I have gone to great lengths in my classroom over the past few years to teach my students everything I know about grading and assessment. Why? Because I am trying to dispel the notion that a grade (all by itself) is an accomplishment. I want them to understand that learning is the goal. Grades exist simply to communicate the amount of learning.
Convincing my students, however, is easier than convincing their parents, other teachers, administrators and community members. It seems that everyone has bought into the idea that a good grade is an achievement that should be rewarded. It’s common sense, right? To earn an “A”, students must have worked hard and sacrificed, and we want to encourage that kind of character. We compensate students with sports eligibility, scholarships and plaques for academic excellence. In some families, there is even a financial reward.
Why do we do this? Well, the answer is simple. We learned in our Psych 101 courses that if you want a behavior to occur more often there must be a positive consequence when it does. Put aside for a moment the findings of Daniel Pink and others that this sort of classical conditioning only works for simple tasks. The underlying problem is that a grade is not an accomplishment. It’s a measurement.
Consider this: would you give your daughter a prize for being an inch taller at her annual check-up? Would you clap a student on the back and praise him for having a body temperature of 98.6 degrees? Of course not because these measurements are seen as important information that a medical expert will use to diagnose and treat problems. So, why don’t grades work the same way?
The easy answer is that we have created this monster. As parents, we have incentivized our children to earn better grades. As teachers, we publicly recognize the best scores. As school leaders, we herald the honor roll. We create intense pressure among nearly all of our students to earn the highest marks.
This pressure breeds negative behaviors. We see students so focused on earning an “A” that they stop thinking in creative ways. Students begin to undermine each other to improve their rank, rather than developing collaborative skills. Cheating becomes rampant in a world where all that matters is the letter on the report card.
All of this can be seen in a typical classroom, especially near the end of a marking period. Students who slacked off for weeks beg for extra credit. Those who have not demonstrated superior content mastery try desperately to find a way to excel. Unintended lessons supersede the important ones: Effort is more important than mastery, appeasing the teacher is better than studying, and if I can’t turn my “F” into an “A” there is no reason to try anymore.
So, what’s the solution? In my classroom, it comes down to re-education. I train my students to understand the value of assessment. They know that formative assessments help me (and them) to understand their weaknesses and address them. They see the value of improvement over the absolute mastery level. They begin to see each test as a check-up, not a challenge.
Obviously, I can’t change a system that values letter grades so highly. But, I can help my students value my feedback and their own growth over the fleeting thrill of an “A”. And I can look on with satisfaction when they begin to care about their own progress without rewards or consequences from anyone else.
Paul Cancellieri (@mrscienceteach) is a national board certified middle school science teacher at Wake Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Raleigh, N.C. His shares his classrooms experiences with assessment and technology on his blog at ScriptedSpontaneity.com.