Tuesday, December 11

Middle School Muddle: Should grades really matter in middle school?

“Did you get anything back?’’

I posed this question to my 7th-grade son the other day. I hated the nagging tone of my voice. I’m sure he did too. After all, I’m constantly asking how he did on the math test, the science project, the Spanish quiz.

Wouldn’t it be better if I asked, “Did you learn anything interesting today?’’

Why do I care so much? Because 7th grade counts for high school admission, and the grades you get do have an impact. After that, grades affect what college you get into.

It’s an endless cycle of evaluation. And last month, some staff members at Institute for Collaborative Education, a well respected middle and high school in Manhattan, decided to offer a way out.

After a staff meeting where teachers spent “about two straight hours contemplating and debating about grades,’’ 6th grade parents received a letter offering a chance to “opt-out’’ of receiving letter grades — while still receiving detailed narratives at the end of each cycle, along with time to conference with the teachers.

“To us, the goal of education is to foster a sense of curiosity in the students, to encourage them to explore the world around and try to find ways to make it better,’’ the memo said. “Too many times, education boils down to competition for the best letter grade. And this should not be what education is all about.’’

An interesting take at a time when schools in the city are being awarded controversial letter grades, a concept I totally disagree with.

It's different, though, when it comes to your own kid. I broached the idea of no grades with my 7th grader, who does not go to ICE but wished he did the minute I told him about the “opt-out” plan.

Possibly, he just liked the idea of not hearing my voice at the end of the day: “Did you get anything back? What did you get?’’

I can’t say I blame him, although I’m still conflicted here. As I search for a middle school for my 5th grade son, I love the idea of telling him that grades – and test scores – really don’t matter, as long as he is trying his hardest and doing his best.

Except it wouldn’t really be true, would it?

Read all of Liz Willen's Middle School Muddle

1 comment:

Justin Snider said...

That many students do not do well in school because of low expectations is a well-documented reality. Removing grades from the mix would simply send the message to kids that hard work does not matter. The truth is that grades can serve as an important motivator for most students; young and old alike respond to incentives, and a report-card full of As and Bs is much more motivating to most than "detailed narratives," no matter how glowing. Furthermore, competition is often a good thing, especially when the chief rival is oneself.

Should grades be the only way student achievement and effort are measured? No, obviously not. They tell only part of the story, and, to be meaningful, grades should be complemented by student-parent-teacher conferences as well as annual narratives. But these latter forms of reporting student achievement and effort, when done well, are hugely time-consuming. Principals must allocate staff development/work days so that such important tasks can be completed.

A grade is shorthand for a student's performance in a class, and a student's transcript can provide an efficient overview of performance over three or four years. A widespread disappearance of grades is not likely in the near future. High schools and colleges will continue to admit students based on grades; employers will continue to hire based on grades; grad schools will continue to base their admissions decisions largely on grades.

Can we blame students for being competitive and obsessed with grades when they determine so much? Hardly. The real problem is less with grades themselves than with how they're sometimes misused.