I wrote this after winter break and never posted it. Now, I am home on bed rest waiting to become a mom, and I've received multiple emails from anxious students. It breaks my heart I can't solve this on my own.
Now, I do not grade homework, nor include it in the determination of their overall grade. (I am required to issue a letter grade 4 times per year). I provide only feedback on all their quizzes and other formative work leading to a unit assessment. And on those summative unit assessments, students do not acquire or lose points, they get additional feedback and a rubric score describing their progress towards proficiency. I have honed my practice and re-written the rubric descriptors to be clear and distinctive. I encourage retakes if a student receives less than a 3 (demonstrates proficiency) and for approximately 60% of the standards, I have required retesting until proficiency is demonstrated to ensure that content and skills are learned to achieve a passing grade in my course.
I lead the class to focus on the learning rather than grades and we reflect and record to internalize the feedback. We use metacognitive strategies and discuss, often one on one, the preparation needed, the next steps to be taken to learn the concepts or skills, and the purpose of reflection. There are no more points to beg for and, since I don’t offer extra credit or deduct points for late or missing work, their grade is defined by what they know, and not an accumulation of arbitrarily assigned and awarded points or compliance to behaviors.
At the start of the year, I heard positive responses to fewer grades and more feedback. And I believe those feelings are still valid and present. I’d hear comments like “the quizzes in here don't make me nervous because they just tell me what I still need to work on” and my course is compared in a positive way to classes where points mean everything. I was proud that students were more relaxed on quiz days and appreciated the feedback they were getting. But then as the end of first semester crept closer, their heart rates ran faster. The panic of reassessing and the time crunch put pressure on them that was keeping them up at night. Students were desperate to retest but were not putting in the relearning to be successful. For some, when I marked the retest, they’d have missed similar questions to the original, so we’d have to conference, and I’d provide more practice specific to their learning needs.
Eventually, the deadline came. Not the ultimate deadline, but the end of the semester when I, contractually, must submit a traditional grade for each student. I was informed by my administration, who has been very supportive of my standards based learning/grading and reporting practices, that I cannot give the grade “incomplete” to every student that has not yet reached a 3 on their required learning standards. However, no one has ever stopped me from making grade changes so long as a grade was submitted in the first place.
But apparently a process I feel is a better option than one-and-done and no grade changes doesn’t alleviate all the anxiety. For many, I am being dismissive of their fear of getting a grade less than an A or B on their mailed report card. I received emails from parents, students, and guidance counselors with concern over the printed piece of paper: the report card.
I get it. Or I try to get it. Maybe because I am past that point in my life when school is all there is and I don’t live with my parents so I can see that a grade does not define my students. But to them it does-despite my efforts. The pressure applied to them by society, by previous and current teachers, and by their parents is hurting them And yet, they don’t see it. There is such little consequence to a piece of paper having a ‘C’ on it - a temporary piece of paper, a temporary ‘C’. Nothing life-altering should happen when a progress report goes home. It is not an official transcript; it is not a legal document that will be publicized; it is a report on a student’s current progress. But “we” have made it more than that. “We” have made this end of a term - send a notice home to my parents - if you don’t get As and Bs (and for some only As will do)… a scary time. And it happens two or three times each school year.
My solution is not easy. For one, parents and teachers need to help students understand that school is not a race and a grade is not a do-or-die reward. It is not a reward at all. Learning is the reward. As adults, it is best that we provide a safe opportunity for students to learn and let that be the outcome. If we could imagine a checklist for each of our students, one that is personalized and malleable to their needs and the plan they have for their future, what would it look like? As I see it, not all students need A’s but all students need to learn. And they all don’t have to learn the same things. If each student knew what was on their checklist for learning, then they only need to complete the items on their list. Learn X, get checkmark next to X. Don’t learn X, no checkmark. There are no grades and no need to compare students - which is the historical intention of the grading system we use.
Can you picture this? Several times a year the list is sent home to parents to show progress in completing the checklist. The checklist changes with the needs, plans and interests of the student. Is this even possible? Would this address the anxiety of students caused by grades? What other ways can we address the root of the problem? I am in search of a solution since I can’t take 120+ students home with me a erase 10+ years of “grade anxiety”.
Please share your thoughts here or email firstname.lastname@example.org.