Grades and Grading

Are grades punitive or are they an assessment of a student’s progress?

Yesterday, as I was sitting through a useless presentation of graduate research that any undergrad could have done, my colleagues (aka: fellow students) were discussing grading.  The presentation was on something or another to do with middle schools, 100% graduation or something of that sort.  Anyway, one thing that came up was giving a 50% on any assignment that had earned a grade of 50% or less.  In other words, 0% would no longer be the minimum grade; 50% would now be the minimum grade.  Several of my fellow student teachers expressed dismay over this and that if a student had done poorly than they should get the grade their received.  But my dismay was not at this seemingly logical statement but at their enthusiasm in giving such a grade.  That enthusiasm seemed rather…punitive in nature.  My perception was that they relished in punishing a student for scoring poorly and shouldn’t be helped in achieving higher success.  In this regard the grade was very punitive.  The old adage of “don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time” comes to mind.  Here it’s been changed to “if you can’t do the work, you can’t ever overcome your failures” or something to that effect.

I recalled my own high school experience and how poor a student I was and how nice it would have been to feel like I was succeeding.  But once my grades bottomed out in math and science, I stopped caring.  There comes a point in time when a student knows that no matter what they do, they can’t get their grades above passing and so they give up.  However, if I had been able to know that “yeah, I’m failing and I know I don’t grasp this completely, but if I work really hard for the next ______ weeks I can at least make a ‘D'” then I would have felt so much better.  Like maybe I wasn’t a complete idiot, which is how I felt for most of my high school years.

I then recalled my time in the military.  I recalled that part of a leader’s job is to regularly evaluate his or her subordinates and show them their weaknesses and how they can improve these areas.  They are to constantly work with them to improve their performance, because they know that, as a team, they are only as strong as the weakest member.

Too many educators and community members want to make the schools representative of the “real world.”  This is right and effective in many areas.  But we can never forget that school is just that: school.  It is a lab, where (forgive me for waxing eloquently), but it is a lab where young minds are molded and trained and taught.  It is NOT the real world.  If a student cannot feel like they have the ability to fail without consequence, how will they ever gain the confidence to try new things in the real world?  The school should be a place where young people gain confidence in their abilities and do not have to suffer the horrible fate of believing they are too stupid to succeed which effects them into adulthood.  Should there be consequences for not trying?  Certainly and the 50% grade does that.  If a student doesn’t try than they get 50% and they fail and they have to repeat the course.  But if they get a 50% and a teacher, or teachers, or guidance, or whoever, works with them and they gain that confidence then they will try and they will succeed and they can feel better about their attempts.

What real effect does it have for a student to know that they made a 32% versus a 50% on an assignment?  Failing is failing isn’t it?  Obviously you mark each incorrect response as wrong and you go over them to reinforce correct steps, etc.  As I mentioned before, once a grade is so low that there’s no chance for recovery a student ceases to care.

I’m not advocating an easy system, just a balanced system that takes into account that schools are a “laboratory” and training ground – not the “real world” where kids should be punished for not trying or for not understanding like adults are disciplined or punished.   It is my opinion that the 50% system and the “No Zeros” policy moves toward a fairer system.  Are there flaws in the system?  Are there blind spots in the policy?  Yes to both questions.  Is it perfect?  Far from it.  But I believe that the status quo is equally flawed and perhaps even more so.  The current system illustrates a belief that students are “little adults” and should be disciplined/punished as such.  However, research in cognitive development have progressed far beyond this and we should be practicing grading systems that reflect that knowledge.  We should not be practicing one that reflects a mentality from the early to mid 20th century.

That’s my thought and I’m sticking to it.


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