Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What does an A, B, C actually mean?

This week marks one of the worst periods of my life as a teacher: report card week. I do not loath this week for the reasons that many teachers loath this week (extra work, long hours, etc), I hate it because grades (as presently configured) are unfair and are often unrepresentative of learning.

Full disclosure here: I don’t quite understand what the letter grades “A”, “B”, “C”, “D”, or “F” mean or stand for.  Do they really stand as a measure of understanding or rather a way to rank and judge students? If you get an “A” in a course does that mean you know the material and can think in new, innovative, and exciting ways about said content or does it mean that you outscored the rest of your peers? Let us assume it means mastery of a course or concept. Is there some magical line floating in the abyss which students must pass to reach an “A”? How does a teacher know a student passes this line of understanding or mastery from an “A” to a “B”? Presumably, this is why many teachers use percentages. But then again can you really quantify learning, abstract ideas, critical thought, creation, and the like with a percentage? Of course not. So then I am left with the question: what are letter grades, what do they mean, and how do we get them?

So then grades become a way of measuring competition. How crazy is that? Why must we have a certain amount of “A”, “B”, “C”, “D” and “F”? Is life really built on the notion of a bell curve? If I get my students turned on to learning and they get excited about a concept, all of them may produce high quality work and understanding. To then say that some of this work is not quite good enough is absurd. Am I really supposed to tell a student that has done everything asked of her that she does not deserve an “A” simply because another students did it just a bit "better"? Why is it not “A” work? As students believe grades equal worth (because of pressure by parents, society and peers alike), how devastating is it to a child who works their tale off on a project and is given a “C” just to uphold the bell curve. In an awesome blog post by Steve Miranda titled “Average” is a concept that no longer exists, he writes that the traditional notion of the bell curve is vanishing. He tells of the success of Netflix and Amazon who do big business by providing the obscure and limited. He also links to a TED talk by Malcolm Gladwell that tells the tale of the food revolution: the discovery of people wanting not one great pasta sauce but different flavors and types of pasta sauce. But schools don’t get this. Instead of valuing the most minor and obscure talents of its students, it values a small and some would say trivial amount of knowledge. We have labeled kids as “A” “B” “C” learners based on how they perform in a few subjects in relation to their peers.

Finally, we are exposing kids to competition that by its nature is not fair. The true beauty of athletic competition is that two WILLING parties of relative equal skill and potential face off against each other. Based on this idea, competition has no place in the classroom and grades just serve as a way of maintaining low self-esteem and low self-efficacy.  First, most kids don’t want school to be competition. Instead, it is the creation of the American government’s schooling policies and a few over zealous parents. Why in the world would you want a child to get ahead at the expense of another kid? In effect we are doing that with grades. They devalue collaboration and  teamwork and promote the notion that education is a zero-sum game. If knowledge is created through experience, relationships, and time how can it be zero-sum? Why do we push for a system that tells us a few kids can corner the market on knowledge and learning?

After this long-winded rant on grades I still succumb to the pressure myself. I write long comments and hold mini-conferences with students to concentrate on the learning, but in the end I often cave and give them a grade. I often tell them that thinking of only the grade robs them of truly seeing what they have done and accomplished. It is a slow process, but I see small successes. Today, I wrote long comments on an open-ended assessment and one of the kids came up to me and said, “What is my grade?” Before I could respond, a quiet kid in the front said, “who cares, we learned a ton.” Boy, was that sweet.  In order to minimize the deflation that some students experience when they learn their third quarter grades, I am going to give them a presentation showing them all the things they have done and learned this year. Before I hand out the dreaded reports cards I will say to concentrate on the things you have done not the grades that you have “earned”. In the fourth quarter we will be setting up digital portfolios, which I hope will lesson the need for grades to be more prevalent. We will wait and see. Baby steps …

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