A bad grade is your punishment for being a terrible student…right?


One of the hardest aspects of being a teacher, in my mind, is grading.  It’s time consuming, frustrating and often covers so many grey areas it’s difficult to assign a definitive number/letter to a students progress.  Additionally there are the added pressures from administrators, parents, and district personnel for students to measure up to some bar they’ve held above a student.
The other night I went to bed well after midnight after spending hours grading papers to pass back to the students the next day.  With each passing paper I was getting more and more discouraged.  The students missed a major concept we had been discussing in class for several days.  Many of them were receiving low C’s and D’s on the assignment.
I wasn’t discouraged for my students.  They know my grading policy.  I allow them to correct assignments.  Their grades are simply a work in progress.  A low grade means there are things that need to be improved upon.  I also don’t offer extra credit.  My goal is for the grade to be a direct reflection on what they know and what they still need to work on.  The students weren’t a concern for me.
My concern was for the other people outside of the classroom.  What would parents think if their child came home with a *gasp* 62%?  How are these 6th graders ever going to get into a good college with grades like that?  The teacher must have failed them or the parents must have done something wrong or the student must not have been trying hard enough.
What if grades weren’t punishment? What if grades were communication to the students to let them know what to improve on?  I’m by no means an expert on grading.  I fail often.  I’m constantly tweaking how I grade and what the numbers should represent, but I think we often get so hung up on the number that we lose sight of the whole purpose of teaching.  The kids need to learn something.  They need to be able to incorporate new skills/knowledge into their daily lives.  They need to be able to do something they weren’t able to do before.
The grade should ultimately be communication to the student on their strengths and needs for growth.  It should give them an accurate read of where they are at.  Then it is my job to give them the tools and guidance to move them from where they are at to somewhere new.  I don’t have a problem with a student receiving a D on an assignment.  That student struggled with some aspect of the content.  Now it is our job to reflect and develop a plan to move the D to a C.  But until we stop equating a bad grade with a bad kid, students will continue to shut down and ignore the feedback I’m providing.
The system as a whole is flawed.  One number/letter grade reflecting all that we do in a class is bad communication, and someday I hope we can find a grading system that makes more sense, one that encourages growth over a grade.  Because my goal is for my students to start out the year failing my class and end the year passing.  If I’m doing my job right I should constantly be presenting them with new, challenging content that they won’t master the first time.  Especially in Language Arts, it’s an evolutionary process.  They should continue to grow and improve over time.
The only way for us to get there is to teach kids the value of effective feedback and constantly strive for growth.

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