Grading, Learning, and Parents

In 1972 I was a teacher on the staff of a new K-8, open concept, multi-level, team-teaching, non-grading school. As we met with parents we would share in great detail their child’s most recent skill mastery and current areas of study on a grade level continuum of skill development.

There were no report cards. We used carbon paper (Many of you won’t know what that is… it created a copy as you wrote.) to record our plans for next steps for student, teacher, and parents. Very often parents would listen intently and then ask, is that an A, B, or C. They struggled when I said I didn’t know.

In a few short years, the school implemented report cards and as teachers we created grades. Parents became comfortable as we provided “meaningless feedback.”

grades set drawn by 3d hand

Across the years I have facilitated educators’ conversations about how a district’s grading policy worked against what they as educators knew would advance student learning. Continually, they reported that parents force us to keep the existing grading structure. A thought that I have always shared is that the students in our classrooms today are the parents we are conferencing with in the future. Without a change, parent pressure for “what they are comfortable with” will continue.

I recalled all of these experiences as I read a recent article in ASCD Express by Pooja Patel, titled,  Working with Parents to Take the Focus off Grades. 

 Emphasizing grades sends the wrong message to students. To facilitate strategic behavior and academic growth, experts recommend using descriptive feedback that is actionable, tangible, and transparent and helps students plan a course of action for their next assignment (Wiggins, 2012).

913 b

Patel’s students set specific, measurable, and actionable goals based on explicit feedback. They discuss their feedback with her to ensure that they fully understand it. Then, they loop in their parents.

“Once students have had an opportunity to process the feedback and compare their work to the exemplar and rubric, they take the assignment home with the rubric, the exemplar, and a discussion guide. I ask them to discuss the skill that we are developing by explaining the exemplar and rubric to their parents. Discuss their current performance by comparing their work with the criteria presented in the rubric and exemplar. Target their future performance by setting a specific goal with their parents.

Commit to the goal by writing down their next steps and signing the discussion guide.”

 Patel describes the payoff of her approach:

“Parents are grateful to be informed and included. They not only learn the skills, criteria, and methodology we use in the classroom but also assist on making instructional decisions for their children. No longer do I get e-mails from parents asking me questions about the curriculum or standards. No longer do I experience miscommunications during parent-teacher conferences about progress, feedback, or grades. Parents see the value of descriptive feedback over grades.”

ASCD has published a book by Cathy Vatterott titled, Rethinking Grading:

“Standards – based grading requires us to let go of our grip on control and to trust students’ intrinsic desire to learn. To implement the standards-based grading paradigm, we must move from a demand model, in which we use grades to control and coerce learners, to a support model, in which we provide the support necessary for learning to occur (Kohn, 1993). The teacher must become more of an advocate and less of a judge (Guskey&Baily, 2001)”

 The need for change in grading is illustrated in an Edweek blog, Why a ‘Growth Mindset’ Won’t Work, by Peter DeWitt. He highlights that John Hatti’s research shows a low effect size for schools implementing a growth mindset with students.

“……the reason why growth vs. fixed mindset has a low effect size is due to the fact that adults have a fixed mindset and keep treating students accordingly, so right now the effect size is low, and will continue to stay low unless we change our practices in the classroom.”

 School leaders, teacher leaders, instructional coaches, teachers in PLC’s must push to implement feedback structures that assist students and their parents in extending learning…it’s unlikely most grading and report card structures will do that.

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2 Responses to “ Grading, Learning, and Parents ”

  1. LaShakia Moore Says:

    A topic that needs to be discussed more and more in schools but not just discussed but implementation of a change of practice.

  2. Christopher Snyder Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. What I would give to be a part of such a progressive movement relative to learning and not grading. The amazing aspect of this movement toward Standards Based Grading is the “grip” that the structures that have been in place for some time have on integrating this at a very slow pace. We use words like “Standards Aligned Grading” instead of SBG so that we can marry the common malpractice of the 0-100 scale along with SBG. It is a hybrid system that converts data into percentages so that it does not upset too much of the “way we always do things”. I just wish I knew why great ideas that everyone agrees makes sense takes so long to implement. If I seem impatient it is due to each year that we do not do what we know to be best and right allows another group of students to move on without getting the quality they deserve. Realizing education is a people business and has the gamut of personalities within it from the inside and those that are outside in the community still does make the frustration any less. Keep pushing the edge Steve as it helps to strengthen the conversations that we are having. Thanks!

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Steve Barkley

For the past 30 years, Steve has served as a consultant to school districts, teacher organizations, state departments of education, and colleges and universities nationally and internationally, facilitating the changes necessary for them to reach students and successfully prepare them for the 21st century. Read more…

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