Monday, February 18, 2013

What is a Grade?

I started creating these blog posts, not to share my opinion, but rather to share what we were doing at Utica Junior High.  Perhaps you will read one of these entries and decide you want to implement something similar.  You may even read these and decide you want absolutely nothing to do with this in your school.  That is fine too.  My short time using social media has had a positive impact on my growth as an educator, and this is my way of contributing to those great conversations.

Let me begin by saying I have a great staff.  I would put them up against any staff in America.  The scenario I am about to describe is not limited to my school, as I have witnessed it throughout my entire career, and actually, as a teacher, I was an accomplice for many years.  That topic is the term "grade."

What is a grade?  I mean if a teacher tells me that Johnny has a "B" what picture does that actually paint?  After being educated by many people in my nearly 14 years as an educator, that "B" should tell me that Johnny is pretty proficient.  He obviously has some flaws, but I would venture to say he is proficient.

The question is, what actually contributed to that B?  Was he a great test taker, but failed to turn in some homework assignments, thus dropping him to a B?  Possibly worse, is he a bad test taker, and we are masking those deficiencies by inflating Johnny's grade because he turns in homework? Perhaps worse yet, did Johnny's grade increase because he brought in a box of tissues or some other type of extra credit?

Now I am not looking to debate the relevance of homework.  There are experts out there that can cite research and data to support or rather refute the importance of homework, and I am not looking to pile onto that debate.  It is also not my intention to debate the merits of high stakes testing.  What I am hoping to bring to light is, what is a grade? Ideally, Johnny's B should tell me, Johnny has a good handle on things, and will likely do well on any standardized test on that subject.  Realistically, I have no idea what Johnny's B means.

At Utica Junior High, we assess our students about every 4-6 weeks in Math.  We give them a common assessment using standards that are likely to be on the state test. These are the same standards that are being taught in the classrooms, but as a principal, I want to know exactly which standards are our strengths and which standards are not. Secondly, and more importantly, I want to know which students are struggling with which standards so that we can get them the extra assistance they need.  One can argue that we have become a test prep factory.  I would argue that we are identifying the students who lack the necessary skills so that they may acquire those skills.  This is a great deal of work, but it is worth it if the students benefit.  If Johnny received an 8 out of 10 on one of these common assessments, it tells me he is pretty proficient with the content knowledge.  If he scores 2 out of 10, then I know we have some work to do.  His score is based on what he can do.  It has nothing to do with homework, extra credit, effort or parental support.

We are creating more work for ourselves under this model.  Our students receive a grade for each class, but no one knows what that grade actually represents.  Over 14 years in education, I have heard teachers describe a student who does well on tests and quizzes, but his or her grade suffers because that student never turns in homework.  I have a problem with that.  Are we teaching content or responsibility?  I hate to say it, but I do not recall very many questions on the SAT that assessed my responsibility.  Then you have the other extreme, the student who is not a very good test taker, but tries really hard, so his or her grade is inflated with grades of effort, extra credit, and homework completion. Once again, are we assessing content or effort?  Are we helping this student, or actually setting him up for failure later in life?

We have a few teachers who are trying this new model out in their classrooms. Homework has been replaced with practice.  The students' grades are based on the results of their assessments, which are about 4-6 per grading quarter (tests, projects, writing).  If a student does not do well on one of these assessments, they can practice some more and then be reassessed.  I used to be the teacher that thought this was a crazy idea.  How fair is it that a student takes a similar test multiple times, over the same content?  That student's grade is obviously going to go up because they are being reassessed on the same standards and they are learning the material because they have been assessed on it so many times. Then the "aha" moment occurred.  Who cares how the students are learning the content, as long as they are learning the content?  One may argue that these students will not have multiple chances on tests in college.  My argument is that I am not sure we are currently ensuring that they have an understanding of the basics to be successful once they get to college.  At least this method does a better job of providing the students with a solid foundation to be successful.

At the end of the day, when I walk into the classroom of one of these teachers and hear that Johnny has a B, I have a pretty good idea what that grade actually means.

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