I can remember sitting in my classroom, with a pile of papers to grade. I’d take a cursory perusal of the stack, looking at certain students’ work. Smartest girl in the class? Wow, her work looks wonderful! Look how nicely she writes! Complete sentences? Check! Smartest boy in the class? Wow, his work looks great too! They always do such a nice job. These kids are going to do awesome things, someday! I’m so glad I have these two kids in my class, because they give me hope for the human race!
I also have a few kids who don’t understand anything, but boy, are they nice. I don’t want to fail them, because they are just sweet kids, but they can barely read or spell their own name. They are missing over half the questions on the test, but I’ll give them some bonus points for bringing in a box of Kleenex, so they can get a C.
Then, on the flip side, this other handful of students are so lazy! They hand in crap I can barely read. They didn’t even try to do two of these questions! Absolute rubbish. If they weren’t tardy or absent all the time, would just sit down and take notes like I ask, and would stop harassing everyone – geez, it would make everyone’s life happier. Days when they don’t come to school are like a vacation from the crazy.
Good kids, nice kids, smart kids – A.
Lazy kids, rude kids, stupid kids – F.
A perfect bell curve. A few As, a few more Bs, lots of Cs, a few Ds, and of course those Fs.
I repeated that cycle year after year. I chose the “winners,” the students who were just so nice I couldn’t bear to give them a D. The National Honors Society kids always got As. The bookworm got a A. The student who always helps me plug in all the computers and brings me cookies gets a B, even though he can’t even read or write.
Teachers around the globe have had these grading practices, or some version of them. We may live and die by the textbook. We may pick out easier questions for our students, for their tests, because you know they can’t do those “higher order thinking” questions, and that their essay questions are horrible to read and try to grade. We may have 40 kids in each class, and are falling behind in our grading, so we slap a grade on what looks correct. There isn’t time to give feedback – you either pass, or you don’t.
Then, along comes Standards-based grading. It threw a huge wrench into teacher’s grading systems across the USA, and the backlash was HUGE!
When grading based on mastery of the standards (like Common Core or NGSS) the smartest kid in the class who always got A’s, now has to master ALL of the standards to get their A. It doesn’t matter whether they are rich, poor, white, black, having family troubles, are causing trouble in class – they are graded based on performance.
What if you’d been a “Chapter teacher” your whole career, and suddenly what you needed to teach was not clearly laid out in a textbook? You were used to going through Chapters 1 – 12 over the whole school year. You used the Chapter’s quizzes, worksheets, and test bank. You chose what to cut out of the chapter, and then you chose not to include it on the test. Well, now that we have tests based on standards, not chapters, half of what you teach may become irrelevant, and the things you threw out because they were too hard become what’s actually on the state test.
Many teachers didn’t like this. And parents. And students. And administrators.
Telling sweet little straight A Sally that she only mastered 20% of the standards, and may not graduate is every school’s nightmare. The performance on one test (or in Ohio’s case, seven tests) can determine if you graduate.
What do students really need to know and learn? What is the appropriate age level for certain milestones? What lessons and what strategies are the best for teaching this population of children?
There are a whole lot of moving parts. And some systems are missing many parts. But in the end, we can’t just give nice kids an A, because that will not be reflected in their state test scores. We also can’t punish students with bad grades, who may be obnoxious, but have mastered the standards and skills. It takes much of the control of teachers out of their hands, and tells them WHAT to teach, but not HOW to teach it.
So, in the end, can we compare students to standards, or do we still look at the relative smartness in the room?