They don’t matter at all and yet they can be a life altering matter…

My son started 3rd grade this year and, in South Carolina at least, this is a big deal because this is the first year he gets number grades. My son is bright, artistic, and sensitive but this has been a challenging transition. He is learning the “new rules” of school which are designed to maximize the student’s score (grade). The old K-2 system he was used to favored social skills and creativity but now its all about prepping to get a “good grade”. A couple months ago he got a bad test score and was embarrassed and upset. He literally wrote on his paper under the score “I am not smart”.

This broke my heart into a million little pieces. I don’t want my son or any other student to feel like they are less valued because they didn’t do well on a multiple choice test. One test score does not measure all of the pieces of their humanity. We need to make sure our students understand this but, my fellow teachers, we have a delicate balance to maintain.

In his famous thought experiment Schrodinger said that if you put a cat in a box with a vial of poison and then close that box to the outside observer the cat can be considered both alive and dead. Grades are the “Cat” of the education – they are both everything and nothing at all.

I think our educational thought leaders need to be very careful telling teachers that grades don’t matter. Of course, in a purely educational sense it is the learning that we want to see from students and not simple grade accumulation. And of course we need to develop relationships with students that go beyond just a test score label. I think we will all agree that for learning to occur feedback, as rapid as possible, is vastly more important than a grade. In that sense the grades don’t matter. The problem is that we don’t teach in a pure system. Parents and students understand this and they know that grades are very important to the within our current system. In fact, a student’s grade can literally be a life altering proposition.

Let me give just one example. In South Carolina, the state where I teach, the SC government offers the LIFE Scholarship. Check out these requirements.

This one scholarahip is worth $20,000. It is an entitlement program where 2 of the 3 requirements are based on grades and the 3rd is a high stakes test.

In this sense grades matter a hell of a lot. That was 1/2 a year’s wage (maybe more) for my father when I was starting school. I bet if we try hard enough we could all think of ways in which grades could be viewed as a wage. I used to get upset that students were more upset about grades than the learning until I remembered everything that is tied to their grade. Scholarships, College Admissions, a positive perception by the next teacher, being able to eat lunch with their friends rather than sit in lunch detention. Sure, the grade is not currency but there is value within our system. Students know it and to pretend otherwise is to bury your head in the sand. Students are not going to to take risks or be creative until a base level of security in their grades are achieved. In my experience students don’t want to be handed an ‘A’ but want to be fairly compensated for their hard work. Let’s remember Maslow before Blooms. In this sense grades are wages.

As a teacher I can advocate for change but in reality I need to work within the system. Students, Parents, Teachers… We are all in that box along with those grades. We need to strike a balance between a classroom where grades matter but learning is more valued. We need a grading system that shows growth and progress but will indicate a fair approximation of the students’ knowledge. Traditional category weighted and points based systems don’t strike this balance. They are mathematical formulas that don’t account for growth. They punish risk taking and prevent students from stretching their abilities. There are better ways.

I use an XP Grading system, a variation on a Standards Based Grading system, that values mastery learning which allows for failure, risk taking and growth. In these systems students earn a fair grade based on their work. They allow for a student centered classroom where a poor demonstration of understanding doesn’t wreck their GPA. Instead it allows an opportunity to rethink and resubmit to show their growth.

In these systems the grade IS the learning!

Grades are nothing really but from,some perspectives they can be everything. Let’s remember this in our educational discussions. We can all work towards a better system but while it remains in place lets do the best we can — for the students.