Grading and assessment are two of my favorite topics to discuss with both educators and non-educators. I feel strongly about the changes that need to happen, and I think I’m pretty good at explaining them. Yet, it still frustrates me when I read statements from policy-makers that show a complete lack of understanding of the purpose of grades and the issues that stem from that purpose.

This is the position in which I found myself when I attended a school board meeting for my large North Carolina school district and observed the response of the Board Chair to a request by district leaders to reform the grading policies enforced in the district. One quote was particularly disheartening,

“We have to raise our standards for students, not lower them and that is what it appears to be what we’re doing. We’re almost encouraging a guarantee of success or a successful grade by some of these practices. And I don’t think that’s the way the real world works.”

I can hardly believe that the leaders of my school district can so widely miss the point of this discussion. But, I feel that it is my duty to post here an open letter to do my best in clearing up this confusion:

To: Mr. Ron Margiotta
Chairman, Board of Education
Wake County Public Schools

Dear Mr. Margiotta,

As an educator, I have many responsibilities. Chief among these is ensuring that my students are given every opportunity to master the content that the State of North Carolina has determined is appropriate for them. In my decade of classroom experience, I have grown and matured as a teacher, learning how diverse students can be and how varied their needs are.

These experiences led me to seek out a clearer understanding of why we grade work and about the best practices for doing so. My search began with a very simple question, “What is the purpose of a grade?” The answer I arrived at is the same one reached by every other parent, student, and educator with whom I have discussed grading. The primary purpose of grades is to communicate information about content mastery to parents and students.

With this purpose in mind, it becomes clear that there is a clear distinction between the skills and knowledge dictated by our curriculum, and the habits and behaviors that lead to success in both life and school. Both are critically important. Over the past few decades, however, we have combined these two pieces of information into one grade that is displayed on report cards. Conflating content mastery with work habits causes a lot of confusion. Parents have no way of knowing if their child’s “B” in Science means:

  • He completed all of his work, did his homework, participated in class, but earned D’s and F’s on quizzes and tests
  • He didn’t do his homework, he acted out in class, and he excelled on all of his assessments

Parents need to know if their children are achieving their academic and behavioral goals. This is simply not possible when schools combine all of this data into one single letter grade.

The changes that district officials are proposing do not lower our standards, but rather they clarify our outcomes. We teachers need a way to report student mastery and work habits (e.g., homework completion, classroom behavior, participation) side-by-side. We need to prevent other factors, like extra credit and homework completion, from obscuring the achievement of our students. We need to find alternative ways to promote a strong work ethic, because we recognize how important it is.

Above all, we teachers need your help. We want to raise the bar for both mastery and effort by reporting each in its own place, not mixed together into a meaningless letter grade. I implore you to consider approving the new grading policies so that we can move forward and our students may benefit.

With respect,

Paul Cancellieri

One thought on “Give Us The Tools We Need

  1. Great bit, Paul.

    You’re on to what I think the greatest barrier to changing the way we assess in the classroom really is: Changing the perceptions of parents and the general public.

    The whole “formative/summative” concept is foreign to them—and I think it’s one or two steps beyond what they’re currently comfortable with.

    For me, the challenge is finding a middle ground between what we used to do and what we want to do that will make everyone—-parents, students and teachers—comfortable.

    I’m not sure that schools are looking for that common ground—-and I’m not sure that parents are ready for it.

    We need to get a beverage, my friend. I miss ya!


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