Making the Grade

As a teacher, administrator and parent of two high school students, I witness, on a daily basis, the way in which grades creep into every conversation and divert our attention from the learning process.  I see my daughter's engagement and enthusiasm in classes go up an down like a roller coaster depending on the last grade she earned.  Or I watch as my son tries to figure out how to raise his grade by .2 points so the he can go from a 87 to an 88, thus bumping his GPA and improving his college acceptance chances. As a teacher, I am frustrated by the inevitable question, "does this count?"; and as a principal I lament the way that grades are used as a punishment or reward for compliant behavior.

In most schools we shrug our shoulders, admit that "grades are a necessary evil" and move on.  We ignore the research that shows that 80% of students base their sense of self worth on their grades. Or how students inevitably choose less challenging tasks if they think it will guarantee them a higher grade.  We are afraid that if we don't motivate students through grade rewards and punishments, they won't "do the work".  And all of these "feelings" which are not based on any kind of research, lead to student behaviors that disturb us: students who are "grade grubbers", or depressed, or completely checked out.  One does not need to look further than the 2015 Gallup poll which shows that as students grow older, their engagement in learning decreases precipitously. As grade pressures increase curiosity takes a dive.
According to Daniel Pink, humans are motivated when three elements are in place: autonomy, mastery and purpose.  What if we built our assessment system on these ideas? Over the course of this school year, our middle school has taken on the challenge of reshaping the conversation around grading. Our goal is to build a reporting system that actually matches our philosophy and that creates a structure that supports, rather than detracts, from true learning.

We started by reading Todd Rose's book The End of Average. This book forced us to challenge the ruling paradigms of how we think about measuring achievement and using averages.  His insistence on personalization and the notion that we are all "jagged", brought into sharp focus some of the flaws in our current system, like averaging grades, insisting on everyone completing tasks at the same time, and the common mistake of equating intelligence and readiness.

After establishing the intellectual need for change, we decided that our work should be based on a set of guiding principles.  Specifically, we asked the question: What kinds of behaviors and attitudes do we hope students will adopt as a result of changing the system? Here is what we came up with.
The system will:
  • Encourage students to take risks and challenge themselves.
  • Encourage a growth mindset and take into account how students improve over time. 
  • Promote continual self reflection, self-assessment, and metacognition.
  • Promote intrinsic motivation by focusing on autonomy, purpose and mastery.
  • Validate academic and non-academic competencies which are vital to success and self-fulfilment. 
  • Allow students to demonstrate their learning and understanding in a variety of ways (differentiation).
  • Promote assessment practices that require critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and transfer. 
We are now faced with the challenge, and the limits, of putting these ideas into action, knowing that any system has its flaws and that we are continually receiving pressure from unwelcome influences that turn our schools into filters for competitive selection processes.  Tom Guskey reminds us "Those who enter the profession of education must answer one basic, philosophical question: Is my purpose to select talent or develop it? The answer must be one or the other because there's no in-between." The obvious answer is that schools must be places that nurture growth, and we must build an assessment system that does the same.

This week we will bring together teachers, students and parents in a retreat to finalize our decisions on our grading and reporting system.  We will: 
  1. Create new academic achievement levels with clear descriptors.
  2. Establish a set of learning habits that are aligned to our core values
  3. Develop an implementation plan that guides teachers on assessment practices that match our new philosophy.
We will use a consensus building protocol to bring all of the ideas together, with everyone generating solutions based on this working document.  If you are working on similar solutions at your schools, we would love to here what you have come up with. 

There has been so much written about how schools need to become more "innovative" and create more "student agency".  In order to do so, schools have invested in new technologies, curricula, and professional development.  But it is my firm belief that if you don't change the foundational practices of grading, you will always be left with a coercive system that stunts student creativity. The fear of failing that permeates the traditional system is so pervasive, that true innovation will always be superficial until we change the paradigm.