Tweaking a Bad System


Our overly-large school district is changing the standards for grading. Again.

Although the word “change” is being extremely generous for what’s actually happening.

Fairfax County schools will allow students to retake tests for full credit and will add a D-minus to their grading scale as the district and others try to rethink how to measure student performance.

The headline for the article says district leaders are “rethinking” the process of grading.

No, they are not.

This is simply an effort to tweak the same lousy system for assigning a value to each kid (one that’s hardly exclusive to Fairfax) and make sure it’s consistently applied at all middle and high schools in the district.

I remember hearing (maybe reading?) Alfie Kohn, one of the smartest critics of American education, say that schools use grading in order to sort students like so many potatoes.

Harsh? Maybe. But he’s not wrong in observing that is a primary function of the grading system used in most American high schools and many middle schools.

When I was teaching, grading very quickly became the hardest part of my job. As I got to know my students as people each year, it became very clear the number (letter) I assigned to each kid didn’t necessarily reflect their abilities and understanding. Still we were all required to slap a value on them at the end of each fixed period of time so that the data could be processed.

Even though that letter was more of a snapshot of how well they had learned to play game in each class, rather than a reflection of their learning. And make no mistake, school math is much more about learning the rules of the game than it is about understanding mathematics.

I think most teachers and administrators, then and now, realize that the process of grading is an extremely flawed system, but we continue using it anyway. With a few tweaks whenever the complaints get too loud.

For, without concrete grades, how would colleges ever determine which graduate is “best”? Without easily quantifiable data, the kids, administration, and especially their parents, would never know where they rank in the peer group. And we absolutely need everyone to have a GPA in order to determine a valedictorian.

Of course, missing from the discussion of grades is the question of whether the materials and concepts we are asking students to learn – and on which they will be graded – is appropriate in the first place.

We treat the curriculum and assessment as two discrete topics when they are very much interconnected. And both in most high schools are woefully out of date and in need of major reform.

Instead we tinker with the details and call it change.

The photo illustrating this post really has nothing to do with the topic. It’s just some visitors admiring a painting at the National Gallery of Art. Or maybe they’re just finding a comfortable place to get out of the summer heat.

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