What Should a Grade Mean?

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One of the key on-going discussions we should be regularly having in public education has to do with the whole meaning of grades.  Sure, everybody knows that A means “Excellent,” C means “Average,” and F means “Failure;” but those abstractions don’t help us to understand what a student who earns those grades is like, what he knows.  Lately, with the emphasis on standardized test scores, this issue is fading as grades have come to indicate only how well a student does on tests.  But I believe grades should reflect significantly more than this.

To put this in perspective, we need to think about the tests we face as adults.  I was a teacher for thirty-three years, and I did have to take some paper-and-pencil tests when I was in classes for advanced degrees and graduate credit that would move me on my salary scale.  The only other time I took tests was when I wanted to add School Counseling to my English teaching certificate after I earned my Master’s degree in counseling education.  The state of Illinois required that to add that certification, I needed to take a Basic Skills general test and a Counseling specialty test.  That was it; never as part of my job teaching English did I ever have to sit down and take a written test based on what I had learned the previous week, month, or year.  And there were certainly no regular standardized tests teachers had to take year after year.

That doesn’t mean I wasn’t tested during my teaching career.  My self-discipline, patience, good humor, endurance, and organization were tested almost every day, and yes, I did fail many of those exams.  Dealing with a twenty-five freshmen the day before winter break, when it was snowing outside and an assembly was scheduled, tested my focus more than I can relate.  And my testing situations didn’t just come from my students; there were many other kinds of tests—from dealing with administrators who didn’t appreciate my role as teacher advocate in my union to parents who were frustrated by their children’s inability to turn in assignments to colleagues who didn’t understand that you can’t leave your yogurt in the refrigerator for months at a time, I had all kinds of tests—many of them pop quizzes—virtually every day.

And that’s no different from the tests you in the non-teaching world face, either.  I’m certainly not trying to suggest that teachers’ tests are more challenging or require more skills than yours do.  All humans (and yes, that includes stay-at-home parents who have one of the hardest jobs there is) face countless tests over the course of their careers.  But rarely are those tests the kind where you sit down with a number-stinking-two pencil and color in ovals for several hours.  That kind of testing only occurs in schools.

Yet, more and more, these outlier kinds of tests are the only evaluations that matter in determining student grades.  Instead of preparing our kids for the real kinds of tests they will face once they get out of school, we are sacrificing the more practical skills we truly need just so we can determine how our students compare to others who took the same standardized test.  It’s become more important to us—or so it would seem—to be able to rank schools based on these tests than it is to teach our students how to function in society.

So what kinds of skills do I mean when I talk about functioning in society?  Let’s begin with one of the most basic ones of all:  showing up.  Yeah, something as simple as getting your butt to work on time consistently should matter much more than it does.  Attendance and promptness are extremely important when you have to get things done at your job; even if you work at home, you have to have the discipline to address your responsibilities instead of being distracted by your personal email.  Every job I’ve ever heard about places a great emphasis on being there when you’re supposed to be, both physically and mentally.

But attendance doesn’t matter very much in classrooms nowadays.  As long as you can ace the test, what difference does it make if you’ve been there 99% of the time or 65%?  Sure, class discussions and the not-for-credit learning that we all get from each other suffers without everyone in class, but apparently that isn’t of any significance as long as your ACT score is high.

Homework is also becoming more and more meaningless.  In some of my daughter’s high school classes, she is regularly assigned out-of-class work, but the credit she receives for completing it means little compared to the weight given to exams.  When the tests and quizzes amount to 90% of the grade, doing all your homework really doesn’t matter very much.  So what if you did every single assignment?  If you don’t fare well on the tests, that dedication and reliability won’t make the slightest bit of difference on your semester grade even though those two traits are among the most important when it comes to the working world.

Participating in class is also for chumps.  Of course a variety of inputs and ideas can make a huge difference in what students get out of a class, not to mention how interesting it is, but the only thing a shrewd student should care about is what used to be a really stupid question, but is now actually very important:  “Will this be on the test?”  (For those of you raised on the cliché that there is no such thing as a stupid question, welcome to my ex-students’ reality.  There are MANY stupid questions, starting with, “Are you asleep?” on to a teacher’s asking, seconds before the bell rings, “Are there any questions?” and ending with a father’s turning on the lights in a darkened room to find his daughter and her significant other writhing on the couch only to exclaim, “What are you two doing?”)  Some of those digressions in my classes led to the most important insights we had all school year.  For that reason, I always reserved a significant portion of students’ grades for class participation so that I had a way to reward that kid who might not be the greatest test taker, but sure did follow my urgings to take some intellectual risks by raising his hand and having an opinion.

Then there’s courtesy.  I can’t think of a characteristic which has more significance for how our society functions than our ability to be polite to one another.  From traffic confrontations to Black Friday behavior to patience with senior citizens, we all should know how to be gracious and accepting of others’ foibles.  Tolerance would also come under this heading for me, for what is being tolerant rather than respecting other people’s differences.  Just because you can’t imagine being gay or black or Muslim doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand the challenges those characteristics present those who possess them.  And understanding is at the root of courtesy—not wanting to offend anyone else is often the beginning of enlightened behavior.

But, there doesn’t seem to be a place in our grading system for those kinds of traits or skills.  While I was teaching, every once in a while, a student who had been absent the day before would approach me as I was standing in the hall prior to the bell’s ringing to start class.  “Did we do anything yesterday?” would often be the student’s initial, blunt comment to me. (And yes, that is a stupid question.  Now you’re getting it!)  My response?  “I’m quite well, and thank you so much for asking.  I especially appreciate your treating me like a human being who has feelings and deserves respect, and not as some kind of robotic answer machine, here solely for your utilization.  And how are you?”  Roughly 30% got my point, but most of them stared at me blankly, and then repeated, “Did we do anything yesterday?” as if I were an imbecile.  Those individuals then received a lesson on why you should always greet someone politely before you demand answers.  Teachers are responsible for so much more than subject-matter knowledge; at least that’s how I always operated.

No, students shouldn’t fail a class in which they averaged 95% on all the tests, but shouldn’t they also have learned that you don’t yawn loudly and openly when the teacher is making a point?  Shouldn’t they know to say, “Please” and “Thank you” when asking to leave the room?  We’re sacrificing so much of the learning all humans should receive when we ignore everything but test scores.

So just because you scored a 36 on the ACT or got straight As, don’t assume you are significantly smarter or know tons more than your friend who only scored a 25 and whose GPA is barely a B.  There’s no question that society will celebrate you much more than your buddy, but if he respects his fellow human beings, reliably shows up when he is expected to, has the curiosity to participate in non-graded discussions, and always completes his assignments on time; he just might be intellectually more advanced than you.  Sure, they’ll put your picture in the school’s newsletter and colleges will be beating down your door, but in the long run, he will be much more successful and happier than you unless you learn from his example.  Tests really aren’t all they’re cracked up to be, and schools need to recognize that truth more than they currently do.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Letters Shouldn’t Make the Grade |

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