Sunday, December 5, 2010

A's For Good Behavior: A massive exercise in missing the point

I came across an article in the New York Times called A's for Good Behavior and found myself quite bothered by the whole thing. At first I couldn't quite place why I was so uncomfortable with the premise of the article - after all, the article was trying address the subjectivity of grading. And then it hit me.

Despite some of their good intentions, this article tries to resolve the issues of grading by, in effect, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

The second paragraph epitomizes the wrongheadedness of the entire article.

But after poring over four years of data comparing semester grades with end-of-the-year test scores on state subject exams, the teachers at Ellis began to question whether they really knew who the smartest students were.

If you look carefully, you'll see that four years was spent...

...poring over data... 

In some industries, this might be exemplary practice - heck, it might even be best practice - but we aren't talking about assembling widgets.

We are talking about educating children.

The student body is not simply a transportation device for their number two pencils, and yet, you'd think that's exactly all they are good for when you see how much emphasis tests and grades are given.

If you read the article carefully, you can start to see how the premise of the entire article is: teacher grades bad - standardized test scores good:
As test scores fast become the single and most powerful measurement by which educational outcomes are being judged, more schools might find themselves engaged in what has become a pivotal debate: Should students be rewarded for being friendly, prepared, compliant, a good school citizen, well organized and hard-working? Or should good grades represent exclusively a student’s mastery of the material?

First of all, the prevalent use of test scores to assess schools is not like the weather - it's not this thing that we just have to get used to. In fact, I argue that it is every educators professional obligation to save kids from these tests. 

Secondly, the real debate should revolve around real learning and good teaching, not about how to best reward students with grades. That this article claims the real "pivotal debate" in education is really around how to grade is an indictment of how clueless many people are about what really matters in a good education system. To spend all of our time focusing on how to grade while ignoring why we should do so in the first place is a massive exercise in missing the point.

To be honest, I don't care if students are achieving high grades or low grades. I don't care if students are achieving high test scores or low test scores.

The best educators understand what Marilyn French meant when she said:
"Only extraordinary eduction is concerned with learning; most is concerned with achieving: and for young minds, these two are very nearly opposite."
It would also appear that most adults have a hard time differentiating between student achievement (read as test scores and grades) and students' achievements (read as real learning that is in a context and for a purpose).

Note that the former is great at preparing kids for a life of tests where as the former focuses on preparing them for tests in life.


  1. This is a great post, Joe. Really resonates with me.

    The question I ask myself, though, is whose responsibility is it to drive change towards more responsible assessment practices?

    I've pushed and pushed against practices that I don't believe in for years, and yet I'm still trapped in a system that requires practices that I don't believe in.

    Sad, isn't it?

  2. I feel the same way. Our school , though an inquiry based school, seems to be going the the primrose path to testing and grading. very sad.

  3. Bill, it's beyond just sad. I have seen the kind of apathy that many teachers have succumbed to. They see their job as something they are told to do - which is just as poisonous as when kids come to see learning as something they are told to do.

    You can't imagine how much push back I get when I say that it is not a select or privileged few who get to discuss school reform - it is every educator's professional obligation.

  4. great education is about learning, poor education is about achieving or behaving. I believe this statement is not just rhetoric, take notes at a staff meeting and see how much of the conversation is about improving instruction and learning

  5. Great post, Joe.

    The following appears at the very end of the article you cited:

    “We are getting rid of grade fog,” Mr. Brady said. “We need to stop overlooking kids who can do the work and falsely inflate grades of kids who can’t but who look good. We think this will be good for everyone.”

    Brady is right, we do need to stop overlooking kids who can do the work. But discounting choices students make is not a step in the right direction.

    Schools function as a bubble in an artificial world. What happens in a classroom is not indicative of life outside of school. If John slumps in his chair across from his boss during an evaluation, you can bet your bottom dollar John won't keep that job for long. Slumping in a chair in class needs to be addressed just as much as not knowing understanding slope in math class!

    As far as changing assessments goes, if these people truly believe this is going to change their schools around...God help them. They are comnpletely missing the point.

    Kids today need an education that supports the skills they need in the real world, not the world their teachers graduated into years ago. That world no longer exists.

    If we want our students to be college-ready tomorrow, their education today needs to be updated.

    If we want our students to be world-ready, they need to know how to engage in relationships with people around them...whether they are graded on this or not is irrelevant.

  6. I can well understand traditional schools who focus on discipline and behavior to get compliance , grading behavior but an approach who focuses on social and moral learning - when expectations are not met , problems can be solved collaboratively and learning takes place ,also focus is on the whole child , their motives and feelings , their commitment to values and the type of people they want to be . These are pretty subjective and emotional issues Grading will just destroy the soul of the child and turn him into a Skinner rat.


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