I’ve been engaged in a sort of “war of ideas” lately, on the topic of grading. I have to admit to some arrogance here, however, as I always go into these conversations knowing I’m right. After all, I come from the perspective that a grade needs to be purely a measure of content mastery. Anyone who gives out extra credit or includes practice work in a student’s average just isn’t enlightened enough to get it.
For example, I am constantly promoting the idea that assessments are not mountains to be climbed or puzzles to be solved, but measurements of mastery. Teachers and parents sometimes argue that students try harder when there is a grade on the line. I keep telling them, that we need to teach students that these are just “temperature checks” that inform our teaching, not some sort of challenge that must be overcome.
But, there are moments when I realize that I don’t have all the answers. There are arguments that other teachers make that force me to re-assess some of the practicalities of an instructionally sound grading policy. The fact is that moving toward a system like the one that I’ve described here and here (and others have discussed here and here), requires more than re-training teachers and administrators. It means helping students and parents to understand why this is better than the alternative.
But, it’s also much bigger than this.
I came to this realization during another extended “sounding board” discussion with my friend and colleague, Erica Speaks. She rightly pointed out that while I might say that assessments are just “measurements of content mastery” (can’t you just picture the air quotes here?), they have so much more impact than that. I interrupted to remind her that we need to train students of this new reality. She countered that school athletics, university admissions, and lots of others create an environment in which kids are made to feel that earning a good grade is an achievement that one gets through hard work. Academic failure is described as a failure of will and effort.
Should a patient feel like a failure if her temperature is 100.8 degrees instead of 98.6? She might if it meant that she couldn’t join the Marine Corps (or the Peace Corps). Measurements have meaning when they are tied to extrinsic rewards and used as standards for participation.
It is now clear to me that grading practices are not going to improve until those “downstream” from public education are on board. As Russ Goerend put it in a recent blog post,
“Grading is communication. Once all stakeholders are speaking the same language, it becomes a much less meaningful conversation.”