What Grade Would You Give This? Why?

01/23/2011
Etruscan A.
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As a student I never liked the idea of grades because they never told the right story about my effort (or lack of it), my abilities (or lack of them) or whether I was being challenged enough.

Was that B because I couldn’t do A-level work or because I was not interested enough to do so, or because the assignment was too easy and did not require my full attention or effort?.

As a parent, I don’t like grades because they don’t tell me anything I don’t already know about my son: he’s a great reader and writer who loves history but struggles with math and the whole concept of homework. (except for the math part he is a lot like me as a student).

As a teacher, I don’t like grades because they do not represent a standardized scale of measurement. An inch is an inch and a mile is a mile, but what the hell is a B-minus? Is my b-minus the same as the teacher in the next room’s, in the next school’s? What is the distinction between a B and a C, and does that C I might give mean the work was too challenging for that student or that I could not engage her enough to get her to work hard. Does that B represent an otherwise A student who didn’t try or an otherwise D student who got inspired and worked his tail off.

I also don’t like grades because I see my students concerned more with what grade they might get than with what they might learn in pursuit of that grade.

In addition to teaching in a middle school, I teach at a college, SUNY/Empire State College, that for most of its existence did not give letter grades.

We give them now because graduate schools demand it, but we continue the process of writing narratives about a student’s learning, how that learning was accomplished and how it was demonstrated.

I graduated from this college and my transcript is about a half-inch thick (no wonder grad schools don’t like them), but it gives the best description of me as a learner I have ever seen.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could give that kind of description to all students and their parents? What would it take to make that happen?

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An Ethical Dilemma

07/11/2009

This past week I attended an institute run by the Center for Social and Emotional Education. The best part of the three days was a workshop on using socio-moral dilemma discussions to improve engagement and the school climate.

I define ethics as the subjective application of morality in situations where there is no clear course of action, as when two courses that seem right are in conflict with each other. It is different from morality in that morals tend to be more absolute.

Ethics come into play when there are conflicts between:

Truth vs. Loyalty

Short Term vs. Long Term

Individual vs. Community

Justice vs. Mercy

All four factors came into play during a discussion among my colleagues a couple of months ago. The principal invited the teachers to join him for lunch and discussion. The question he posed was, “When you give a grade, what does that grade mean?”

To most people the grades that students get seem pretty straightforward. A, B, C, D, F; what can be simpler than that?

But what exactly do those grades tell another teacher or, perhaps more important, a parent?

There were about two-dozen teachers in the room. One was a rookie and another had over two decades of experience; the rest of us fell along a normal bell curve between those extremes. There were English teachers, math teachers, a science teacher or two, some 6th grade common branch teachers and a couple of social studies teachers. Five of us teach special education students and the rest don’t.

Discussion was spirited as we attempted to define what a grade of B means. Each of the ethical paradigms came into play.

Truth vs. Loyalty General education teachers argue that grades for all students should follow the same scale because, after all, a B is a B and its meaning should be clear. Special education teachers use different criteria because those students have different annual performance goals.


Short term vs. Long term
Each B being equal serves the short term goals of standardizing criteria for sorting students academically. Students who never earn high grades despite considerable effort often suffer feelings of inadequacy and failure which over the long term reduce effort and chances for success in non-academic areas.

Self vs. Community Which should take precedence: the need for standardized criteria facilitating clear communication between teacher and parent regarding academic accomplishment; or the need to acknowledge and communicate the work of individual students who make herculean efforts to pull a standardized criteria grade up from a D- to a C- ?

Justice vs. Mercy Some teachers believe that grades should be based on academic achievement only but others think that grades should be based on efforts made no matter the academic result. Trying to solve this dilemma some proposed grading on a combination of effort and achievement, how much weight teachers should give each factor was not settled.

We didn’t come up with generally satisfactory solutions for any of those paradigms. It became clear that despite efforts to teach to standards and standardize assessment, each teachers had his or her own definition of what each letter grade means and what a students need to do to earn them.

So here’s an ethical conundrum for you to work on in your spare moments at work, at home or lounging near water with beverage in hand:

Is it ethical to give parents report cards with grades that don’t mean anything in particular?

Let me know what you come up with because I know this is going to be the topic of the principal’s first luncheon in September.

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