What Are Grades For?
A recent report issued by the Houston, TX Independent School District noted that there are some rather serious discrepancies between grades earned in AP courses and AP test scores. The discrepancies run both ways: students earning A’s in their classes were unable to score above 3 (the minimum score accepted by most colleges for course credit) on their AP exams, while some students who earned failing grades in their classes scored 4 or higher on their AP exams. While this is certainly concerning (“difficult to defend,” noted Houston Superintendent of Schools Terry Grier) in the context of Advanced Placement, it also raises questions about how tightly aligned course grades are to other forms of assessment, such as high-stakes state tests, which bear course-credit or grade-advancement requirements. If, for example, a student is denied promotion to the next grade based on a test score, but has earned passing grades in the class, there’s a very serious problem that schools and teachers will have to solve. Parents will not be happy, to say the least.
This report provides an opportunity to examine classroom grading policies proactively. What are grades for? In the age of standards and accountability, it would seem that there should be a tight alignment of grades to required knowledge and skills in the state standards. I wonder if a look at most teachers’ grade books would tell us how students are performing against standards.
I say that because, as a department chair at several high schools during my career, I encountered grading policies that ranged from peculiar to unfair. One teacher I supervised awarded an “extra” grade to students who contributed a box of tissues to the class. Several awarded points on the class grade for “participation.” When I asked about this, one said it was for students who raised their hands and correctly answered questions in class. If you think about this in terms of achievement, students who do not attempt to answer questions because, for example, they have not attained a skill or concept are not being helped — in fact, they are being double-penalized. Not to mention that, if we are assigning a grade to a skill such as verbal participation in class, that skill should also be overtly taught — otherwise we are simply rewarding the students that already have it and punishing those who don’t without helping them. Another of my colleagues had a sign posted in the room that said, “If you are willing to do the work, you CANNOT fail.” While that could be interpreted to mean that classwork and homework were clearly related to mastery of content and skills, many students saw this as a way to complete pro-forma “extra credit” tasks in order to move their class average above failing.
What do you think grades are for? Start a conversation below!
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