Tuesday, July 5, 2011

To Grade or Not to Grade...But Is That Really the Question?

Tuesday night's #edchat was really hopping with opinions about how to make grading more meaningful, and in many cases how to abolish grading altogether.  I have long been of the opinion that our current system of educating our children is at best largely irrelevant to a good percentage of the population, and at worst outright damaging.  I think, however, that "to grade or not to grade" needs to be looked at in terms of the bigger picture.  Given the system as it stands, the current push is to grade teachers based on how their students scores look.  That said, for many of us, grading is a matter of self-preservation.  I am all for pushing the limits and thinking outside the box, but at the end of the day, I still need my job to support my family, so I need to remain somewhat within the boundaries set by the powers that be.

Philosophically, I guess I fall somewhere in the middle of "to grade or not to grade".  Evaluation is a part of life.  It's something our students will deal with in varying degrees throughout their working lives, and so should not be totally absent from their educational experience.  Ultimately, students will leave high school, and need to have met certain benchmarks, to have mastered certain skills/concepts in order to receive a diploma.  Colleges won't necessarily change how they do business simply because some high schools stop giving grades.  Employers will continue to evaluate employees based on the quality of work, in many cases independent of effort, and part of what we do is prepare our students to be productive citizens in the "real world", so grades maybe aren't such a horrible thing on face.

More concerning to me than grades, though, is the fact of the arbitrariness of the 13 year quest to earn this all-important diploma.  Certainly there are students who "graduate early" and there are "super seniors" who return for an extra semester or year, but those are outside the norm.  Why do we expect that our students will all learn at the same pace?  Why do we expect that all 5th grade students will master the 5th grade skills/concepts in a wide range of content areas in the same amount of time -- one year?  This has never made sense to me.  Perhaps, (and here is where I climb onto my techie soapbox) this is where the flipped classroom, differentiated instruction, and mobile learning can make the most difference.  If each student is treated as an individual, beginning each school year with an individualized learning plan, mastering skills/concepts at his/her own pace, what would that do to the concept of grading?  Grade levels would cease to exist, curricula would be fluid, Suzy might be 10 mastery levels ahead of Johnny in math, but 3 behind him in reading, and at the same level in science, and they would both be learning "just in time" to meet their needs.  Report cards would be issued "as needed" for each content area at a logical point, rather than tailoring units to fit an (again arbitrary) 10 week time period.  Learning is continuous -- a journey with checkpoints along the way. These are things that could be possible if school systems -- yes, it will take more than a teacher revolution -- are willing to build flexibility into their programs, allow students to bring their own devices and learn in ways unique to each of them.  This is the glimmer of the ideal school that I see for the future.

And then I wake up and remember that I still have to give a number grade every 10 weeks based on homework, quizzes, tests and classwork.  But when I identify a student that is learning at a significantly higher rate than his peers, I fight to have him appropriately placed -- even if it's off grade level.  If I have a student with a particular interest but no time in her schedule, I fight to be able to offer an independent study that will meet her needs.  And my grades are never final until the ink is dry (and sometimes not even then) because if the goal is mastery, then we need to be flexible with our time limits because our students ARE individuals, and mastery just might not come in exactly 10 weeks.

What do you think?

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