The last dot is one of those adages that my wife uses often, even when I don’t want to hear it, but it is right without fail: “we train others how to treat us.” It is true. We either correct or let slide what we don’t like and the totality of our training of our kids, spouses, friends, and colleagues is our relationship with them. While the marriage application of this is easy to fathom, the classroom is a trickier application until you see it from the student’s perspective.
So much of what we struggle with as teachers is what we—what I—have trained students to be and to value. The first element to explore here is one of perspective. From my point of view, student apathy, grade grubbing, a lack of respect or interest in intellectual endeavors, even the will to pursue what is desired by the student is a collage of a problem that exists on the student level. I was ready in September to hit the ground running and some of these kids walk into class with so many bad habits that I will spend the rest of the year fixing. My optimism fades by October and then bargaining and cajoling ensue. Now, from the student’s perspective this year is going to be like the ten years of school before it. The teacher(s) will by-and-large be the same as years past; the set-up and expectations of the class will be the same to years past; the student’s approach will be the same as years past. So, then I ask: if a student did not have success in sophomore English (but points enough to pass), and we offer him essentially the same class (British Literature versus American Literature) are we really expecting a different outcome? We shouldn’t be.
As a system, we have trained students to not value their education as we would want them to. We have trained them to value marks, grades but not intellectual pursuit or skill. In our hearts we are, but that is lost in the translation of our grading schemes and the reflective value those schemes have on class practices and in how we speak to students. It isn’t there fault, nor is it ours. We are using the system we were educated in. We cling to our best examples, the exemplar teachers we had as kids. Mix in with a few inspiring colleagues, and we have our current practice. The problem is that we are modeling our own practice off of those who did it best in the same system that goes back to the early 1900s. We are, in a Darwinian, sense evolved apex predators of letter grades. That is why change is so hard in education.
The fault in wayward value is also not at the feet of the student. Why shouldn’t a student come to us in December asking what he can do to raise his grade, when we have been telling him for months to raise the grade, offered up extra credit as an enticement for advancement, and tried in vain to make him afraid to turn a paper in late. We have trained him in the game of points and either he is an able, savvy player or one who expects to lose. Equally troubling, we have trained students who struggle that the system is not going to respond to them, that they either need to magically get better—which we universally ascribe to effort—or they will repeat mistakes from the previous year. We train students who struggle to value our perspective: get better at the points game, a game when we, as teachers, already suspect is inherently flawed. There is an ethical negligence here.
From my research, standards-based grading and reporting can—when done faithfully—retrain both teachers and students to value skills, not points; to value progress, not just test results; to be reflective and active about pedagogy, not stuck in a mindset that limits adherence to evidence. Standards-based grading (SBG) can work on a class level, department level, or all-school level. It can be piloted by a few at site or be standard operating procedure for a school, district, or state. There are several key elements to SBG, but the program’s core principle is that all grading should reflect a level of mastery of a clearly articulated and understood standard.
On the ground level, here is how it works, in brief: under the current traditional grading scheme is Joe has a 77% in my American Literature and Composition English on 11/14. I can say that Joe is passing, but my grade-- without further detail – provides no more communication. Thus, we have also trained parents to read this symbol as: “He is passing, but could certainly do better.” Within that “77” there may be a few missing assignments, or none at all; there may be significant recent improvement or none at all; there may be scores that show mastery of literary analysis but not writing standards. Sure, if an available on-line gradebook allows for parents and students to look at an assignment-level, then they can interpret the data as they will, but in my experience, parents are looking for the overall grade and if that grade is not up to a home-standard, then they look at zeroes, and that is where the conversation ends.
If we are going to communicate something more useful to parents, it needs to be skills. SBG and SBR strip away all of the interference in the grade.
We begin by:
- eliminating extra credit and participation points
- grading summative assessments from standards-based rubrics or proficiency scales
- allowing students to redo summative assessments
- not docking points for occasional tardy work
- not tolerating zeroes on summative assessment
- not giving or at least limiting completion credit for homework