Room for improvement shouldn’t equal a bad grade

I’ve spent the last month or two making myself acquainted with standards-based grading. It seemed complicated at first, but once I wrapped my mind around the idea that students should be assessed on the standards (can Johnny draw evidence from informational texts to support analysis, reflection and research?) instead of points granted on a variety of “assignments,” I began to be less and less comfortable with the way I’d done things before.

Teaching and modeling what we expect of students at certain levels based on written standards and then allowing them to practice, receive feedback and work to improve is a process, something of value in itself. This learning, practicing and responding to feedback should not be assessed, at least formally. Why do we grade students – think worksheets here – as they learn and practice something new (or even something not new, but something we’re trying to teach on a deeper level). We’re training them to stay on safe ground, in a place where they know they will do well and receive a good grade.

A perfect is example is one I’ve seen many times in my freshman English classes. I give choice on a writing assignment. The choices usually range from easy for those who are struggling with content, but we’re trying to get the structure of formal writing down, to more challenging for those who have structure under control and want to expand to come up with an original point of view. Once in a while, I have a high achieving student take that easy route. Why? It ensures a good grade. If they step outside their comfort zone and try something more difficult, they might not make a perfect grade – and that will mess with their GPA, a notion to crazy to contemplate.

It makes me sad.

We need to give students the room they need to grow and experiment, without fear of being penalized if they struggle a little and produce a product that has room for improvement, i.e. receives a lower-than-they-are-used-to grade.

I wish all of those high-achieving students could read the blog post I just read that inspired my thinking here. Atlanta junior Katie Atkinson, contributor to HuffPost Teen, blogged about the teacher comment that finally made her realize she was not defined by her grade.

Reading her thought-provoking re-prioritization was inspiring. However, it’s not only the high achievers that need to stop being defined by their grades.

I know there are valid reasons for documenting how students are doing in our classes. But that documentation translates into grades, which define those students for better or for worse.

My concern here is for students who define themselves by bad grades. Just a couple weeks into the new semester, I’ve seen students get involved in projects we’re working on and take an actual interest in what they are doing. But then comes the time I have to label that assignment with a grade, whether I feel it’s ready to be graded or not, because we have to report grades with some regularity. Some of the students needed more time to get to where other students got to more quickly. I fear slapping a grade on too early will squelch the enthusiasm they had for the project. Once the grades are there, it’s easy to see where they stand in relation to others in the class. For some this is motivation; for some it’s defeat. They are now comparing themselves to others instead of learning for the sake of learning.

It makes me sad.

If we, as a majority, are opposed to all of the standardization that is taking place in education today, then we should ease up on the standardization of requiring a quota of grades. One size does not fit all. I want to let my students work on a skill until they have had a chance to master before I assess them for a grade.

What do you think, work to master a skill or work to accumulate points? And how do we help folks see the difference?

About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

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