Monday, March 30, 2015

What are Grades Good For?

People think grades show a student has learned. Perhaps in some cases that is true. Grades are a measurement system. And just like any other system there are benefits and rules. They are good to show that a student has completed work and performed sufficiently on exams. It is rare that grades show the whole picture of a student. I have three different students, each has skills and challenges, I have taught or coached each one of these students and know how they think and learn. Mark, Jessie and Danny are great kids. Mark is in the top 20 out of 1500 students. Jessie graduated in the top 25% of her class and Danny is currently hovering right above dead last.

Mark is brilliant, he has an eidetic memory and his ability to reason is impressive. He excels at standardized tests and makes difficult subjects look easy. He is not the top of his class because he does not really know how to make himself learn. It just happens. If he is interested in the topic, he puts more effort into thinking and dissecting the ideas. In those instances he learns and learns well. If the topic is not to his liking he will use his skill and hope for the best. He does get A’s on most everything, even things he has long forgotten.

Jessie is similar to Mark in that much of her learning comes easy. She has a difficult time reading and processing writing, and struggles to communicate. She did tutor most of the top 10 students in physics and calculus. She knows when a teacher is not covering material she needs to learn. Conversations with her show she has learned a great deal, but when she sits down to fill in a bubble response, she jumbles her answers. If answers are similar (like choices on APUSH exam) she only sees 4 of the same choices. She does not do well in the grading system that has been set up for high school, but she understands learning.

Danny is a work in progress. He does not like to do work that does not mean something to him. Most teachers think he is just lazy. I got to see him go from lazy to inspired one day in class. All it took was a hands-on building project to make him shine. It was obvious that he knew what to do, could communicate it to his classmates and even went home and brought back information and better ideas. Unfortunately, getting him to pass by turning in work is not going to get him to graduation. He is starting to see that life has hoops to jump through to make it to certain milestones. He is even adapting to the idea.

Three different students who I expect will be successful in the future. They are all very different learners being measured by the same system. Is Mark better than Jessie who is better than Danny? Grades and class rank say so. I doubt it. As I focus on the importance of showing learning in ways that meet the needs of the student, instead of completing papers, grades have become secondary. These three students can all do well or do nothing in the same class. Their grade will show what they have learned not when they have complied. It is a slow evolution, but I believe I am on the right track.

1 comment:

  1. I never understood why school became a place where students were judged on their ability to fill in the "best" answer, or read the exact same interpretation as some textbook writer somewhere, or fill in the blank with the correct synonym. None of that is true learning; It's memorization and repetition. School should be about teaching kids to use their knowledge and abilities to better themselves and their communities. You are definitely on the right track.