Grading students: who’s it for?

As the school year comes to a close, students and teachers are playing a numbers game.  “What grade do I need to pass for the year?” is a question I’ve heard several students ask during the fourth quarter.  These students are not interested in learning for learning’s sake, but in satisfying their numerical obligation to earn the magic 65.  Very soon in New York, many mathematics students will sit for the first edition of the Common Core Algebra Regents on June 3, a summative (in-class final) exam, and perhaps also a soon to be phased out regents exam in mathematics.  If you’re a student with three “final exams,” plus a course grade, have you received enough quality feedback to inform your learning?  Consider that the three exams mentioned have similarities in content but also curricular, format, and duration differences.  What is a student left to feel about the meaning behind three exams in the same course?

What does a number from 0 to 100 really tell a kid about their performance?  Is 65 what we’d like the goal to be for many students?  I like the idea of standards based grading, but I wonder if that is improvement enough.  Students may receive more detailed measures with SBG, but they’re still asked to “put up numbers.”  Can’t we do better than this?

There are two reasons I can see why we’ve been so stuck with our traditional grading: it’s comfortable and it’s easy.  It’s been done forever, so there are no surprises when a report card comes home.  It’s easy because we establish a grading policy, parents and students are made aware of it, and from that point forward it’s enforced like a contract.  Grades are treated like objective measures when in reality they are anything but.  Do you know two teachers that grade kids the same way?  Me either.

This brings me back to the topic of the post.  We grade students not for their own benefit, at least not most of them.  We grade kids only to rank them, and increasingly to rank their teachers.  Feedback is an important part of learning.  But grades are not feedback.



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