One of my high school English teachers liked to remind us students that he had more control over our grades than we did. We spent about 3/4 of one marking period working only on grammar and sentence diagramming, which most of the class learned well enough to get high scores on the quizzes and tests. After we finished our grammar section, I had a very high A average, as did most of my friends.
But I didn’t get an A for the marking period. The teacher designed the grammar section to end with enough time left in the marking period for us to read and be tested on Death of a Salesman. The teacher himself called the test “the death test” and bragged that nobody ever got an A on it. The goal of the test was to pull down our grades and reduce the number of A’s given out that marking period. I scored in the low 50s on the test and, as a result, got a B on my report card, in spite of the fact that I’d gotten a high A on everything except that one test. The same thing happened to a bunch of my classmates, too.
Imagine if my teacher had been required to give not grades but a specific evaluation of what we’d learned that marking period. He would have to have admitted that I’d mastered the entire grammar curriculum and that I’d done poorly only on the literature test (which tested the singular skill of regurgitating, word for word, the teacher’s interpretation of the play). Such a system would have completely emasculated this guy’s power play with our grades.
Most people who’ve been through traditional schooling can tell at least one bad story about grades. It’s just one of those unfortunate school rites of passage. We all move on and realize that one bad experience won’t affect much in the long run.
That said, it’s refreshing to know that a school district near me is replacing the standard letter grading system with a more comprehensive skills evaluation system. The system, based on the state standards for each grade level, lists all the skills covered in each curriculum area and denotes where each student stands in relation to the standard: beginning, developing, competent, excelling.
Naturally, because it’s good for students, lots of people hate the idea.
We Need to Know Who’s Better Than Whom
The local newspaper ran a “hot topic” opinion poll, asking readers what they thought of the proposed change. The response was overwhelmingly negative. One chief objection: we live in a “competitive world” and children need to learn to survive in it.
I find this argument refreshingly honest; it doesn’t try to hide the big lie about grades, which says that grades are a tool for communicating how well the students are learning. The truth, as the “competitive world” argument attests, is that grades are a tool for establishing competition between students.
But what are they competing for?
Why, for grades, of course!
(You didn’t think this was about learning, did you? Silly reader.)
We all know everyone can’t get an A. Teachers aren’t allowed to give all A’s, and even if they were, they usually don’t. If all students are doing very well, schools still must let parents know who’s doing better than whom. So we rank them with letter grades.
When many students score well, the criteria for who gets an A often becomes more restrictive because only a few select “stars” can get A’s. If everyone passes all the math tests with a 97 or above, for example, marking period grades must still be distributed across a spectrum. Enter the curve. The test must be too easy if everyone is doing that well, so the test scores must be adjusted so that only those who scored a perfect 100 get an A. Those with a 98 get a B. And those with a 97 get a C. And voila! We now know which students got higher scores than their peers.
Obviously, my example is an exaggeration, but don’t be too hard on me. I was only a C student in math.[Aside: I was the beneficiary of many a math test curve, but the situation was the reverse of the scenario I described above. The curve was designed to pull student grades up instead of down. Just as it wasn’t acceptable to my English teacher that students who he thought should get B’s get A’s, it’s not acceptable for the “best” student in the class to get a B on his report card, is it? So the tests were graded on a curve to ensure that the grades for the class would start with A. Again, it’s about ranking, if not fitting kids into preconceived slots, not about learning.]
Because grades are subjective (“she had a B+, but I gave her an A- because she’s been working so hard”), malleable from assignment to assignment (“this test has an extra credit section, but that test doesn’t”), and restricted in number (“everyone can’t be an A student”), what in the world does a single letter grade on a report card tell a parent about what his or her kid is learning?
But it does tell a parent where his or her kid stands relative to the other kids in the class. Over time, report cards become code for what kind of people the kids are. And the kids know this. I was a C math student. Becky is an A student. Want to find a babysitter? Call the high school and ask who the honor students are.
Competitive Learning: Gee, That’s Healthy
Somehow, those who oppose the standards-based evaluation in the local school district have convinced themselves that academic competition is good for kids, even kids in lower elementary school. In a society where grammar school children play competitive sports — and kids as young as 9 or 10 ride the pine while the “good” players get all the playing time — and where schools try to coerce students into reading by holding reading competitions, I’d say it’s pretty clear that schools employ plenty of other competitive whips. They don’t need competitive learning.
But this model of schooling is extremely effective. Children learn very early that school = competition. And through 12 or more years in competitive schooling, they learn to compete in damn near everything they do. They learn it so well, in fact, that by the time they’re adults, their employers send them, en masse, to teamwork and team-building training. Really, it’s no surprise that 83% of employers pay for employee team-building training. Adults have spent a lifetime hoarding knowledge, “doing their own work,” and trying to beat out their peers for that one last spot on the soccer team or A for the course — they don’t know how to collaborate effectively with people with whom they share common interests and goals.
Unfortunately, many parents object to the non-letter grade evaluations because they’ve bought into the idea that they need to know this letter, even though it tells them nothing substantial. All they know is where their children stand relative to the other children in the class. If their kids have all A’s and B’s on their report cards, then they’re among the elite.
Another objection was that parents wouldn’t know how well their students were doing. Of course, that’s about ranking, too. Obviously, the new assessment format gives parents a lot more information about how their kids are doing and what they are and aren’t learning. They just won’t be able to figure out if their kids know more than anyone else’s kids. And why should they?
Look, if we want kids to stay interested in learning and to actually enjoy it, get rid of grades and competition in school. Lots of other changes would help, too, but this one change will let each child learn without looking over his or her shoulder. And parents will know a lot more about what their kids are learning in school.
They Just Can’t Help Themselves, Can They?
Before we go, let’s look at those new evaluation categories one more time: beginning, developing, competent, excelling.
Even when trying to do the right thing, schools can’t help but put a ranking or value judgment into the mix. Excelling doesn’t belong in that list. If you’re trying to show skill or knowledge development, you don’t use the word excel because you can’t excel at a standard. You can master or maybe exceed it, though. By sticking excelling in there, the district continues to imply that some kids are “excellent” and the others aren’t.
So if those kids are excelling, what are the other kids doing? Here’s how the categories might look if all of them dripped with value judgments:
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