Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Making the grades

In my gradebook I now have four marks for my freshmen English students. It is Tuesday of the fourth week of the term. Tuesday afternoon I received a visit from a parent who also happens to be a colleague. He had come to inquire about his son's grade. He came in my room and shook my hand.
"He told me it was a D because he had not turned in all of his reading journal entries." The man took a seat at one of the desks in the room without waiting for an invitation, he was comfortable in this place. "I told him that was unlikely."
"Actually, it's plausible," I said correcting what seemed to me to be a preemptive assertion on his parit. "We only have four grades thus far. At this stage of the game, each one counts."
I opened up the computerized gradebook to have a look. The man's son had received half credit for his journal (the homework component of my course) and six out of ten on two other in-class assignments. On the flip side, he had one hundred percent in the column I label "Participation". The result was a 65% - a D.
The man listened to the report and then said, "I told him your're one of the top end teachers and that it was not going to be easy and so he'd better take care of business. Four grades huh? I would'a thought you'd had more goin' on than that."
It felt like a dig but I chose not to take offense. Instead I said, "I'm not interested in just collecting grades for the sake of having grades in the book. When I feel like they're ready for a serious assessment, I'll give them one."
In retrospect, I'm not sure that I succeeded in not taking offense, and the truth of the matter is that I'm not at all back in the swing of mainstream grading practices here. In France it was plausible that I might have collected six grades after twelve weeks, but American teachers, many of them anyway, generate grades like they were stock market quotes. Parents and kids read them the same way. Last week a kid looked at his F and asked me what his grade would be by next Thursday. Thursday turns out to be the day of his next freshman football game. The request was noteworthy not only for its narrow and short term focus (next Thursday as opposed to say, by the end of the term) but also because it is so very typical. Today I signed fifteen progress reports for football players as a group of students sat in my room waiting to make up tests and be tutored. Next week they'll be back for the same thing. The pressure is on the teacher to generate new grades, to satisfy a demand to be able to monitor students grades as if they were blood pressure readings. And we teachers allow ourselves to get sucked into this mode of operation. I'm of a mind to limit assessments during a term to once a month. Everything else comes under the categories of intsruction, drill, and practice...and participation. If Johnny's grade doesn't change every week some people may just have to acquire a longer term perspective on the whole subject of learning and accountability. They may have to satisfy themselves with observations on changes in classroom behavior and attitude, on levels of engagement and investment...the kinds of things that next to impossible to measure yet indispensable to learning.
"Johnny is showing increased attentiveness and he's volunteering more in discussions."
"Yeah, but will he have a D by next Thursday?"


Anonymous erin said...

Ugh! Good luck with whatever you decide to do- either way it's kindof a battle. It's too bad that actual learning doesn't seem as important as the letter in the book.

6:41 PM  

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