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What Exactly Are We Grading?

What did that “A” mean on your child’s report card?  That she had mastered the subject matter taught during that instructional period?  Or that she was pleasant and compliant?

Grades have always been a little bit of a game.  Students can be awarded so many points for homework, for attendance, for class participation, for turning assignments in on time.  On the debit side, students who don’t Honor roll do homework, are tardy or absent, and don’t participate may lose points towards their final grade.  I recall how one high school teacher explained her grading system to me:  “If the paper is late, it’s a zero.  If the student doesn’t hand it in at all, it’s a double zero.”  Too polite to tell her that was crazy talk, I simply told her we weren’t going to do that anymore.

So here’s the question:  Are grades supposed to tell us (and the child) about progress in knowledge and skill, or do they tell us about general behavior? 

Lots of teachers and administrators have noted, especially in schools that have regents or other state exams that every year some of their A students perform more poorly than expected while some of their D students (often to their chagrin) perform very well.  Teachers at a middle school in Austin, Minnesota did more than notice the discrepancy; they studied test results for several years.  The annual gap between grades and performance on end-of-year tests was too great to ignore, they thought.  According to Peg Tyre’s article in the New York Times, Katie Berglund, principal of Ellis Middle School, said, “…we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance, not for mastering the course material.”  Some of their top students, said Ms. Berglund, were the ones who had learned “to do school the best.”

Some schools issue two kinds of grades:  one for academic performance and one for citizenship.  Still, the issues of homework and class participation can figure into the academic side of the equation.

If you are wondering how teachers arrive at grades in your school, take a look at your honor rolls.  Does the percentage of kids on the honor roll match the percentage of high scores on the year-end exams?  That comparison doesn’t, of course, tell the whole story of academic achievement in your school, but it’s a place to start.

By the way, speaking of evaluation, the superintendent of Central Falls, the school in which all the teachers were fired and then rehired last spring, says that 14 of 81 high school teachers were evaluated as “unsatisfactory” in recent evaluations. I don’t know which is more surprising, that 17% are unsatisfactory or that 83% are satisfactory.  It would be interesting to know what those numbers were before last spring.   










What a great post, Suzanne. I laughed aloud at the zero and double zero bit.

Good food for thought: are we grading for compliance or mastery? Is a completion grade just a compliance grade?

Excellent questions. Thanks!


Gotta love that teacher's student motivation plan!

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