Debate Opinions

Thoughts about grading and differentiation

"Epic fail grade" by Nicolas Raymond on Flickr

Educators are quite familiar with the argument against points-based grading systems. In her article, “Letter Grades Deserve an ‘F’,” Jessica Lahey–a former teacher–reminds us that points-based grading systems “undermines learning and creativity, rewards cheating, damages students’ peer relationships and trust in their teachers, encourages students to avoid challenging work, and teaches students to value grades over knowledge.” She argues that as more states adopt the Common Core State Standards, it only makes sense that we should also adopt standards-based grading. Based on a situation in my class last week, I couldn’t agree more.

Even though I’ve moved away from what I would refer to as a traditional sophomore ELA curriculum, I still struggle to convince several students how personal interest blogs, college and career research, vodcasting, and student-choice reading can help prepare them for the working world. My impassioned explanations of how employers desire workers that can create, collaborate, and communicate effectively often fall on deaf ears.

Regardless of my theories about why some students choose not to work even when my arguments seem logical, in this particular situation I ultimately asked the student to report to the office and return when he was ready to work. In hindsight, it was a poor choice. My hope was that a quick talk with our administration would encourage him to return and focus on his assignment. Instead, I received an email later in the day that the situation was handled and that “the student understands that he will fail the assignment.”

In other words, he was free to return and skip the assignment with the understanding that he would just receive an “E.” The student left believing that it’s okay not to take the time to develop essential skills before attempting the next–much more difficult–task in my class. As I’m sure most would agree, this is an absolutely crazy train of thought regardless of whether it’s applied to school or the working world. This is why we need to adopt a standards-based grading system; we need to stop letting our students fail assignments or simply choose to not do them and then shuffle them on to the next learning objective. If they’re not prepared, we’re just setting them up for failure later on.

With that in mind, it’s important for us to take a hard look at the work we expect our students to complete. We should be asking ourselves if it is truly relevant to them. We should think about how we can differentiate our instruction and give students choice in the work they are required to complete. I’ll admit that I could have done more with this particular student before shipping him off to the principal’s office. I could have modified the assignment to make it more meaningful to him. This is my new “learning objective” as I continue in the process of flipping my class. As an educator, I know this is something I have to do and can’t fail at.

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