essence, these grades were looked at as bogus. Further proof? My school was one of the “A” schools… and WE thought it was a joke! Reread that last sentence. Here’s the REAL hoot about this – ready? 1) this is the same Governor who just passed into law a requirement for schools to transition to standards based reporting (you can’t even make this stuff up) and 2) which one of these complaints about the grades doesn’t align with what I’ve been saying this entire blog post about the mere assigning of letter grades to begin with?

If you want to make the argument that in practice we have to align with what higher ed still requests of us, go ahead. This isn’t a debate of what we need to do to feed their agenda; if they actually authentically cared about education in this country, they would be joining us at the table in this dialogue instead of still requesting class rank and grade point average for admission. That they don’t is proof enough of where their priorities lie. Just  please don’t try to tell me that’s “okay”. It’s not. If you believe otherwise and want to argue the point, bring it. The winner will be the one who articulates best exactly what they mean on every single point.

Unlike grades.

ps, I found an article online this morning articulating why grades should not be banned. My rebut is the topic for next Saturday morning. I’m not sure I can wait that long.

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1 Response to letter grades: the big farce

  1. Pingback: the case for letter grades(?) | Goober Music Teachers

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