Grading Grades that Degrade
A conversation overheard a million times in classrooms across America. “Why”, complains 4th grade student Timmy, “Did I get a C on my report card”? “Oh no, Timmy”, replies his teacher, “You didn’t get a C, you earned a C!” (In the age of massive grade inflation – a discussion for another time – I guess this conversation would include a B, or even an A-.) Timmy walks away unconvinced. Actually, he thinks, I didn’t earn it, you gave it to me.
At the heart of the issue is the fact that we have never clarified exactly what we are grading. It seems to me that grades should be a communicative tool that we use to relay achievement levels to parents (and others who might be interested in the child’s progress) and to the child. Put simplest, they should reflect the proficiency of the student in the particular discipline being graded. In short, you earn your grade. Pretty simple, right? Wrong. Let me show you where this almost never happens:
Timmy forgot to study for his math test and did not do well. He received an F. He asks the teacher for a retake. The teacher, after scolding Timmy for not studying when he was supposed to, allows Timmy another chance. Timmy studies and aces the test. What grade does Timmy get? Well, we would almost all say that either the teacher should average the two together, or, at the very least, take substantial points off his second score.
Now, we must ask ourselves, “What does Timmy’s first failure tell us about his proficiency in the subject being graded”? Answer: nothing. Timmy knows the stuff cold. Why the low grade? Answer: the teacher uses the grade to punish Timmy. It no longer accurately reflects his achievement in the given discipline, but factors in his performance as well. (This example is even more compelling if Timmy’s first failure was not the result of not studying, but rather his inability to understand the material the first time.) Would you now say he earned the C or got the C? Timmy correctly assumes he earned an A, but got the C. In this instance Timmy gets it right, not his teacher.
Grades no longer seem to grade. In Timmy’s case they seem to degrade. They no longer do what they were designed to do. And, instead of trying to reach proficiency, students learn to play the game. One of my favorites is, “What do I have to do to get an A”? Notice they never say to earn an A. It’s obvious to them they can no longer earn the A by proving they have achieved mastery, so now it’s a game of improving performance.
While I certainly agree that it is important to find a way to report student performance, it is equally crucial for schools to clarify to their constituencies what their grades grade. Until this is clarified Timmy and his teacher will continue to argue and the benefits of the grades we give will be lost.