I spent a large part of last weekend grading. Not unusual, really; I’m a teacher. I generally spend part of every weekend grading, along with every free moment in between classes during the school day (and the former because there aren’t many of the latter, between teaching and planning and corresponding); and that’s even after my student count was cut in half when I changed from the comprehensive public school to the STEM charter school where I am now. Grading is something I have ranted and raved about far too often in the past; because it is, quite simply, the worst thing about teaching. Well, maybe the second worst thing: being treated like a criminal is no frosty chocolate milkshake.
But enough of ranting about grades: I need to be more positive. I need to spend less time being angry, and more time trying to see the light and share the light. I need to make more jokes. I need to offer solutions instead of pointing out problems, especially problems that everyone already knows about. The time has come to try to fix the problem. Today, I wish to share my plan: how to replace grades with a system that would actually work.
A brief summation of the many, many rants: The problem with grades is that they summarize what should be expanded upon. A student is a person, a complete person; not an A or a B or an F. Because grades are only summaries, everything that matters is lost: character, personality, the challenges and obstacles one faces and overcomes – none of these are apparent in a grade. The grade doesn’t even clarify positive traits: was it earned through natural intelligence and aptitude for the subject? Through grueling hard work? Through charm and sly manipulation? It isn’t clear: but this answer is terribly important, because the decisions we make based on grades are intended to be based on these actual qualities. If you want to hire an applicant for a job, or accept a student into your college, you want to know how they got A’s: was it work or talent? Or charm?
In other words: was the applicant in Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, or Slytherin? Or perhaps they had the courage to overcome great personal difficulty, earning a high grade by fighting for it, the way a Gryffindor should?
People need to know these things. But we don’t do that. Because all they know is this: B+ in Language Arts. A- in Math. C in Economics. A in Physics. And because I don’t teach at Hogwarts. Which is too bad: I’d be an awesome wizard teacher.
This lack of useful information means that grades are not doing their intended job. I would give grades an F. (Now imagine if all I said in this whole piece was “Grades get an F.”) But I’d also include a note that it isn’t really their fault; we just ask too much of their limited abilities. Grades shouldn’t be graded, really; they’re not up to the work we are demanding. They are incapable. Really, they should be on an IEP or a 504; they need extra support.
Man, there’s just nothing like a SPED joke.
But the reality is, we make those decisions that matter — about hiring, about college entrance — the way they should be made; and in every case, grades are not discounted, but they are negotiable. You can get into any college, and you can, I think, get any job you want, with poor grades; it’s just a matter of what else you can do to show your ability and character, and what explanation you can give for the grades.
So why are grades given such weight? Why is it so ingrained in us to seek grades, to give grades, to look for grades as the answer to our questions – how many stars did this book get? Did this movie get two thumb’s up, or only one? Did you get an A- on that test, or only a B+? (Please note that the difference between those grades is exactly one percent. Where else does one percent matter to us quite so much as the line between 89 and 90? I mean, other than milk, of course.) It’s because grades are symbols. We like symbols. We like attaching additional meaning to things that don’t have it intrinsically; this is why we salute and pledge allegiance to the flag, rather than to our actual country or its leaders. We actually enjoy reinterpreting symbols to mean what we want them to mean, completely apart from what the symbols originally meant; this is why Republican Jesus exists.
The problem is that we very often reinterpret and reinterpret symbols until – we forget what they actually stood for. Kind of like the decorations on a red Starbucks cup. Grades are only symbols representing a student’s work/aptitude/determination; but we have forgotten the actual matter represented, instead focusing solely on the symbol itself: parents are happy, students are happy, schools are happy, the President is happy, as long as students are getting A’s, because each of us takes that grade to mean exactly what we want it to mean. As a teacher, I take my students’ good grades as evidence that I taught well, and they “got it” – frequently, I think, despite their lack of ability. Go me. I have no doubt that my students take their good grades as representative of their own hard work, frequently despite poor teaching. Their parents take them to represent good parenting, and possibly an early retirement with little Syzygy and her brother Ermingarde footing the bill. We don’t really care how we get the good grade as long as we get the good grade – but that’s the only thing about an A that actually matters: how did you get it? Grades conceal that.
Okay, so not a brief summation.
Let me try again: At the end of a time of learning, a student should be told whether or not they were successful. (though I would argue that they already know; but it is true that we learn to judge these things by having our own judgments confirmed by experts; it is also true that there are a few folk in the world who think they’re much smarter than they are.) The student should be aware of strengths and weaknesses, and especially where they showed improvement and what future potential this area of education holds for them, and they for it. A letter grade simply cannot carry all of that information.
A better system is narrative evaluations. At the end of the semester, the end of the class, the teacher writes up a paragraph or so explaining what each student in the class did well or did poorly: “Odwalla does very well on tests, but listening to her speak in class is like hearing someone bash one of those ‘The cow goes MOOO!’ toys with a sharp rock.” These allow instructors to go into more detail regarding a student’s strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. Switching to these would be a real improvement, in part because it would force teachers to get to know their students better, and would thus (it is to be hoped) force schools to keep class sizes low enough to make it possible for teachers to do this job how it should be done.
Here we see one of the problems with grades: it is a problem with schools. The fact that teachers can’t teach 40 students in a class didn’t stop us from putting 40 students in a class. We are not willing to do what it takes to make education work. Which means this endeavor is doomed unless we re-form society, as well.
I’m working on that. My own Republic. Needs a new name, though – that one’s been taken.
But for now, let’s try to deal with the present. Going to narrative evaluations would not change the way people think about grades: students and parents – and probably admissions officers and employers – would scour through the evaluations looking for buzzwords, and then translate the evaluation into a letter grade. I write the equivalent of narrative evaluations on student essays, telling them everything I can about what they did well and where they need to improve; and every time I hand back a paper, students run their eyes over the margins, looking for a letter or a percentage standing alone, like wolves searching for yak calves (Can those be called “yaklings?” Actually, can my students be called yaklings? Or yaklets?)
that wandered away from the herd; when they don’t find one, they turn on me. “What did I get on this?” they cry. If narrative evaluations came only at the end of the class, parents and students would go back through and do the math, adding up grades and percentages on individual assignments, and then they would report that in some way, posting it on Facebook for their own satisfaction, and making sure that the grade percentage got into the application letter for the college or was dropped casually in the interview. We could try to do narratives for every assignment, but not only would the workload become prohibitive, not every assignment deserves a narrative evaluation: if I give a three-question multiple-choice pop quiz, what could I write in the narrative? “Helsinki got all of the answers right, but she needs to work on the way she circles the letters of the correct answers. Those ‘circles’ are at best ovoid, and one of them wasn’t even closed.” I guarantee you, as well, that plenty of teachers – every single math teacher, for one – would write narrative evaluations that looked like this: “You got a B. 85% on tests and 84% on homework. Good job.”
We can’t simply replace grades with a longer grade. We need to change the way we think about evaluating students and putting that information before those who need to know it. Like I said: we need to remake society entirely.
So, ignoring for now all of the societal changes we would need to make in order to get to the schools that I think we should have, let me describe how student evaluation should work.
One of the constant threads in the mad tangle that is education is the idea that students should do the work, rather than teachers. Modern pedagogical theory (which will henceforth be known as “edutainment,” first because it fits their “Make the ‘customers’ [the students and their parents] happy!” philosophy, and second because those yak-butts don’t even merit a good nickname)
takes this too far, as edutainment does with everything, saying that teachers should guide the students to creating their own knowledge rather than transmitting information to them; this becomes a large problem that will receive its own essay. But the essential concept is correct: students should build their own knowledge. I think that part of knowledge building is the awareness of your progress. Not a psychic vision of a loading bar that reads “Chemistry – 51% complete,” but the ability to judge, or at least to ascertain, where you are sufficient and where not, and what you can do with that.
So let’s have students do that. What’s the best way to know if you’re ready to move on to the next stage, to go from Spanish 2 to Spanish 3? It’s to go from Spanish 2 to Spanish 3. It is to move on to the next stage, where you will succeed or fail. It is to find the place of your competence and your struggle, and try to advance that place further along the continuum.
You gotta set the difficulty to Hard to know if you can win the game on Hard.
Why should teachers be the arbitrators of advancement? The trouble with me as the gatekeeper is that I don’t know everything about my students, not even within my own subject: if a student does poorly in my class, was it because of the subject and the student’s aptitude within it? Was it because the student doesn’t get along with me, didn’t like me, didn’t want to do the work I assigned? Was it because of entirely external struggles that happened to coincide with my class? I don’t know. You know who knows? The students know.
So let’s have the students decide for themselves. Just think how satisfying it would be to have some precocious, arrogant teenager tell you “I don’t need this class, I already learned this,” and you say, “All right then, go. Get out.” And then the kid actually leaves. Oh, that would be sweet.
But of course the students will frequently be wrong. They will want to change classes because they are bored or because the teacher has weird hair. They will want to move on with their friends. Their parents will want them to advance fastest so they can WIN! They will believe they learned the subject when they only scratched the surface. In all these cases, they will move on to the next level – where they will fail. So what we need is the ability for students to go back to the previous class and try again – and for this not to have a stigma.
This means we need to eliminate the “levels” of school, the numbered grades. Students shouldn’t be segregated by age; they should be sorted by ability. I hope we all realize how ridiculous it is to put students together based on when they were born, rather than what they know and what they need to learn; just think back to your own elementary education and remember the difference between the smartest kids and the dumbest in your class. Yup. But at least you all had the same number of candles on your birthday cakes. This means we’ll need K-12 schools, with all grades in one building, so that a 10-year-old math whiz can take calculus classes with the older students while sticking with his age group for English; but frankly, I think that would be an advantage: it would certainly make it easier for parents with multiple children, who currently have to run to as many schools as they have kids, and who therefore have to miss some events, and have to make extremely awkward arrangements for transportation, care, and feeding of little Cabaret and little Burlesque. Older siblings could look out for younger siblings at the same school – or serve as constant reminders to little brothers and sisters of what not to do. Either way is good. It would enable the staff to get to know kids and families for the long term, to build relationships with them, which would also be beneficial.
So here we are: in a K-12 school, which is no longer a K-12 school because there is no K and no 12. Students go into the classes they think they are ready for, and then go back a step if they were wrong. There would need to be a fair amount of give in the structure of the classes; the first month or so, you’d have a lot of students transferring up or down, and they shouldn’t have to be left behind when they did. There are no grades apart from marks and critiques: this answer is right, this one is wrong; this aspect of this project needs improvement. There will still be some temptation to translate those marks into letter grades, so I would recommend that the teachers try to focus on narrative evaluation here as much as possible; after all, even on a math test, would you need to know exactly what problems you got wrong if the teacher writes “You need to work on simplifying fractions” at the top of the paper? Wouldn’t that be enough to guide the student to improving what they need to improve? Perhaps not; perhaps the red pen is still necessary. Even with that, if a total percentage correct is not given (because the total percentage means nothing, of course, just like every grade) and there is no emphasis on grades as markers of success, the temptation to do one’s own math and wear the total as a medal or a scarlet F would fade away soon enough. Education would focus on learning, rather than just the empty symbols of it.
The only question left is graduation: when is a student ready for the real world, for college or jobs? And how will those colleges or employers know what the former student is capable of?
The obvious answer is that when a student finishes the sequence of classes, they are ready to graduate. But first, if we’re letting students decide, there’s going to be a fair amount of backtracking – especially when the decision is when one is ready to leave school. Are there any kids who don’t think they’re ready to go out on their own somewhere around 14 or 15? When everything, every rule, every adult, every responsibility, is stupid and pointless, and you just want to be free to live like adults do, hanging out with your friends all day, playing video games all night, eating Cheez-Its with frosting for every meal? Those kids who leave school before they are actually ready need to be able to come back, but if they are free to try, a lot of time will be wasted, a lot of awkward changes will need to be made and unmade, for no real good reason. The second problem with simply allowing students to leave when they feel they have mastered a subject is that almost no one learns all subjects at the same rate, so a student may be done with math but still need to work on English and social studies. I’m not even going to get into the issue of students who believe they will never need math, ever. We’ll leave it at this, that students may be done with some things but still need to master others; and the question is, how many subjects must they master, and to what extent, before they can leave school? We can’t leave it entirely up to them, and we can’t go entirely the other way – that students have to master EVERY subject the school offers before they may leave. Though that is tempting. I love the idea of a balding 35-year-old who just can’t get the notes right for “Hot Crossed Buns” on the recorder, but he can’t graduate UNTIL HE CAN PLAY THAT SONG!
A couple of answers: one would be internships. If a student had mastered all of the math classes, and was interested in going further with math while still working in language arts in a school setting, that student could go out and do an internship in a math-based field, computers or architecture or what have you. That way, the transition from school to skilled work would be essentially seamless: as the student/intern finished up classes, they would have more time to work, and would eventually just be an employee of the company where they interned. Or they could move on to college with some real-world experience and an excellent bullet point for a resume. This does presume professional work settings close by the schools, which would be an issue in more rural areas; but educational opportunities are already limited in rural areas, which is a larger problem than I am proposing to fix (But which I will address in my utopia.); the best we can offer those in the boonies might be the internet.
Another piece of the answer is that it may not be so bad: if some students figure they can leave school early, because school is stupid and stuff, and then those students slink back with their tails between their legs, it may be an effective object lesson for the rest. As well as for those students themselves: one of the best students I ever taught left school after sophomore year, and then came back at the age of eighteen to finish two years of high school. Worked harder and tried more, and did better, than anyone else.
The rest of the answer is for me to go back on what I said earlier: teachers would become the gatekeepers. I said that I can’t really know why a student has done well or badly in my class, and therefore I shouldn’t be the one to decide when a student should go on to the next level; but more importantly, I can know when a student has actually mastered the material, learned the skills necessary to succeed in my subject. It still holds that students should be the ones to decide when they are ready to move on, because they should be aware of what they know and what they don’t, of what they can do and what they can’t; but when the transition in question is one entirely out of school, they should have some confirmation of their self-analysis.
So there should be a conversation. Between the students and the teachers, and anyone else involved – the prospective employer, the college admissions officer, what have you. There can be a task to prove competence, such as a senior project or a thesis with an oral examination; but I would argue the best way would be for teachers to simply get to know their students well enough to say when they were done learning what that teacher, that school, has to offer. And after that conversation, if everyone agrees, congratulations, Graduate. On to college, on to employment. And if the employer or the admissions officer can’t actually sit in on every conversation, then they should contact the teachers, or a school graduation representative – call it a counselor – and have a conversation about the conversation with someone who was in it and who knows the student. It is hard for me to accept that student application essays and teacher letters of recommendation are the best way to know if a kid is ready for college or a job; I know for damn sure that transcripts aren’t it. Maybe a conversation with a counselor wouldn’t be any better, but I think it might, provided the counselor actually knows the student and had some interest in what was best for J’oh’nn’y. Of course, all of this presumes that relationship between teacher and student, along with a teacher’s genuine ability to judge mastery of the subject, which certainly implies mastery on the part of the teacher.
But shouldn’t we be able to presume those things? Shouldn’t all schools be interested in what’s best for their students? Shouldn’t all teachers be masters of their subjects? I’ll tell you this: I could spend more time learning about my students, and I could spend more time improving my own knowledge in my subject, if I could spend less time grading papers and filling out report cards. I’m not talking about telling students what they did right and what they did wrong; I’d still need to write comments and critiques on essays, and mark answers right or wrong. I’m talking about the time I spend thinking, “Is this paper a B+? Or an A-?” I’m talking about the time I spend recording those letters into a grading database. Most of all, I’m talking about the time I spend telling students, and students’ parents and coaches and other teachers, what little Aardvark’s grades are, why they are what they are, what Aardvark can do to improve her grades, how much effect every individual assignment has on a grade, what the hypothetical grade would be if the alleged work is turned in tomorrow, and then arguing with all of those people in all of those circumstances why the grade shouldn’t be just one percent higher.
Believe me. It’s a lot of time. And all wasted.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have essays to grade. I can’t spend all my time thinking and writing. I’m a teacher, after all.