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The UnCollege Blog

Making The Grade

A high school algebra class in suburban Washington, DC, is finishing up a topic that the students breezed through, although the class had struggled on other concepts during the year.  

After the teacher’s last lesson on the subject ends, a philosophical argument begins – one that is at the center of a thorny issue in education.

The teacher congratulates the class on their understanding of the work, and a student in the back who generally grasps the concepts but has not excelled on assessments, raises his hand.

“So, do we all get A’s then?” he asks, as his classmates laugh.

“We’ll see how you do on the test,” the teacher responds.

“Why do we need a test?” the student replies.  “Really, why do we need grades? You just said that we get this stuff.”

The same issue has probably come up in your head, especially if your grade reports were not something you were wildly proud of or if they were the source of discussion about your under-utilized potential.

So, why do we need grades?

There are certainly those who don’t think we do – like Bill Ferriter an author and “noted edublogger” and a sixth grade teacher at in Raleigh, NC,

“While our traditional grading practices might feel comfortable to parents and policymakers, they are stifling progress.  Isn't it hypocritical to preach about the importance of innovation in education while simultaneously clinging to a system which is almost as archaic as it is useless.”

(If you’d like more ammunition about the downside of grades, look at the work of Alfie Kohn, who in one blog entry says our grading system has been forcefully and logically attacked in research dating back to the 1930’s.  These reports remind us just how long it’s been clear there’s something wrong with what we’re doing as well as just how little progress we’ve made in acting on that realization", he says)

But once you’ve gotten that out of your system, understand that assessments – from restaurant reviews and coaching choices to SAT tests and performance appraisals at a job –  are part of life and they probably have value. And they’re a huge part of an education system that needs them.

Proponents of grading say there are several reasons why it’s stuck around:

1)It is a measure of your work. It tells the teacher, your parents and especially you how hard you worked and what you know. For a variety of reasons, that’s important. “They are certainly valuable to help students and parents know how they are doing,” says Audra McPhillips, a math teacher and academic coach in West Warwick, RI.

2) And related to that… schools can determine your next placement – in an advanced math class or the college of your choice. They tell those determining your next step how much you understand and how hard you are willing to work.

3) To keep classes – and schools –  on track. Having grades helps keep teachers focused too. With no grades poor teachers could get by without covering much or a school could be failing its students and we might not know.

4) They help you set goals. It is easy to say “this quarter I want to get a 3.5” and know, mathematically, you can.  Or maybe you just say each quarter you want to raise your grade 1.237 points . You can do that too. Grades are and easily recognizable common benchmark that nearly all schools use. Ken Halla, a high school history teacher in Fairfax County, VA, for 24 years told the National Education Association magazine “NEA Today” that he thinks grades “are a motivating factor – not unlike money for an employed person. I wish there was another option, tub

5) They work fine. There is criticism about pretty much everything that is done in education for a variety of reason, but the grading system that is used most places works pretty well.

Having said that, there have been effort to refine the age-old  process, and the most talked about alternative is standards-based grading, which McPhillips recommends. She says it give parents and students an indicator through “descriptors” of what a student has learned, while “letter and numeric grades tend to be based on production as opposed to actual knowledge and skills”/

With it, students are measured, but on their proficiency on basic, standard content. “Some demonstrate early mastery and are able to move on to more difficult concepts, while others may require more help first,” says Josh Work, a Maryland middle school teacher who has successfully used the approach.

Personalized learning is also being discussed, where, in its purest form, students aren’t in a specific grade but travel through levels of learning independent of their age. There are assessments of proficiency but not grades.

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