I have a student who has been in at least one of my classes for the last three years. He’s a spectacular young artist and has more accolades and awards than I can instantly recall. He also has a lot of trouble with his math and science classes. He is what they call an “at risk” student. I have given this student every grade possible, A’s, B’s, C’s, F’s, you name it. Every time I get the same response, which is no response. This young man has no concern for his grade. I’m not sure he’s that concerned about graduating from high school in general. I don’t know that he is even aware of his current grades. All I can say with certainty is that the grade I have given him has never had an effect on his classroom performance.
On the other hand, I have a young woman who has been in my classroom for the last couple of years. She is the president of a few clubs, in mostly AP classes, and has a great GPA. She is a model student. If I give this particular student a “B,” she is the first in line to see me after class. “What do I need to do to improve my grade?” she nearly demands. She constantly checks her grades online and knows everything that is going on in all of her classes. Grades are important to her, but even without grades, she’d still want to do her best. She craves success.
And therein lies the problem. Imagine I gave both of these students a “C.” One would shrug his shoulders and continue on, business as usual, pleased that he is passing. The other would completely lose it and want to have a meeting after school about how she could improve the grade before it ended up on a report card. There is a major flaw in using grades as feedback; it is not a consistent language. What one student sees as success, to another is tragedy. How can grades be a successful tool if they don’t have a consistent meaning? The short answer: they can’t.
Now obviously, we are in a system that requires grades, and probably a specific amount of them. We can’t eliminate grades. What we can do is not take them so seriously. I remember when I was a new teacher; I thought grades were a tool. I can remember a voice in my head thinking, “That kid thinks he can goof off all week and pass? Not in my class!” That was bad. Using grades as punishment is a horrible idea. Mostly because the students who you feel you are in need of “punishment” probably aren’t all that motivated by grades. By and large, the only students motivated by grades are the same students who will probably succeed no matter what you do. Grades haven’t worked across the board to improve student success anywhere, or else no one would continually fail.
What has worked well in my classroom is to reduce the focus on grades and to increase the use of personal feedback through more critique. There’s a great quote from Doug Reeves on this topic:
“The Class of 2013 grew up playing video games and received feedback that was immediate, specific, and brutal – they won or else died at the end of each game. For them, the purpose of feedback is not to calculate an average or score a final exam, but to inform them about how they can improve on their next attempt to rule the universe.”
A basic letter grade is not immediate, specific, or brutal. A basic letter grade does not show a student how to succeed. There isn’t enough information there. Now, some people say, “My rubric informs students specifically about their achievement.” Let’s look at an example of what I consider a pretty detailed rubric. Here we can see one of the evaluation criteria, the one evaluating technique.
Now imagine I walked up to you and said, “You demonstrated some skill with the materials in this project; next time demonstrate adequate skill based on the expectations of the lesson.” I’m sure you would have no idea what I was talking about, especially if you were a teenager. You’d have no information about how to proceed, just that what you did wasn’t good enough. And that’s with this rubric; I’ve seen rubrics where they only have a number between 1 and 5 circled. A better use of your time is to sit down with the student and to tell them exactly what steps could improve the project. The best way to do this is critique. Now, if you haven’t read my thoughts on critique from my earlier entry, I will summarize with a basic statement: critique often. Also, we need to allow students time to work after the critique. How else will they learn to solve the problems they haven’t yet solved?
Also, I avoid setting my grades in stone. The only person it benefits is me. If I tell a student his work is “D” work but don’t allow him the ability to resubmit that work for a higher grade, I give the student no hope, and I tell him that improving the work has no real value. Therefore the work has no real value; do it, don’t do it, at this point it doesn’t matter to me. The artwork my students create is highly important. It’s important today, and it’s just as important tomorrow. The skills I am teaching are vital. They should learn those skills today, but if they didn’t, then come back and learn them tomorrow. I will give them full credit once they do learn it.
I never mark off for late work. Nowhere on my rubric, or in the TEKS, does it say “time management.” My grades should reflect the students’ mastery of the topics covered in class. To give an “A” project a “C” because it was 3 weeks late would be a lie. I would not accurately be communicating my student’s mastery of the concepts covered in the assignment, but rather his mastery of juggling all the responsibilities in his life. I will agree that time management is an important skill, but the report card is asking about my students’ mastery of art. It would be irresponsible of me to intermingle other information. Also, imagine a student with a large amount of failing grades. At some point, it becomes mathematically impossible for said student to succeed if the grades are set in stone. Eventually the student will come to the conclusion that there is no reason to even try. Mathematically, failure is inevitable.
I can’t afford failure in my classroom. My students need to succeed. I need to fill them with as much knowledge as humanly possible before sending them out into the world. Plus, I am not the only one evaluating these students. What if they were accepted to college based on the work they did in my class after I failed them? It would be highly embarrassing if I failed a student for always handing in late work and they submitted that work to AP and received a 5. What would the implication be if a student could succeed in the AP Studio Art Portfolio or college acceptance process easier than they could succeed in my classroom? My grade would be completely invalid and everyone would know it.