Grade for Success by Changing the Meaning of Grades
A few weeks ago, I participated in a chat on Twitter hosted by EduGladiators where we were discussing teaching with a growth mindset. Two of the questions presented asked how do grading practices contribute to fixed/growth mindsets and how does this affect the voiceless kids.
My response to this question was what exactly does the grade mean or measure. Does it truly reflect and represent the depth and extent of the student's learning? Is it quantitative or qualitative? Is it formative, summative, or authentic? Is it based upon cognition or compliance?
The unfortunate aspect of education is that it is defined and driven by grades. Students are graded based upon their proficiency. Teachers are graded based upon their effectiveness. Schools are graded based upon their overall performance. State and local education agencies are graded based upon whether they met goals.
Grades can also be more dissuading, disheartening, and even detrimental and devastating to student learning and performance.
Just last night, my youngest daughter cried because she received two C's on her progress report - one in math and the other in social studies. It wasn't that she was afraid of how her mother and I would respond - though I must admit we were extremely surprised and even concerned because my daughter usually does not earn lower than a B. However, she's in fifth grade now, and the math has become more challenging. The social studies grade was because - according to her - there's "so much information I'm expected to remember that I feel like I can't remember it all" (that's a whole other blog I'll write another time). She also felt she let her mother and I down. She was also disappointed in and embarrassed for herself.
My wife and I both practically said verbatim and agreed, "If she does not get those grades up, she's going to have that iPhone we just bought her taken away." The stipulation was set. If our daughter did not get better than an A or B - which we both knew she was capable of doing and she demonstrated she could get those grades in the past - then there would be hell to pay, and that payment would her her surrendering the phone we just bought her.
Then my wife, who teaches at the school where our youngest daughter attends, said, "This is what happens between 4th and 5th grade. The grades dip because the work becomes harder."
That's when we both took a step back and considered what my wife just said. The work becomes harder. I asked my wife is the work harder because she's expected to do more or because the concepts and problems are more complex. My wife said the latter. So then we reconsidered what that C reflected and represented - Challenge! Our daughter was being challenged by the material she was learning in 5th Grade.
As my daughter shed her tears, I asked her, "Did you do your best?" Before she sobbed her response, I said, "Don't tell me. If you tell me, you're making an excuse to me. You need to be honest with yourself. If you did your best, then that was your best and there's no need to excuse it. Your mom and I just want you to do your best."."
She asked me to assure her if I was not upset about her getting a C. I told her not if she did her best. "However," I said, "do you know what that C means?"
She didn't. All she knew was it meant it wasn't an A or B, which are the "good grades" she needed to get and anything else was "bad". She equated a C as "not good".
To an extent, she's right. That's what school and even society has perpetuated. The A's and B's are the good grades. Anything else is unacceptable - or even settling for mediocrity. Think about it. What do we often tell our children when they come home with a C? What do we tell our staff when our school does not earn that A or B?
I explained to her why she got a C. I explained how teachers grade, how we add up all the scores for all the assignments and tests she and her classmates take, how we average them to get a percentage, and that the letter grade was based upon where her average fell. A's are scores that are generally between 90 and 100, B's are scores that fall between 80 and 89, and C's are the 70's. Anything less than a 70 is considered to be a D and anything below a 60 is usually an F.
She then asked, "So what does it really mean if I get a C? Or a D? Or even an F?"
That made me think of the question I was asked in the Twitter chat. How do grades contribute to fixed and growth mindsets, and, most importantly, how do grades affect all children? What message are we truly giving our children when they receive a grade?
Let's be honest. Only the A's and B's present any kind of positive or encouraging message. A's are the best and B's are better than C's. However, what does that C stand for or suggest? C's typically mean average. It means someone did what was expected or even anticipated. It's thestandard.
If you think about it, standardized assessments are based upon what's average or common - or C's. If you meet the standard on a standardized assessment, you may pass based upon the criteria, but you're average. You actually received a C. You're just told in a nicer way that you're proficient or you meet the standard. You exceed the standard when your performance is above what's been set as expected - or considered to be average - or a C.
Approaching the standard or being designated as partially proficient on a standardized assessment is actually a C-. It means you're on the edge of being what's acceptable and unacceptable - again, based upon some kind of criteria.
Falling far below or being minimally proficient means a student is at a D. The quality of their learning and performance is not acceptable based upon what's considered to be the standard - or average - or a C.
So why is it we look at C's as bad? You're doing what's accepted as normal or average.
What's truly bad is if you earned the C because you did not give it your best or learn from your mistakes.
The meaning and messages grades give needs to be changed. It needs to be more positive and progressive than punitive. It also needs to be presented in a language or manner that students can understand and inspire encouragement and hope. It also needs to be more affective as well as evaluative - encouraging and inspiring attitudes and feelings about learning.
Included in this blog is a grading chart I have developed that is not only evaluative and affective but also hopefully more explanatory and encouraging. It not only explains to students how they did but also encourages them to continue to improve. It's meant to be written informally with descriptors and phrases that students will not only understand but also feel more encouraged to continue or improve their learning.
However, look closely at the descriptors for C, D, and F.
The C tells students just what a C should truly mean - they did okay. It's acceptable. It's what's expected. However, the C stands for choice - as in students can choose whether to accept that grade of C or learn from their mistakes and choose to do it again. Think about the football players whose team loses the Super Bowl after a season with more wins than losses. Consider the actors and filmmakers who are nominated for Oscars but lose. How about the politicians who earn the nomination from their party but do not win the election? They all did the work. They put in the effort. They did what was expected. However, their work was not considered to be an A or B by the people to whom they submitted their work. However, what did they do? Did they concede and just accept the results? Did they complain about the circumstances and situation? Did they Choose to keep going, to improve upon what they designed and developed, and to keep trying until someone finally Accepted their ideas?
That’s what the C should mean - Choice. It informs students that their work was okay and that they did what’s expected. They can Choose to accept that C or they can Choose to find and fix their mistakes so they can understand what they are learning Better and eventually produce something that is Awesome and Awe-Inspiring!
The D should have a much more encouraging message. It should not describe student performance or progress as poor. A D means unsuccessful, and many great people in history received D's before they became the A-level we know them to be in life. It tells them don't worry and don't give up. It also tells them to do it again - and that's what these A-listers did.
- Abraham Lincoln started numerous failed business and was defeated in numerous runs he made for public office.
- Thomas Edison made 1,000 unsuccessful attempts at inventing the light bulb.
- The Wright Brothers made numerous attempts at creating flying machines, put in several years of hard work, and produced tons of failed prototypes.
- Winston Churchill was defeated in every election for public office until he finally became the Prime Minister at the ripe old age of 62.
- Charlie Chaplin’s act was initially rejected by Hollywood studio chiefs because they felt it was a little too nonsensical to ever sell.
- Marilyn Monroe was dropped by 20th Century-Fox because her producer thought she was unattractive and couldn’t act.
- Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor because, "he lacked imagination and had no good ideas." After that, Disney started a number of businesses that didn't last too long and ended with bankruptcy and failure.
- Charles Schultz had every one of his cartoon’s rejected by his yearbook staff in high school and was even rejected for a position working with Disney.
- Steven Spielberg dropped out of junior high and later high school, was rejected from the University of Southern California School of Theater, Film and Television three times and eventually dropped out of another film school.
- Oprah Winfrey was fired from her television reporting job as “she was deemed not suitable for television
- Dr. Seuss’s first book To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street was rejected by 27 publishers.
- Stephen King’s book Carrie was rejected by 30 publishers, so he threw it in the trash.
- J.K. Rowling’s manuscript for Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 different publishing companies
- R.H. Macy started seven failed business before finally hitting big with his store in New York City.
- Colonel Sanders’ of KFC famous secret chicken recipe was rejected 1,009 times before a restaurant accepted it.
- Henry Ford’s early businesses failed and left him broke five times.
- Sochiro Honda was turned down by Toyota Motor Corporation for a job after interviewing for a job as an engineer, leaving him jobless for quite some time.
- Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard and was co-owner of a failed business called Traf-O-Data.
- Steve Jobs was left devastated and depressed after being unceremoniously removed from Apple - the company he started!
- Babe Ruth struck out 1,330 times.
- Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team in 10th Grade.
We all know what these A-listers accomplished inevitably. However, each of these individuals would have received a D if these setbacks and situations took place in the classroom. Still, they kept going. They took what they learned from adversity and turned it into an accomplishment - one even greater than they could have ever predicted or hoped.
Interestingly, these individuals are called “famous failures”. However, none of these individuals would have ever earned a grade of F - even if they chose to give up or not pursue their dream or goal. F is when you fail to do something - to take that step or seize that opportunity to succeed. There is no way to judge the quality of the performance or work because no performance or work was given. There's nothing to assess, evaluate, and grade. That's an 0, and that's what an F should reflect and represent - when no attempt is made and nothing is done or no follow-through.
However, an F should not mean its final or finite. Sometimes there's a larger reason why people do not do what their assigned or expected. Sometimes people make choices and decisions they don't realize could have larger ramifications and repercussions. These become more personal learning moments than academic, where people can learn the value and importance of achievement and effort.
That's why the criteria in the grading scale for F are questions. We should want to know why students chose not to do the work - or fail. That's what failure truly is - a choice. Do we choose to do or do not?
This is what Master Yoda truly meant when he said this to Luke Skywalker. We either choose to do or not do what we set out to do in life. If we do not succeed, we should not say, "Well, I tried." That's an excuse. We should instead say, "Well, I did what I attempted to do. It didn't turn out the way I wanted, but I can say I did it." Even if you choose not to continue to pursue your goal for whatever reason, that's what you decided to do.
What you did not do is fail. You failed if you didn't even make the attempt - and you did.
That's what we need to teach and how we need to grade our students. We need to teach them doing things are worth doing. If it doesn't turn out as we expected or hope, we have a choice - we either do it again or we do something else, and that something else can either be a different method or take a different path toward another goal. When we don't, we fail. That's how students should be graded because that's how we are graded in life.