Making the Grade

This post is written by guest writer Courtney Waugh. 

Recently, a student came to me asking what she could do to get her “B” to an “A,” because she would receive cash from her grandparents if she had an “A.” I chuckled because I remembered doing the same thing as child. If I got the “good grade,” my parents would buy me something. After chuckling, though, a realization hit about what grades truly represent.

As a student, I just went for the “A” and collected my reward, but as a teacher, I question what that “A” really means. Grades are often used in education because that is what we are used to. Grades, as we know them, date back to the nineteenth century. In school, I, like many others, focused on the letter grade because that determined whether I was “smart” or “dumb.” I did not focus on improving or growing as a learner; I focused on the task of getting an “A.” I have realized I need to think about what grades are promoting and measuring in my classroom. More importantly, I need to think about what grades are doing to my students.

As an early career teacher, I have talked with more experienced teachers about my grading woes and many stressed how grades are beneficial for providing feedback to students and parents. However, research has proven that grades are not an effective form of feedback and lower a student’s self-efficacy. Even if teachers provide written/oral feedback along with the grade, students are so consumed with the letter that they cannot focus on the other feedback, resulting in little to no growth on future assignments. I remember getting a graded paper, quickly glancing at comments while flipping to the rubric, focusing on my letter grade, and then telling my parents I had no idea why I received a “C.” The same thing happens in my own classroom. I had a student who struggled with writing, but put everything he had into an argument paper and was excited to turn it in. However, he did not meet the “grade level” expectations and received a low score. I will never forget his face as he saw his grade and crumpled up the paper. Let’s face it, that letter grade isn’t providing valuable information and is taking away from the feedback that actually matters.

I have many responsibilities as a teacher, so it makes sense to want a quick way to evaluate what my students have learned. However, is this what I am actually evaluating with grades? If two students received an “A,” does that mean they both were engaged in the learning process and showed growth throughout the unit? What about when a transfer student comes to my class with a “D” from his /her prior school–does this tell me their strengths, weaknesses, or interests as a writer? Do I know what that teacher included in the grade? No, it tells me that this student is “unsatisfactory” and labels this child as struggling before I even meet him/her. While this method may be “quicker,” I have to ask myself, am I doing what is in the best interest of my students?

I hate to admit it, but I, like many others, have used grades as a motivation tool. Brophy discusses the fact that using extrinsic motivators such as grades can encourage an intensity in effort, but does not encourage thoughtful and quality work. So, what should I value more: using grades to get assignments turned in or receiving work that shows critical and thoughtful thinking? I used to take points off for assignments being late, but students continued to turn assignments in late, and my grade may or may not have been an accurate measurement of their growth in the content. Yet, I continued to use this in hope that it would magically work rather than figure out the true meaning behind why students were not turning work in on time. While students do need to learn responsibility and time management skills, are grades the place for it?

I would love to shout, “Let’s get rid of grades and focus on the enjoyment of learning!” I know it will not be this easy, because grading is a longstanding structure in education, but I believe it is worth a conversation. We can discuss with each other how grades could represent fair and accurate measures of student growth and learning. We could create and encourage individualized feedback for students and parents that focus on growth and a high-expectation curriculum rather than a letter. We can all help take a step in the right direction by creating grades that encourage students to become critical thinkers, productive citizens, and as our standards strongly address, college- and career-ready.

No matter what, one thing is for certain: our students deserve to be more than a letter.

Courtney Waugh teaches 8th grade in Bloomington, Illinois, and is pursuing a Master’s Degree in Reading at Illinois State University. She is passionate about providing students with a high-expectation curriculum that encourages them to appreciate learning.

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About Lu Ann McNabb

Lu Ann Maciulla McNabb is the Policy & Alliances Associate for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE). Lu Ann has long been an advocate for teachers, students and education. As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently said, "Education is the anvil upon which democracy is forged."

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