My Turn: This year, schools should rethink how students are graded

For the Monitor
Published: 8/27/2020 6:00:07 AM

New Hampshire parents: We need to be thinking about how our children will be graded this year.

As we enter the new school year, many are focused on the safety of returning to school buildings, but little focus has been on what our learners are expected to learn once they get there.

As a parent and an educator, this leaves me with a lot of questions. How we will know if the expectations are met? Will the expectations even be the same as last year? Will our learners still receive grades? How are those determined? Are schools making a concerted effort to ensure that grading is fair and doesn’t lead to inequities? How will the pandemic affect students’ abilities to learn and demonstrate learning?

We need to start by honestly reflecting on local assessment and grading. Education assessment is a human act, and because it is human, it is imperfect. Grading is the general way schools report out on the assessments our teachers make of our students’ learning, skills, and knowledge, and those grades have some serious value.

At the elementary and middle school level, the value is generally limited to what students, teachers, and parents assign to grades. Some parents give praise and even monetary reward for high grades or improving grades. Others deprive their kids of video games until grades improve. Some parents use grades as a way to shame their kids or in the case of an abusive home, another proof point for parents to use against their children.

Some students are left with low self-esteem because they never get “good” grades. Others have inflated sense of skills because they have only received high grades, likely through a combination of skill and compliance.

Eventually, most parents end up as the parents of high schoolers where grades hold much more value. They are indicators of success for college admission. They help get learners scholarships. They provide access to more opportunities. They even give discounts on car insurance. And, passing grades are required for a diploma.

Very rarely do system-wide conversations happen about grades. Many parents and students just accept that when a teacher gives a student an A, that student deserved an A. If student got an F, they earned that F. These notions of deserving and earning when it comes to learning and assessment are important to think about.

There are inherent problems with grading systems already that are unfair and create inequity. If schools do not address grading up front as part of their plans for the upcoming school year, there will be consequences for students that will negatively affect them in the short term, and keep them from opportunities that will affect their long-term success, widening the opportunity gap.

The uncomfortable truth is grades are not honest communication about the learning our students do. They are a complicated story of learning reduced to one number that is usually the result of a complicated math formula the teacher may or may not understand.

In most schools, the grading practices of each teacher differ greatly from classroom to classroom. Often teachers teaching the same class in the same high school have different ways of collecting and reporting student progress. Even if teachers are collecting the same evidence from learners to use in the assessment process, rarely are teachers calibrated to each other to ensure that they are interpreting the learning expectations in the same way.

Bias is not addressed in many schools, and time for quality assessment is not afforded to teachers. Grading in our schools is not transparent, not equitable, and is harmful in so many ways. Exacerbated by the pandemic, parents need to be hyper aware of the grading practices that all children will endure, especially at the high school level, so that opportunities are not lost, anxiety and depression, often side effects of grading are avoided, and parents can get an honest understanding of where their learners are in relation to the learning expectations.

Here are some questions to ask your school leaders before the first grades are issued: What are the learning expectations for this year? How will parents and students understand if the learning expectations have been met? What happens if they don’t?

Are teachers calibrated? Are learning targets written and are teachers interpreting them generally in the same way if they teach the same level students? Example: Is an “A” in English 9 with Mrs. S the same as an “A” in English 9 with Mrs. T?

How is the district ensuring that grading practices during this time do not limit access to opportunities, including summer programs and scholarship?

What if a student does not do well under the hybrid or remote model and their grades slip? What if the pandemic and the anxieties that come with it make it difficult for that student to learn, to concentrate, to do their best? Example: A previous “A” student is now a “B or C” student. How will this affect students’ access programs such as summer programs, scholarships, honor societies, etc.?

What additional supports are being put in place to ensure that students’ grades do not adversely affect self-esteem, mental health, and anxiety?

One last question that is probably the most important to consider, and will take some moral courage from school and district leaders to answer this question publicly and honestly: What is the worst that would happen if we chose not to grade this upcoming year, especially in high school, where there are long-term consequences for low grades that bring down GPAs, and short-term consequences that will pile on the anxiety and depression exacerbating the effects on the social and emotional well-being the pandemic is already causing?

(Carisa Corrow lives in Penacook.)


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