It’s Final Grade time — Parents — listen-up and lighten-up!

The dreaded end of year grades.  The joy and adulation for those who did well and for those students who did not do so well — summer begins in purgatory with parents on the war path for poor grades.  Kids most precious freedoms grounded until further notice.  Parents scratching their heads as to what to do with this child they have brought into this world….will they ever amount to anything?  Do they need summer school? Will they make it through high school? 

Grades make some kids feel really stupid while good grades boost the social status of other students.  I cannot say this enough that grades do not equal intelligence.  I have far too many examples of my students who after high school are a smashing success despite poor grades and a few that despite high marks did not really amount to much as an adult.  WHY?

Here is a dirty little secret about grades.  They are very very subjective.  Shocking!  We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to convince ourselves, parents, and students that grades are objective. Really the only objective part about a grade are factual components, spelling and calculation.  And in some cases, even that is subjective when you consider that the act and process of writing the assessment is a subjective.

Teachers are human and when they grade they make all kinds of decisions that impact the grade in a course. For example,  I had two math teachers that graded completely different. One math teacher always gave points for process (showing your work) and the other only graded correct answer.  This difference in scoring is completely subjective which makes the grade in the course subjective.  When I hear teachers say they are striving to be objective what they are really saying is they want to be consistent.  Consistency can be defended and defensibility is vitally important to teachers.  I get that,  because deep down we teachers know that this grading process is full of holes that are easily exposed and indefensible.  The only way to justify the grade is to remain consistent.

We have all kinds of issues with grades and all kinds of practices that diminish the credibility of a grade.  For example, we kids getting “extra credit” for things like bringing in can goods, riding the big yellow taxi, covering textbooks, coming to class or wearing spirit gear. We give them points for participation. We give them points for trying.  We give points for almost anything that is unrelated to learning or the class content. That obscures and lessens the credibility of the grade in a course that should be focused on content, skills and knowledge. 

But wait —  that is not the only thing we do that calls into question the validity of the grade.  We do a terrible job separating behavior from grades.  So much of our grading is about compliance.  We grade student behaviors like effort, participation, following classroom rules, whether or not you used the proper paper or pencil versus pen, paper or notebook.  Double-spaced, triple-spaced, name and date in upper left hand corner all of this is more about compliance than acquisition of course content.

Nothing drove me more insane as a parent (who is a teacher) to drive to three different stores for my daughter to comply with some silly requirement from a teacher.  Failure to comply resulted in points deducted from the course grade. What did that measure?  It might have measured the parents not the student. How many students did not have a parent at home willing to go on the “scavenger hunt” for some item that the teacher insisted you needed to have for his or her class? Those students lost points and those students started a class in the hole before any instruction happened. 

What is equally frustrating is teachers wielding a gradebook like a WMD (Weapon of Mass Destruction). Thinking and somewhat believing kids are motivated by grades and therefore punishing them via the gradebook will make them behave or act in a certain way.  Not only does this not make sense it actually produces the opposite impact on student motivation.  The student sees the teacher having a personal vendetta against them which often sapps the motivation for performance in class. 

In today’s world we need to use evidence of student performance to assess where they are academically.  We need to be honest with students about performance — and — grades should be reflective of that performance on standards not compliance to arcane rules.  

I often use coaching examples when explaining this parents or other educators. Coaches — and I mean anyone who coaches kids whether its in the arts or sports knows that feedback, praise,and precise instructions are needed for the student to be successful.  Coaches often don’t mince words on performance and kids know what they need to do and intuitively know when they are not ready or have not mastered the task.  Coaches don’t give grades — no coach has ever uttered “that was an F performance today.” Coaches instead give feedback — praise the areas of progress — specify exactly what the student needs to work on to be successful.  Grading and grades only diminish overall motivation.  We all have a responsibility to stop the madness around grades and grading practices. We all need to ask questions related  to “what am I as a teacher attempting to measure” versus “what did I actually measure?” 

Assessment is vital and grades are representations of performance and overall achievement.  We need to insure that we properly measure student performance and not allow extraneous, unreliable practices that obscure what that grade means to parents and students.  We need to do this to keep many students from spending the first part of the summer in purgatory for poor grades and alleviate some of the unnecessary worry of those kids parents about what they might be when they grow-up!   


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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