Saturday, January 14, 2012

Holding K-12 Hostage

When I ask people to think about why we grade students, they tend to provide three reasons:
  1. Motivate students
  2. Rank and Sort students
  3. Provide feedback for students
In short, we have no business using grades to do number 1 or 2 and grading has never done a good job of 3. I've written more about this here.

A fourth rational for grading comes up regularly. In fact, you might have even made this argument:
We need testsandgrades in K-12 so our children can get into post secondary education.
I have a couple responses:
  • Some of the worst forms of teaching and learning exist in post secondary colleges and universities. The only anecdotal evidence we might need to prove this is for those who attended post secondary to remember their experiences in lecture halls that could fit 50 to 400 students at a time. Holding K-12 hostage to such pathetic standards seems irresponsible.
  • While it's true that some universities look at some of the grades from a student's high school transcript, how many universities look at a student's grades from elementary? Middle school? or even grade 11? Because the only grades that post-secondary institutions look at is from the final year of high school, K-11 can and should be liberated from the clutches of post-secondary's obsession with testsandgrades.
  • I know more than a couple university professors and I know a president of a local college, and I know that they would all far rather K-12 focus less on testsandgrades and more on inspiring students to have a love for learning. In other words, university folk understand that "a preoccupation with achievement is not only different from, but detrimental to, a focus on learning." (Alfie Kohn). The research confirms that an orientation towards improving your learning, rather than proving it sets children up for the most success. In learning oriented classrooms, students are less worried about looking smart and more about becoming smart. The most successful teachers and students understand that proving how good you are over and over again is an inferior use of your time especially when you could be using your time getting better.
  • We have a dangerous pre-occupation with preparation. College does not begin in kindergarten -- kindergarten begins in kindergarten. Children in middle school are not simply miniature versions of high school or university students. Children of all ages have their own unique, individual needs. What might be appropriate for a high school student might be developmentally inappropriate for a middle or elementary student.
  • In Alberta, only one-third of students attend university. Does it make sense to mold K-12 public education, which is for everyone, in the image of post-secondary education where  two-thirds of our students will not attend.
To sum up, I'm sick and tired of being told I can't innovate and improve my assessment practices in K-12 because of post secondary's archaic grading practices.


  1. Joe, thank you for the work you are doing. Keep fighting the good fight! You have inspired my entire year... Thanks for your helpful words.

  2. Joe, I'm currently reading a collection of short stories called 'Guys Read - Funny Business' edited by Jon Scieszka. There's a great story in there by Kate DiCamillo and Joe Scieszka called Your Question For Author Here. It's a story of a child who writes to an author for an Author Study but doesn't really know the author nor care about the author, just needs to get a 'good mark' so he doesn't get into trouble. Through the story he grows a bond with the author and discovers that he is a writer. Until he gets given a 'bad grade' at the end and throws it all away cause of the bad grade. It's a short story and SUCH a great read... It tells a great story along the lines of the posts you have here about abolishing grades. I thought of your blog once I had read it - I hope you get a chance to get your hands on it! Amanda @heymilly

  3. Is the issue one of proving grounds? The college is attempting to be a proving ground for employers. Ergo marks and records and ranks. Then K-12 is a proving ground for college. Is the battle more than educational dogma and rooted in economic or market direction?


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