A Reflection on the Grading of Student Achievement

A Reflection on the Grading of Student Achievement

Several years ago, I read a young adult fictional novel that I think every teacher and school administrator would find useful to read, reflect, and discuss.   The Report Card by Andrew Clements was written in 2004.  Mr. Clements is actually a resident of the state of Massachusetts, however, the story is set in Connecticut.  The story is about report card grades and performance on standardized tests, in particular the CMTs (Connecticut’s version of MCAS), from the perspective of a fifth grade girl.  The premise of the story is that Nora Rose Rowley is a child with a genius I.Q. that has never been identified.  She has been aware that she is different from the other kids since she was in kindergarten.  She does not want to be different so she pretends not to be a genius.  She develops a friendship with a young boy that is not so smart and never receives good grades on his report card.  As a result, he (Stephen) does not have high self-esteem.  Nora decides to get poor grades herself to help Stephen to feel better about himself.  The story is about what ensues.

The story has many opportunities for comment on how adults handle things in their children’s lives as well as how teachers and administrators handle grading and test performance for children.  In one scene, Nora is called to the principal’s office for a meeting with her parents and teachers after having received all ‘D’s on her report card.  The teachers have to explain to the parents why the grades were so low and there was no warning to them.  The Librarian’s explanation is:

Mrs. Byrne ran her index finger along a row of numbers.  “On the first three quizzes and our first reference search, Nora got scores that averaged out to about seventy-two percent, which is a low C.  And that’s what she had at the seventh week of the term.  That’s when we mail out academic warnings to parents.  And since Nora didn’t have a D or lower, there was no warning.  Then on the next quiz and our final internet project, Nora did quite poorly.  And that pulled her grade down.  I entered her scores, calculated the average, and there it was.  Nora is one of the library’s very best customers, so I didn’t like having to give her a D, but that’s the way it happened.”

The Math teacher followed with:

“Exactly, numbers are numbers and an average is an average.  Same thing in science and math classes for Nora.  Her grades dropped off right at the end of the term, and that was it.  No warning for you, no warning for me.”

Every school administrator has had a similar experience.  We have all known at least one student that received a failing grade on a report card that did not expect to.  We have all had those discussions with teachers on the topic of whether or not it would be a surprise to the parents.  Many have even experienced the parental complaints after final grades are posted.  Invariably, we meet with the teacher to discuss the issue.  Teachers often have students that are performing at a passing level at “failure warning letter” time but then drop off at the end of the quarter and ultimately receive a failing grade.  They may even get that grade as a result of a single ‘0’ for an assignment in the last two weeks.  Occasionally this will fall through the cracks of the parental communication protocol and all are surprised.  We are then confronted with two issues: the very upset parents that were blindsided with the F and the self-esteem of the child as a result.

Rick Wormeli, in his informational text Fair is Not Always Equal, discusses differentiated grading for middle school students in particular.  He has some very good advice for grading policies.  He also has some very sound instruction in the area of understanding the purpose of assessment and that it should not be used as a form of punishment for kids.  It should be used to determine their level of mastery of content.  If the child’s grade is failing, it is often more of a reflection on the teacher than the student.  He is a strong proponent of children not receiving failing grades but getting second chances to relearn the material.  He suggests methods for doing this without holding up the instruction for the other students.

Getting back to Nora, she has a conversation with the librarian later in the day about what happened in the meeting and what she will do about it.

“Most kids never talk about it, but a lot of the time bad grades make them feel dumb, and almost all the time it’s not true.  And good grades can make other kids think that they’re better, and that’s not true either.  And then all the kids start competing and comparing.  The smart kids feel smarter and better and get all stuck-up, and the regular kids feel stupid and like there’s no way to ever catch up.  And the people who are supposed to help kids, the parents and the teachers, they don’t.  They just add more pressure and keep making up more and more tests.”

I wonder how many of our students feel this way.  Thinking back on comments that teachers have made regarding student performance, I have often heard some which lead me to believe that the teachers see it as a form of punishment for the student.  They think “If the student doesn’t perform well, it is his fault and giving him a poor grade will teach him a lesson.”  Further discussion might bring to light a disconnect between how grading should be used and how it is actually being used in many settings.

Following some testing by the school psychologist to determine aptitude, Nora comments:

“How are these I.Q. scores different from grades?  Or the Mastery Testing scores?  How come they don’t hide all the grades and scores from kids?  Teachers need to know the grades so they can figure out how to help kids do better and learn more, but why do kids need to know them?  After all, those CMT scores didn’t help Stephen – not one bit.”

I find this to be an interesting concept.  I wonder what would happen if we could get rid of grading systems for kids.  I know that all of the adults would be against it as that is all they know.  I think parents and teachers would have a hard time with the concept as they would have a hard time adjusting to a new way (no matter what that is) of figuring out the progress of their kids.  We all know parents (maybe rightly so) that wear their kid’s grades as a badge of honor.  I’m not certain if grades are for the kids or if they are for the adults.

Nora’s story progresses and she continues to get zeros on tests even after having been identified as having a genius I.Q.  The principal calls Nora into her office to have a discussion with her.  Nora explains that she got zeros because the tests involved nothing but simple memorization and she was expressing her opinion about that kind of testing.  She says that the tests got the scores they deserved.  The principal thinks for several minutes and then responds:

“I see what you mean, and it’s true that these tests all require students to memorize a lot of information.  But knowing basic information is important.  It’s like the foundation.  You get bored with this kind of test because you’ve been trying to pretend you’re average- and you’re not.  This kind of test is fine for most of the kids.  You need to be in the gifted program, Nora.  In the gifted program you’d have lots of creative challenges.  That’s what you need.  I’ve already talked with your mother, and I have recommended that you start that program as soon as possible.  Maybe you should even skip ahead into sixth grade.  Or even eighth.”

Nora perceives this as the principal’s attempt to move her out of the school so she didn’t have to deal with her any more.  Nora replies:

What about all the other kids?  I get to go and do creative and exciting things, and all the other kids get worksheets and memorization and the same old stuff, week after week.  That’s not fair.”

The story continues with a few other episodes of Nora trying to get her opinion across and ultimately remaining where she was without having to pretend who she was any more.  What would we all do if we were in that principal’s shoes.  I hope that we would be able to see the situation from everyone’s viewpoint and ultimately make the decision that is in the best interest of the child and not what is in the best interest of the child from an adult perspective.

Opening avenues for discussion about how we as educators view grading and other measures of student achievement and the impact it has on the mental well-being of our students is critical if we truly want to have our next generation of leaders/parents/doctors/lawyers/engineers/etc… be effective.  We all seem to recognize grading as a measure of student achievement.  I would ask us to consider and reflect on whether those grades truly represent the knowledge gained by the student in the process of learning or do they represent student performance on some tasks a teacher has asked them to complete.