Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Grades for Learning or Learning to get Grades?

Teachers have to give homework and have to grade everything their students do. This is a belief that many teachers still hold and certainly the belief that nearly all students and parents have. I remember as a student asking my own teachers, “Will this be on the test?” If the answer to that was, “yes” I would make a note to write that down or study that a bit harder. At the end of the day I knew that my grades determined my class rank, my GPA, and ultimately played a role in my college choices. I was less concerned about what I was learning and more concerned about what my transcript looked like. If I was asked to redo an assignment and it was not going to change my grade, I would have probably passed on the opportunity. For me, school was about learning to get grades, not getting grades for learning.

Today students are still concerned with these items because they are still key indicators to at least get our foot into a college door. I don’t see a future where grades are completely out the door. As long as colleges look at class rank and GPA, we will need to provide a grade for every student.

So, how do we change the grade obsessed culture that we have in our schools? Well, as I have written about before, standards based grades is a start. For one, it takes homework out of the equation as far as a graded item and grades are purely a reflection of learning towards a set of standards. Homework is viewed as practice for an assessment activity. As a basketball coach, I don’t grade my players on how well they practice; it is the game that counts. However, my players know the relationship between practicing hard and the results in a game. Why would that be any different in a classroom? Partly because school has culturally centered around a grading philosophy that graded homework, participation, group work, compliance, assessments and nearly every single thing a student did while they were in the classroom. In my classes, more than 70% of the work that I ask students to engage in is NOT graded…and they do it anyway! My students are seeing the connection between the work we do in class and the assessments at the end of a section/chapter/unit.

Another step to take is to devalue grades. Don’t make them a point of celebration or punishment. Celebrate the learning successes of the students without a letter grade being the means of that celebration. Many of us have online grade books that parents can access 24/7 to see how their child is doing. I do not keep my grade book as up to date online for a reason. I hold on posting my grades until a student has had multiple opportunities to provide mastery of a skill. This way, parents can see only a final result rather than the entire process. This helps a student focus on the learning activities and not their current letter grade or average in the class. With that being said a critical component of the parent piece which is important to me. Due to me not posting grades as regularly, I am in constant contact with any parent who has a student who might be struggling. My conversations with them are around their learning and not a grade that has been posted. This also shifts parent teacher conferences that used to center around grades and now to learning targets and overall learning progress.

Wrapped up in all this is still that underlying question that a student will ask which is, “Is this going to count in my grade?” As teachers continue to evolve grading practices to reflect more student learning than compliant behaviors that question should change to, “Is this going to count in my learning?”
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