The Dragonfly Forest

They have been given names such as devil’s darning needle, ear sewer, horse stinger, skeeter hawk, and the snake’s servant. Actually, Dragonflies are beneficial, peaceful, and stunning. You are a Dragonfly if you are: ADD/ADHD, dyslexic, dysgraphic, Asperger’s, NLVD, autistic…

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The reasons behind grades and how to make them valid!

Why are students graded?

There are a number of reasons grades exist in schools.  For many, grades are in place to: provide teachers insights regarding instructional planning (are students learning the curriculum if not what needs changed); provide the students and their parents feedback on the student’s progress and achievement; to motivate students to do better and work harder; and for administrators to determine which teachers are effective.

We need to remember why students are in school- it is for an education.  The goal is learning, and grades can provide feedback on to whether or not a student is learning the required information.  Grade should be valid and represent an accurate form of information regarding the student’s content knowledge of the specific subject.

According to Snowman and Biehler (2003) the sole purpose of grades is to determine accurately the level of academic achievement a student has accomplished and communicate this so others know exactly what a student knows and what a student still needs to learn.
Grades should be in place so teachers know what a student is learning and what information they still need to learn.  For all assignments and assessments the students should have a rubrics that tell the student (& the parents) what the learning objectives are and benchmarks for demonstrating knowledge of the subject matter.  The rubric is then used to determine if the student has mastered the information or if the information needs to be taught again often in a different way.  The grades are indicators to the teacher to guide the teacher to become a more effective instructor based on each student’s individual needs and learning style. 

The grades are also a way teachers can communicate with the students and their parents on what content has been learned and what information still needs to be learned.  It is a collaborative approach to consistently inform students and parents on explicitly what a child is learning and not learning in the classroom.  By using this collaborative approach to grading, all parties will know exactly what information is not being learned and can work together to determine why this content is not being understood and retained. 

Unfortunately, often teachers do not use grades in these ways.  Instead of using grades as a guide to improving student learning, teacher are grading wrong and for the wrong reasons. There is often a breakdown in communication especially at the middle and high school levels when teachers expect students to be more mature and parents are less informed on where their child stands academically.  Many students do not have the executive functioning skills to be responsible for communicating their assignments and progress to their parents.  This then causes parents to not be informed and out of the loop.

When teachers are concerned about what the administrators think regarding the grades of the students in their class, many have the mindset that they need to make sure the grades show a normal distribution.  A teacher doesn’t want administrators to think that they give all A’s & B’s so they WANT students to have C’s, D’s, & F’s.  Teachers and administrators that believe grading students should be thought of as a “norm-referenced” approach (bell-curve) are forgetting that all students should be receiving a ‘free and appropriate education.’   

Education means that the students should be learning. When teachers want their students to have a “normal distribution” of A’s to F’s then the focus is on maintaining an image and not on the goal of educating.  There is NOTHING wrong with an entire class of students all receiving A’s – because this demonstrates that each student IS being taught so they are learning and receiving an education.  By sticking to the belief that the grades should be equally distributed across the bell-curve is in complete violation of the mission of most school districts.  The mission of my children’s school district states: “Our mission is to facilitate maximum learning for every student.”  This does not happen when teachers want and allow students to receive C’s, D’s, & F’s!  These grades all indicate that the student is NOT learning the needed information.  It does not comply with the school’s own mission!  

Another area where teachers grade wrong is when teachers create assignments and tests easy so students, especially special education students obtain higher scores. Some teachers want to make it appear that they are a "good" teacher and/or some students are making great progress.  Again, this is not an appropriate education, students are not actually demonstrating learning.  When grades are inflated they are not valid grades.  These grades are not an accurate representation of student learning and can prevent a student from receiving the necessary accommodations and intervention support, all because a teacher is grading wrong.   

Teachers and administrators also believe that grades provide students a motivation to do better.  This is so wrong.  Now, there will be some students that are motivated to obtain good grades but for students with learning disabilities this is not often the case.  To learn more about motivation please watch Dan Pink’s video .  

For many students learning is HARD.  Students (as well as most people) are motivated to reduce the pain of the hard experience.  Furthermore, because teachers have confirmation bias and often do not “like” students who are challenging or difficult to teach, they often will grade them based on this bias.  These grades are not accurate reflection of the student’s content knowledge they represent the teacher’s opinion of the student.  There are some students who can do everything to meet the criteria of A-level work and still receive C’s as a grade for the assignment (I see this all the time with my clients & my own children).  Eventually, these students just give up and stop trying (Learned Helplessnes).  For the student who is being assessed with easy tests, they too are not being motivated to do better because they are being lead to believe that they are putting effort in and producing acceptable results.  When these students eventually get a teacher who is assessing them appropriately, these students will struggle which will not be motivating but confusing.  

There is also a lot of research out there that provides evidence that students should not be competing against their peers and competition is not productive in an academic setting. Students should be competing against themselves and taught to work on improving their own skills and knowledge but to do this they need to be educated, assessed, and graded appropriately.  Richard Lavoie does a great job explaining this in his videos which are added to a previous post I did on how to have a PositiveSchool to Build Self-esteem of all Students.

So, let me answer from an Educational Psychology point of view the purpose of grades.  The primary objective of school is to learn specific academic content knowledge (check out your school district’s benchmarks for these).  To determine if students are learning and reaching these benchmarks, teachers need to consistently provide “formative” (not graded) assessments of the student’s knowledge so the teacher can determine if the student is actually learning the content knowledge.  These “formative” assessments should be shared with the students (and parents) as a way to help the students understand what information they have learned and what information they still need to learn.  These assessments should be guides for the teacher to make instructional changes for the individual students who are not learning.  Then the teachers will assess the students with a “summative” evaluation (graded) to determine a final overview of the student’s knowledge on the subject matter.   If a student has still not mastered this information it is the teacher’s (or interventions teacher) job to make sure the material is understood before the student is moved on to the next level or unit.  All students should be re-taught and re-tested to assure learning has occurred.

 “Grades… are used by students, parents, other teachers, guidance counselors, school officials, postsecondary educational institutions, and employers.  Therefore [teachers] must assign grades with utmost care and maintain their validity” (Nitko, 2001 p. 365).  This is quite scary because a teacher’s perception of a student is often what is being graded not the level of knowledge a student has learned and if the student has not learned the required academic content it is the fault of the teachers.  No teacher should allow a student to leave their classroom without learning the necessary benchmarks.  

If the teacher has tried everything in their power to teach the necessary information to the student and the student is still not learning then the teacher needs to seek help from the special education department.  If a student is resistant to learning the information then it is the job of the teacher and other staff members at the school (the adults) to develop and implement ways/strategies to help motivate the student to achieve this knowledge.  The key here is; the teachers are the ones in control and the adults in the situation.  Failure should never be allowed as an option for students.  If a student is not earning A’s & B’s then it is the job of the teachers to make sure they are learning the content they have not learned.  A student who is earning A’s & B’s are learning and retaining most of the academic content.  Students who are receiving a C or less are missing quite a lot of content material and no teacher should allow this to happen especially if the student is a student with a disability (Why We ShouldHelp Students with Learning Disabilities).   

Some teachers and school administrators have argued that it is okay for students to receive C’s and below (they have the “normal distribution” mindset).  Now, think about it this way -grades are supposed to be a valid reflection of the student’s learning.  When a teacher allows a student to achieve only up to a level of a C (D or F) then that teacher is allowing that student to leave their classroom without the knowledge they need to progress to higher levels.  The teacher is not providing a ‘free and appropriate education’ for all students because these students who are not learning are often in tutor programs outside of school paid for by their parents.  Furthermore, a special education student should NEVER be allowed to perform lower than a B when they have an IEP, intervention teacher, and are in co-taught classes.  So the school district has failed to achieve their mission: “to facilitate maximum learning for every student.”

What is also disheartening is how school districts also allow this to happen.  No matter how much a parent begs and pleads for help, a school district is often resistant to providing necessary support to the students who need it the most.  I not only know this from personal and professional experiences but look at the dropout rates in our high schools.  When students are failing they are not learning and this is a poor reflection on the whole school district.  Many school districts often hide behind all the successful students which often outnumber the ones who are not being successful but it is the ones on the bottom we should care the most about; but they are often the hardest to teach and reach.  So the point is, not every student really matters to a school district. Often only those that make the district look good matter and the rest can be tossed aside uneducated and thrown away.  Sadly, the student’s failing grade cards will follow him/her into his/her futures only to have colleges, universities, and employers make negative confirmation bias judgments about lack of intelligence. Some of these students are actually quite smart but this is not reflected on their grade cards.  In reality, colleges, universities, and employers should be making negative judgments about the school district for allowing a student to graduate without the necessary knowledge to compete in the real world.    

I will leave you with a few final points

**Here's a quote from a student regarding the perceptions of grades: “Grades are just the teacher’s opinion on how smart and motivated you are, but it’s an opinion that you will be labeled with for life.”

***Here's what we should be teaching our children: The poetic powers of Suli Breaks

****Picture Quote: 

Nitko, A.J. (2001) Transforming classroom grading. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 

Snowman, J., and R.R. Biehler (2003) Psychology applied to teaching. 10th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.