Are All “C” Students Really the Same?

Posted on: Thu, 03/29/2018 - 09:00

FCPS leaders recently participated in an activity where 6 students had earned a grade of C. As the leaders learned more about the students, it became clear that some had mastered standards and others had not. So what does a grade really mean?

Imagine the challenge of awarding an Olympic medal if the athlete’s scores for every practice event throughout the season were included. Points would be lost every time the athlete worked to learn a more difficult skill or tried a new strategy. How would these failed attempts impact the final score beyond the quality of the Olympic performance? Is it possible the athletes would take fewer risks and challenge themselves less in order to avoid the penalty of losing points during practice? Think of all the unintended consequences.

Yet isn’t this exactly what happens in school? Students lose points for making mistakes on homework or class assignments designed to help them practice and learn a new skill. Is grading formative tasks designed to help students learn really fair to learners?

Imagine the consequences if people were never allowed to retake a failed test. There would be fewer licensed drivers, including myself, because of failing the driving test the first time. And what about the lawyers who had to take the bar exam more than once? In most real world situations, a person is able to work on the areas needed to improve and then is allowed to retake an important test.

However, traditional grading practices in our schools do not allow for retaking a failed test. What then becomes a student’s incentive to work on the areas needed to improve? What happens to a student who takes longer to grasp concepts and does a great job on a final exam when those earlier failed attempts are included in the final grade?

The more I read and learn about performance-based grading, the more I am convinced that it is the right thing to do for students. Current practices penalize students for the mistakes that are a natural part of the learning process. Current practices include factors relating to work habits that, though important, may not accurately reflect what the student has learned. Current practices assign a grade that often tells the student or parents very little about how the student performs on curricular standards. Performance-based grading is about learning! It communicates clearly to students about their performance on specific standards so they know what they have mastered and where they need to improve.

The time is right to begin this conversation as a community. 

What should a report card tell students, parents, teachers, and future employers or colleges about what a student can do? Share your ideas with me on Twitter @FCPSMDSuper. And whether or not you agree with this post, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it on Facebook or Twitter.