You're Holding that Pencil Wrong!

I hesitated in writing this post as I don’t want to call anyone out or embarrass anyone. This story is true and happened to someone close to me and I felt sharing and reflecting on it. My friend’s oldest child is in kindergarten this year and recently got his son’s first report card sent home. Report cards are all different but this was a pretty standard kindergartner report card. It had a handful of skills in a column with the tried and true “S” for satisfactory or “D” for developing. One such skill was “pencil grasp” and his son received a “D” in this column.

Now, the grade was not the issue my friend initially had but rather confusion because his son holds his pencil as “normal” as anyone else. So, he waited to bring this up at his son’s parent teacher conference. At the conference he asked the teacher why his son received a “D” for his pencil grasp. Her reply, according to him was, “well, when I tested him, he held his pencil in a fist which is not correct.”

I am not here to defend the way a child holds his pencil but the fact that his grade was based on a one time “test” of pencil holding ability. Knowing this kid, I am sure he was just being a stinker at that moment of the test. In addition, I have personally witnessed this child hold and use his pencil in the “approved” manner. Yet, this teacher did not base his grade on what I would assume would be multiple days of in class observation. She had to have seen him write, color, and draw on countless occasions during the few months he had been in her class. His grade was based on a so called snapshot moment that clearly did not illustrate his abilities.

For me, there a few reasons I find this story problematic. First, I happen to know this was a first year teacher that was probably just doing what they were told. This is often the case in schools where new teachers are products of the environment rather than doing what is best for kids. Second, this is another illustrated example of why standard and district assessments are too often a snapshot and not the whole picture of a child. Yet, so much value is given to these assessments. Finally, this points to the problem with grades and how they often fail to articulate a child’s abilities. If you were an un-involved parent, you would see such a report card as my friend and assume there was a problem with your child.

In looking at lessons learned here…if you are a teacher don’t let a child’s grade be based on a snapshot. Do everything within your power to use grades and any other feedback you have to paint a clear picture of a child’s abilities. On the other side of things, if you are a parent like my friend, make sure you ask questions. Teachers can learn from parents as much as anybody and their perspectives are often underutilized. 


Aviva said...

Josh, I love this post of yours. I was just thinking today about my need to blog on "test taking," and then I read your post. You see, I have this really big issue with giving tests. I very rarely do. In fact, I often only give a test if I am directed to give one (i.e., it's a Board wide or province wide one that I need to administer). I've never really given lots of tests, and it took me a while to figure out my issue with them. I finally did the other night while I was having a conversation with a teacher friend of mine on tests. My problem is that I need to know why a child got a wrong answer. Did he/she not understand the question? Does he/she not know the content? Does he/she not understand the content? Or is it some combination of all of these things. With a test, students get a grade, and then that seems to be it. But I need to know the why, so I rarely give tests. Instead I watch my students. I talk to my students. I see what they're doing in class each day, and I see what I can do to push them along to the next level. I know many teachers that give tests and love tests, and I know many Kindergarten teachers that have done the exact same test as the one that you described here. The problem isn't with the test itself, but it's with what happens when the student doesn't get the right answer or show the skill correctly. Without following up on the "why," we never really know what we can do to help move this student along. That bothers me. Your post has really got me thinking, and I appreciate that!

Thanks Josh!

Josh Stumpenhorst said...


Thanks for reading and commenting! For the biggest issue with this scenario was that a student's grade was determined by one chance assessment rather than a series of observations that should be happening every single day.

Tia said...

Wow. I am.shocked that a teacher of little kindergarten students would do a 'test' like this (and it doesn't sound uncommon, which is even more disturbing). Unfortunately, I believe many teachers grade students like this - as a snapshot, when it should be so much more than that. I hope your friend's conversation with this teacher has helped the teacher realize how crazy that 'test' is.

Kristin said...

Great post. I have seen this recently (on the parent side of things). I accept that an assessment may work best for a particular teacher, but translating a one time assessment (with 5 or less questions)into one line on the report card just doesn't feel accurate to me.

Well put - I'm glad to have read your opinion on this.

RADMomINohio said...

"Long time listener, first time caller." I'm a parent of a child with 'Emotional Disturbance' for IEP purposes. Her ability to function is different on any given day. I've learned over the years, that tests are not a good assessment to her abilities or knowledge. Then at that point, work is based off of a false basis. She used to use this to her advantage - purposefully bomb reading assessments - to "get my teacher off my back" because she didn't like reading.
But also think about the impact of these grades on the students' motivation? What kind of student are you? An A Student, B Student, mostly Cs?
In regards to parent involvement, I have a question for you - as I highly respect your approach to teaching. I've learned to take the approach to schoolwork/homework as the responsbility of the child - not the parent. When I "made" her do homework, she only did it for me and the work suffered and it was a totally hateful experience. When I put it back in her lap, she had to own it and started setting her own goals. Some of her teachers have liked this approach, and some just look at me funny. I've learned that when a teacher doesn't agree with me, they tend to keep it to themselves and just avoid the issue. I personally hate that - tell me and let's work together. But I can see how it's hard to determine which parents are like that and which ones would go on the defense. I wanted to get your opinion on how to approach her current teacher who I've requested a Parent-Teacher Conference with but I want it to include my child/the student. I feel at 8th grade, she should be included in hearing all the positives but contribute to any actionables to help her be a successful student. Her teacher and I coorespond through email - I try to respect her time and schedule this way. I've emailed her twice about it now. She has responded to "heads up" emails about rough mornings/evenings type emails, quite quickly in fact. But seems to be ignoring this request. Parent/Teacher Conferences have already happened but none of her teachers wanted to meet - which honestly was a first for me - so I wasn't scheduled. I want to keep our relationship productive and my means for meeting is only to help - help my child succeed and help the teacher so she doesn't have to deal with growing issues. Thanks.

Josh Stumpenhorst said...


I am sorry to hear your child's teacher is dismissing the idea of you having a meeting with your child present. Yes, there are times when teachers and parents talk about things that are "adult" in nature, but there should be nothing said about a child's academics that they should not be present for. I wish you luck in trying to get a meeting set up.

Principal Shawn Blankenship said...

This post was a perfect example of "one chance assessment" as you called it. A grade/feedback should be a true reflection of what the student knows and is able to do. I also believe it should be current. Many snapshot assessments are recorded and then reported weeks or months later as if it is up-to-date. For that reason, when the teacher stated, “well, when I tested him, he held his pencil in a fist which is not correct,” I wish the parent had asked the teacher, then why has it not been corrected. After all, the reason for assessments is to check for understanding, and then to intervene or adjust instruction to improve upon.

I see this same "one chance" approach made in teacher evaluations. Instead, I would rather see frequent observations along with ongoing feedback so that when it is time for the "formal" evaluation, the teacher receives a true picture of what happens every day in the classroom.