Grades Should Reflect Mastery

by Ryan McLane, Education Week, 6/5/13

I am the principal in a grades 7-8 school…. My teachers and I are discussing grading practices, standards-based grading, and everything in between.…

The first thing we attempted to clarify was what exactly is a grade? If I were to look in my grade book and see that Johnny has a B, what picture does that actually paint? That B should tell me that Johnny is pretty proficient. He obviously has some flaws, but is fairly well-versed in the subject.

The question is, however, what actually went into that B?…. Did Johnny do well on tests, but fail to turn in some homework, thus dropping him to a B? Possibly worse, did he do poorly on his tests, but those deficiencies were masked by Johnny’s reliable turning-in of homework or participation in class? Perhaps worse yet, did Johnny’s grade increase because he brought in a box of tissues or earned some other type of extra credit? I firmly believe the problems of the American education system are not the result of years of poor teaching practices. They are the result of years of poor grading practices….

I suggest we make sure Johnny’s grade reflects what he knows and is not influenced by factors such as discipline or responsibility. Those should be separated.

It is our responsibility to make sure all students are learning the content and skills that are required of them. I am a big believer in reteaching and reassessing. It is more important that the child learns the material than when the child learns the material. If a child takes an assessment and fails because he or she does not know the topic, that child receives a low grade. So far, that is fair. However, simply putting that grade in the grade book and moving on is [not fair]….

It would be my hope that a struggling student receives additional instruction and is reassessed and that his or her grade is updated to reflect the new knowledge gained.

When I share this view with other educators, the No. 1 response I get is that it is not fair to the kids who got it the first time to allow kids to be reassessed.

Really? I missed the part in education school where they taught us that a grade’s primary purpose was to compare and rank students. It was my understanding that a grade is a tool that tells us about an individual’s level of mastery. If that is the case, then it is unfair if we do not reassess that individual.

The second-most-common response, and one gaining some momentum lately, is that by giving students extra supports, we are not preparing them for college because there will be no opportunities for a redo there. That is probably correct, but what is more important for us to teach our students: deadlines or the actual skills they will need to be successful? I argue that it is the latter. Deadlines and responsibility are important skills to learn, but not at the expense of learning the primary skill that was at the heart of the assignment, project, or assessment in the first place.

So how do we fix the grading system? If we are going to continue to use the traditional 100-point grading model, then we need to make grades more reflective of what students have mastered, not how compliant they have been. We need to get to the point of looking at a student’s grade and knowing exactly what it means…. If we can identify the students who need help simply by looking at our grade book, we will be able help those students rather than just passing them along….

I have two daughters, and they both enjoy playing golf. It would be nice if they made it to the LPGA Tour…. But it is more important for them to learn the basic skills than to learn those skills on the lightning-quick greens of Augusta. So I choose to take them to the local public course. My detractors might say: “Well the greens on the LGPA Tour are not that slow. You are not preparing them to be successful.” I think most people would look at that viewpoint and find the logic flawed. I wish more people saw it that way in education.

Ryan McLane is the principal at Utica Junior High School in Utica, Ohio. He has worked as a teacher or administrator for 14 years. You can follow him on Twitter: @McLane_Ryan.

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