Learning and Grades are Often at Odds

This first session I attended at VASCD, from high school educators in Salem, VA, is focused on how to help students review concepts regularly, quickly, and efficiently. It’s thoughtful and helpful. I picked well for this time period (not something I can always say at conferences).

My first ten years of teaching were with fourth and fifth graders. It pained me on an almost daily basis to hear students ask questions like:

  • Is this for a grade?
  • How long does this need to be for a good grade?
  • Is this enough?
  • Can I do some extra credit?

Grades drove so much of what we did. Part of that was my fault. They got plenty of work back from me with nothing but a letter or number grade on it. Part of it came from families and societal expectations that students get good grades. In many ways grades were the backbone of everything at school.

In my eleventh year of teaching I moved to first grade. So much of that year was hard and exhausting but one of the first and most noticeable positives was that kids never asked about grades. Even as I gave them work back with grades that didn’t seem to matter. (Maybe because they didn’t really even look at the work they got back…)

I spent six years with first graders and then the next two years with kinders. Grades were never an issue in our classroom. Four years ago I moved to third grade. I wondered how this age would think about grades.

Somewhere in those first grade years, however, my school district moved to standards based progress reports K-6. Students no longer receive letter grades. They get 1-4 for each of the topics in each subject area. For example, here are most of the statements in the math section of our progress report:

For each of those statements students have a 1 (is beginning to do this), 2 (does this some), 3 (does this consistently), or 4 (goes beyond). We can also say NT for not taught or NA for not assessed as not everything happens every quarter.

Receiving a B in math communicates very little to a student or their family. The above statements communicate how far along a student is in their learning in different areas of math.

In four years in third grade I’ve never had questions and discussions about grades. Is that because of our standards based progress report? Maybe. Is it because I now put feedback on work and not grades? Maybe.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter to me why my students don’t ask about grades or extra credit. The focus in our classroom is on learning. We may have frustration when that’s hard but it’s focused on the learning and that is okay. When kids work through the hard and succeed they feel great. Maybe working and getting an A would give them same result, but I don’t think so. As human beings we like to learn. Kids get energized by learning new things. Schools and teachers should be focused on learning. Assessments and grades should serve the learning. Too often that is far from true.

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