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Category: Weekly Wonder

Weekly Wonder: I wonder if our grading system is fair.

Is Our Grading System Fair?

“A zero has an undeserved and devastating influence, so much so that no matter what the student does, the grade distorts the final grade as a true indicator of mastery. Mathematically and ethically this is unacceptable . ”

Rick Wormeli quoted in O’Connor, K., A Repair Kit for Grading, ETS/ATI, Portland, 2007, 92


The topic this week opens a huge can of worms in education.  For better or worse, in the end it seems that everything comes down to the final grade, which generally generates a source of anxiety for kids and a source of contention among stakeholders when disagreement or confusion presents itself in regards to how the grade was determined, and perhaps most importantly, what the grade really means and if it truly indicates learning. In short, one little letter has the power to make a huge impact on a kid’s life.  Of course, this is nothing new.  It has always been the case, and little has changed. Grades have been and remain the center point in education, which are often accepted as the final word on learning, the final indicator of success or failure.  But what if the final word is flawed?  What if grades are not really true indicators of learning, success, or failure?  I wonder.  And though my wonders may lure me to wander into a huge realm full of questions never asked and answers oft ignored, I will stick to one worm in the can for now: zeroes.  We will explore the general topic of grading practices in greater depth next month.  

The great majority of kids who fail do so because of the dreaded zero, which is most generally the result of a missing assignment, not necessarily an indicator of low-or-no proficiency with course content.  So, invariably, zeroes kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course. So, too, even kids who do not fail courses suffer the unfair penalty of zeroes, which often drastically decrease their grades.  So what?  If they didn’t want the penalty, they should have completed the assignment.  One should not get something for nothing.  Kids need to learn.  Yes, they do, but some lessons make more sense than others.  And zeroes don’t really make sense when we examine traditional grading scales.

Most grading scales roughly reflect a 10-point-increment scale, moving down the scale from “A” (100 – 90) to “B” (89 – 80) and so on.  Again, this is nothing new.  We all were subject to such a scale, and kids still are today.  And, as we continue down the scale, it remains uniform until we get to “F” and then it abruptly dives from 59 to 0.  “F’s” should stop at 50.  There are no “G” through “K” grades, only “F’s”.   In terms of numbers, scores given in this range may reflect a degree of completion (a kid did 3 of 10 problems, so he gets 30%), but in terms of learning, scores given in this range whether it’s 59, 34, or 17 reflect one thing: failure.  When kids or parents see scores below 60, they generally understand that that indicates a performance well-below standard; students have not been successful with the content. When we start assigning numbers within this range, what are we really seeking to communicate?  Let’s take a 52%.  Are we really meaning to suggest that this is a lesser fail than a 33%, which should then suggest a greater fail? This then continues down the scale, approaching the zero, a sign of complete and utter failure.  Kids in this range for various reasons are well-below the grade-level standards that we have established in our classrooms.  That’s the message, generally intended and generally received.  This is clear.

What I wonder is if we also have to attach a punishment in the form of a sub-50-point score?  Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair.  Why can’t we let an “F” be an “F?”  We let “A’s be A’s” and “B’s” be “Be’s.”  Why not “F’s?”  Why do we have to let the bottom drop out?  A bottom that drops the kids off a cliff they can rarely re-climb, especially in classrooms where they cannot turn in late work or redo assignments.  Is this really fair for kids?  Is this ethical in an arena where the stakes are so high? I’m not sure.

Four years ago, I quit zeroes.  They are no longer allowed in my classroom.  I still have “F’s” which communicate, in number and learning, performances well-below standard.  Kids still receive failing scores in my classroom, but I don’t tack on punishment, additional insult to injury in the form of sub-50% scores; 50% is now the lowest score possible in my class.  The kids know from the mark that they have failed to meet standard; I don’t need to crush them more with added penalties.  It makes sense to me, it makes sense to my kids, and it makes sense to parents.  It’s also beginning to make sense to some of my colleagues, who, too, have adopted a no-zero policy.  But not all. Some of my colleagues have accused me of malpractice, suggesting I am ruining kids’ lives by not teaching them a lesson.  And I guess of that I am guilty.  But I sleep at night knowing that I have given kids a fair shake, and while I may not be teaching them the harsh lessons of life, I am giving them opportunity by creating a realm of possibility in room 219.

Your turn.  Is the practice of giving zeroes fair?  Please, join the conversation.  Your words matter.


Weekly Wonder: I wonder if we should fail kids.  

Failing them teaches them a lesson. If we don’t fail them, they will never learn, so we have to fail them…so the traditional narrative goes in education.  But does it work?  Does it really teach them a lesson?  I’m not sure.  For many of the kids who fail in high school, it is not a new phenomenon, and many become our frequent “failers,” apparently not “learning the lesson” from past-failed classes.  And sadly, for many, in high school, they are set on a track from which it is difficult to deviate, and they struggle to learn from the tough-love lessons that we provide. Some simply give up and disappear.  I wonder, then, if we shouldn’t consider a new course of action, a new track, a new narrative.  What if we didn’t fail kids?

Welcome to the first Weekly Wonder.  In these posts I will be purposefully provocative, seeking to strike a chord among readers, compelling them to join the tougher conversations, the tougher chapters from the narrative, which I believe have to be rewritten if we are going to make significant, systemic changes in public education.

This first installment. “I wonder if we should fail kids,” will be presented in three segments.

  1. Did the kid fail the class, or did we fail the kid?
  2. Is our grading system fair?
  3. What if, instead of continuing a culture where kids fear failure, we create a culture where kids set their sights on success?

This first segment takes a look at the culture of the system, calling into question the ability of teachers to truly meet students’ needs in our current reality and what implications that may have on student success.

Did the kid fail the class, or did we fail the kid?

Learning isn’t simple.  It is complex, and as we’ve learned, it is different–distinctly different–for each kid, and certainly, one size does not fit all.  At least that is what our talk suggests.  But a look around suggests that we still walk the same old walk, forcing kids to wear a universal shoe as they make their way through our system.  To be fair,  perhaps we have made some progress in regards to differentiating learning in recent years, but for the most part, it is still the same old approach, a factory model still stuck on the same default settings from the beginning.  And while I think there are a lot of dedicated, passionate educators who champion change and promote progressive practices that move us away from such a model, the slope is steep and the mission may be impossible.

I, as most high school teachers, have roughly one-hundred-fifty students per semester.  I see them for roughly one hour a day,  one-hundred-eighty days per year.  Sounds like a lot of time.  It’s not.  I feel like my presence is barely a perceptible blip on the radar of their educational experience.  Truly.  Even so, I, as most, work hard in that precious space of time to do the best I possibly can for each student.  Think about that.  One-hundred-fifty souls, all with different needs, for whom I am charged with an enormous task that I take beyond seriously. And I fail every year.  I fail every day.  I fail every period.  No really.  I am not trying to heap on the pathos here.  I am simply stating the truth.  I cannot possibly meet the needs of every kid, and so, I just try hard each day to help more than I hurt, getting by and succeeding where I can.  And that’s the reality.  For my average and above kids, this generally works, and I fail less.  In short, we do the best we can.  But what about my kids who don’t fit into the average-and-above category, my kids who are disinterested, distrustful, and disenfranchised?  Sadly, it doesn’t work, and I, hand-on-heart, am not so sure that when these kids fail, it is not they who failed but I.  And it is my terrible, guilty burden.

Sadly, the same saga plays out every year, and not enough is being done to change it.  And while I am not certain if we can or even know how to re-pen the story, I think we have to find a way. It’s too dark a tale to continue, for students and teachers alike.  There has to be a way.  The mission cannot be impossible.

Please join the conversation.  Your words matter.

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