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Grading As an Opportunity to Encourage Students

Early in my teaching career, I had a conversation with a veteran math teacher, about grading. I greatly admired this teacher, a "mom"-type educator who spent hours and hours in voluntary after-school assistance for her ninth graders, patiently trying to find just the right way to get each of them to understand the abstraction of algebra.

"I always see the first grade that I give to a student as a kind of investment," she said. "I want them to know that I believe they can be successful, if they just persist." 

Although I hadn't given many grades at that point, I knew what she meant: How a very low grade feels to a student who's put good intellectual effort and time into a difficult subject. How it's better in the long run to nurture children's optimism around their own learning. How using grading as a weapon can backfire on teachers. How immature students--and in ninth grade, immaturity is the default modus operandi--might respond to their first failing grade. 

You'd like to think that a low grade would be construed as a warning, a spur toward greater effort and focus. You'd like to think that--but not so much, at least for some kids. For them, a low grade feels like proof there's no reason to even try.

How do you reconcile that with  points gained, percentages achieved, assignments completed and comparatively evaluated--the traditional tools of grading? There's no such thing as a completely objective grade. Compiling, weighting and averaging numbers often leaves a good teacher with a grade that doesn't reflect what he understands about the child in question--what that child actually knows and can do.

In his excellent blog, Taught by Finland, Tim Walker, an American teacher who moved to Finland and now teaches fifth grade there, reflects on giving number grades there, for the first time: 

 I realized that each traditional American letter grade also has a feeling that goes with it, too. A+, D-, C. I can feel each one of them. Given that grades hold a particular sentimental power, I was extra careful about the numbers that I gave to my fifth grade students.

Providing accurate grades is important, but it's also important to consider other factors, too. For example, several Finnish colleagues advised me to grade more graciously because my students will be receiving number grades for the first time.

I learned that giving a 5 to a fifth grader would have been harsh. It would be like giving an "F" to an American student who's brand new to letter grading. My colleagues encouraged me to see grade reporting as an opportunity to encourage students. 

Well. You don't see much of that kind of thinking in our current, data-driven climate in the United States. There's a lot of misplaced faith here in the accuracy of numbers. Also worth considering: encouraging students through grading doesn't necessarily require overinflating assessment of their actual performance. Some students respond very well to sharp, honest criticisms--if they trust the teacher who's telling them the truth.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell shares the real story of "Caroline," a would-be scientist who got diverted from this ambition, because she attended Brown rather than the University of Maryland, her safety school. At Brown, her organic chemistry class was the roadblock; Caroline suffers from a "feeling of overwhelming inadequacy"--the certainty that everyone else in the class understood concepts that were flying over her head, while she was thoroughly lost.

Caroline opts out of her science-based program and switches to liberal arts--but feels genuine regret at abandoning a career goal she's held since girlhood, one she may have achieved if she'd taken her core courses in a less competitive academic atmosphere. Caroline is an excellent, driven student, but one grade has derailed her aspirations. Gladwell's point is that lower-tier schools can act as the proverbial little pond where students become big fish--and succeed.

But there are other aspects to Caroline's story--beginning with our assumption that all students must routinely be compared to others in their peer group via grading. Genuine mastery of disciplinary knowledge and embedded skills is critically important--nobody's arguing against that.  But maybe there's a way to measure the acquisition of these competencies that doesn't involve comparative grading. Or competitive admissions, rigid timetables and public benchmarks. Ellen Condliffe Lagemann  is well-known in ed policy circles for saying: 

One cannot understand the history of education in the United States during the twentieth century unless one realizes that Edward Thorndike won and John Dewey lost. If Dewey has been revered among some educators, Thorndike's thought has been most influential within education. It helped to shape public school practice, as well as scholarship about education.

I like to think that grading as an opportunity to encourage is a small step back toward Dewey. 

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