Originally published on March 12, 2020
A couple of months ago over 1,000 students in my district (which represents about 50% of the students) completed a parallel survey to one the teachers completed asking for their input on how we might redefine student success. In this, survey respondents were asked to say how important different traditional measures of student success are in their opinions. These measures included things like graduation, NY State Assessments, and a student’s interest in school.
One of the most surprising results was how important different stakeholder groups found the importance of report card grades. Interestingly, the stakeholder group that found report card grades to be the least important were the 103 employees (faculty, staff, and administrators) who took the survey (see the chart below). Employee’s rating of report card grades as some degree of unimportant was nearly double the rate of un-importance from the perspective of our 93 family/community members who responded and five times as unimportant as our students in grades 3-5.
So what’s going on? Well, I think some of this is connected to the notion of what is a grade. In his book, A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades, Ken O’Connor writes, “One problem is that the terms marks and grades are often mistakenly used as synonyms, although each involves very different processes…a mark or score is the number (or letter) given to any student test or performance that may contribute to the later determination of a grade. A grade is the symbol (number or letter) reported at the end of a period of time as a summary statement of student performance” (2011, p. 6, emphasis in the original). Take O’Connor’s definition and add it to Robert Marzano’s work on grading. According to Marzano’s book, Classroom Assessment and Grading that Work, rather than being scored on their actual knowledge, students are given an “observed score” which is equal to what the teacher believes the student knows AND what the teacher believes the student should know. Thus, this observed score includes “factors other than the student’s level of understanding or skill” (2006, p. 33). In other words, Marzano is saying that a student’s score is really a combination of the student’s knowledge and their teacher’s subjective assessment of what matters about that knowledge.
No matter what words you use, this illustration from O’Connor’s book is probably all too common but one we should be mindful to avoid:
Before I start, I would like readers to know that I am currently a…junior…I recently finished an AP chemistry course. This class was coated with extra credit, and with a 0.5 boost on GPA, my teacher was basically handing out either a 4.0 or 4.5 for chemistry. Another AP chemistry teacher is very strict about extra credit, and rarely gives any. His course is equally challenging to my course. I got a B with extra credit, without it, I would have a C or D….If I had Matt’s (the..student with a 2.8 GPA) combination of teachers, I would have been likely to be in his place. (p. 2-3)
Here is another example of grades being dependent on the teacher’s structures rather than the student’s knowledge. This one comes from my oldest son, Nolan. Last year he had a Spanish teacher who gave all late work a zero even if the work would have scored a 100% if turned in on time. On the other 7th grade team, there was a long-term sub for Spanish who was much more lenient. My son repeatedly complained to me about how he wished he had the sub so that his grade would be higher. I told him that the other students were likely not going to be as capable in Spanish as he was. In fact, on his Spanish final, he scored a 98% with a score of 100% for his speaking portion. I am sure that the students with a sub did not score as high on their finals. Nevertheless, in the fourth quarter he turned in an assignment late due to a band lesson and he received a zero on it. His average was significantly and negatively impacted by this one zero for homework (we’re talking a difference of nearly 10 percentage points on his fourth quarter average) and was lower than the students on the other team who did not do nearly as well on the final—which is the actual measure of how much Spanish the students knew (or didn’t).
Jasmine Kullar raised this point when she came to my district for our October 2018 Superintendent’s Conference Day. If you were here then, you may remember her giving us a list of grades but having us calculate those grades using three different formulas based on three different teacher’s grading policies (see page 4 of this handout from that day). Examples of this abound in schools and so we should not be surprised that even though our 3-5 students find report card grades more important than other stakeholder groups, their 6-12 counterparts do not. Students in grades 6-12 are given averages on their report cards. In elementary schools that tend to have standards-based report cards, students are given scores for discrete skills or knowledge as well as separate scores for their learning behaviors. These scores are not averages, but a generally a scale of 1-4. Secondary report cards give one, overall grade per course. This grade represents content knowledge, obviously, but that grade also includes other things that have nothing to do with content-knowledge. Things like participation. Homework (which may or may not have been copied from someone else’s paper). Preparedness. Disposition. If the work is on-time or late. At the end of the day, however, the regents exams do not care about anything but content knowledge. A student who is a thorn in the side of every teacher but knows his/her stuff is going to do as well as a kid who is a teacher’s pet if they both have the same knowledge of the content. What’s more, elementary students tend to be with the same teacher for every subject. By middle school, this changes. Multiple teachers can teach the same course. If those teachers are not working collaboratively, it’s not just the assessment of the learning that could be different, but the content itself. This is, in no small part, why PLCs are so important (but I digress).
All of this makes me wonder what my students in grades 3-5 were thinking about when they responded to this question in this way. This is different from their 6-12 counterparts who said that student growth over time was the most important way to measure student success. Indeed, this ranking of student growth over time happens to be the most important way to measure student success for all stakeholders other than the students in grades 3-5.
Most importantly, perhaps, this also makes me wonder why the employees were the group most likely to find grades an unimportant way to measure student success. I’m sure the reasons for these results vary by person, but I can’t help but wonder three questions.
1. Do grades really matter?
2. Should grades really matter?
3. What do you think?