Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Damaging Effects of a Grade

Here is a guest post by Cherra-Lynne Olthof. She teaches middle school math, language arts and social studies. She tweets here and blogs at Teaching on Purpose. This post was originally seen here.

by Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I’m going to step out of my teacher shoes for a minute and put on my mom shoes (acknowledging that really it’s tough to separate the two when you have a child).

First, a bit of background information: My eldest child is in Grade 2 and is very lucky to have two fabulous teachers who share the duties of the classroom in a 60/40 split. She’s in a class of 26 and both teachers have admitted that makes things very “busy”. Luckily my daughter is a strong student and really an independent learner. If you don’t believe me, check out my post on how she learned algebra when she was sick last year. We are lucky that she enjoys school so much and thrives on learning.

However…I wasn’t prepared for some of the ramifications she’s been having this year. She writes a spelling test every Friday. We found out at Parent/Teacher conferences that Kaitlyn is working off of a grade 4 spelling list, and we were ok with that. They felt she needed a challenge and the regular Grade 2 spelling list wasn’t cutting it. Again, I was fine with that. I have yet to meet an elementary teacher who doesn’t have spelling tests so it’s not the test that I object to per say….it’s how her father and I (both being teachers ourselves) have handled how she receives grades and the importance she places on them.

Up until this year, there wasn’t a single test she didn’t get 100% on. She was proud of this and we congratulated her on her accomplishments (our first mistake probably). This year, with the more challenging lists, she’s been getting questions wrong. They are little things like reversing the i and e in thief (a mistake I make myself as an adult) or choosing one homynm of a word over another (dew instead of do).

We took the first test she scored one wrong on as an opportunity to explain to her that grade weren’t everything and making mistakes was natural. We thought she understood. We thought we had covered it well. When we asked her, “Do you understand it’s ok to get things wrong?”….she nodded and said yes at the appropriate time. We thought she knew.

We were wrong.

Today I drove her to school and we were running late. To make matters worse, we got caught on the wrong side of the tracks by the train. While we were waiting there I had a conversation with my child that disturbed me.

She told me she doesn’t think she’s a good speller anymore because she no longer gets 100%. On every test she seems to get at least one wrong and sometimes as many as 4 out of 18 wrong (her “worst” score so far this year). I was shocked! I hadn’t seen this coming at all. She was very focused on the score at the top of the test paper and since it no longer equated to 100% she had convinced herself she must no longer be a good speller.

So I asked her a series of questions, trying really hard not to mention anything about test scores. Throughout the conversation I got her to admit that the words she is spelling this year (thief, neighbour, snowflake) are much more difficult then the words from last year (I, it, he, we, she, they). I also managed to get her to admit that this is a huge improvement from last year. There was the reminder her that even though she got a few of the words wrong, the mistakes were so small that I still knew what the word was, even if it wasn’t spelled correctly.

She made the connection to her e-mail buddy, a pal that she has in her class who e-mails with her back and forth after school (I know….it’s starting already! yeesh). And I asked her, does she always have perfect spelling? Well no, she admitted. Do you still understand what she is trying to tell you in the message? Yes! She agreed. And slowly she decided that spelling wasn’t as important as being able to read a message, or a story, or directions someone might give you. (A message I try to drive home with my own students when it comes to focusing on spelling.)

As I was congratulating myself on a a great conversation while we pulled up to the school, she finished off by saying: ”I still wish I could get them all right.” Grrr……

So we will keep working on this one. What I will continually draw her back to are these three reminders:

1. Are you improving? (Because in the end, this is all we really care about as parents and even as a teacher).

2. Are you feeling confident in yourself and your ability to learn? (Self confidence in a learner is far more important then the grade they score).

3. Can you take your mistakes and turn that into an opportunity to learn something from them? (There’s a reason why pencils have erasers).

I still feel like taking a bottle of whiteout to the 14/18 score at the top of her spelling test…..

But I also can’t help using this moment to reflect on my own teaching. And my decision to eliminate as much grading from my own practice as possible. I will be joining Joe Bower’s: Grading Moratorium very shortly….and you will find my full story there.


  1. bravo. thank you for sharing an all too common story. if you haven't yet read or watched Carol Dwecks videos/book... Mindset.. a high recommend. ie: response to an assumed success..100%... dang, sorry that wasn't a better challenge for you.
    swimming in failure will catch on once we start modeling it.. no?
    Joe's group as well will even remove the verbiage/markings/labels that elicit such a response in the first place.

    warmest of regards mom/teacher/etc/person

  2. I'm trying to coach pre-university English students through this right now. Last year it was senior comp-sci students:

    It's agonizing to hear how young we indoctrinate the perfection=learning mantra. My own son is in Grade 2 and I'm amazed at how black and white elementary sees the learning process, there is little wiggle room in it, let alone space to make mistakes and actually learn something.

    A good student arrives already knowing it all.

  3. I am having a similar problem with my gr. 2 daughter's math drills. She was getting 30/30 daily because she perfected her strategy of using her number line for subtraction. Then the teacher covered up all the number lines in the class, and she got 11/30. She was devastated!

    If we test and drill students, we need to also teach strategies and increase understanding (in my case, number sense).

    And I agree with Monika, you should all read Mindset.

  4. we need to teach kids that mistakes are our friends - thats the way we learn

    instead of pushing spelling we should teach kids to edit their emails etc - this makes spelling less important and also improves spelling


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