The Unintended Consequences of Grades

This post originally appeared on the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee (PTAC) Blog. PTAC endeavors to connect the voices of highly-recognized teachers in Pennsylvania with educational decision makers.

About eight years ago an administrator started a faculty meeting by asking the question, “Why are so many of our students unable to pass the state Keystone exams if their report card grades show them doing well in their classes?” 

As the chair of the science department, I made this question the driving force behind the discussions at our next few department meetings. What we discovered was that our grading practices included many instances of giving credit for completion of work, participation, and effort.  

In many cases, this was artificially inflating our grades and ensuring the feedback that we were giving to students and parents was not reflective of what children actually knew about the science content they were supposed to be learning.  

In other cases, we were using grades to try and coerce children into behaviors that we wanted so our classrooms were more manageable. This was both artificially lowering some students’ grades and negatively impacting the relationships between students and teachers in our classrooms.  

Instead of having meaningful conversations with students about their actions, we were using grades as a way to modify their behavior.  

When I reflected on my own personal practices, I saw that I was giving students credit for things that didn’t really help them learn in order to keep their grades high. I thought that I was being compassionate. 

What I was really doing was taking points from a child who didn’t have a pencil, but had overcome his parents’ addiction that morning to get himself and his siblings to school on time. 

I was docking a child points for not completing her homework when the previous evening she had spent all night cooking dinner for her family and helping her younger brother with his homework because her parents were still not home from working their jobs in New York City. 

When children fell asleep in my class, I was taking away participation points instead of recognizing the opportunity to ask my students about the cause of their exhaustion, and whether there was something in their lives with which they needed help.  

As a department, we made a commitment to revise our grading practice so that report card grades better reflected the knowledge and abilities of our students.  

In my own classroom that meant abolishing participation points and grades for homework completion, and instituting a remediation policy. Now, in most cases, students can retest in order to demonstrate that they have learned the required material.  

Currently, I have a daughter who is in high school in a different school district. Last year she came home in tears because her grade in a class had dropped significantly. Despite keeping meticulous notes, all required materials, and an organization system that allowed her to have a near-perfect average on her tests and quizzes, she had received a low grade on a notebook check that was worth 25% of her overall grade.  

She asked me, “How is it fair that I know all of the material, can demonstrate that on my tests but have a lower grade because my notebook wasn’t organized in the way my teacher wanted it to be?” 

As a teacher and a parent, I had no good answer. Both of us also realized that any grades reported on her upcoming report card would be meaningless in telling us how much of the content in the course she had learned. It also left her with a worse attitude toward the subject of the course, the teacher, and school in general.  

The grade a student receives should reflect what a student knows or can do in each subject.  

As teachers, we must realize that the actions we take and the policies we implement impact our students’ emotional well-being, their attitudes toward school, and their motivation to learn.  

In my classroom, I am committed to continual reflection on how my practices impact my students. Sometimes I’ll get it wrong, as I did in the beginning of my career. But, by putting the needs of my students first, being willing to self-reflect, and learning from other teachers around me, I will continue to grow as a professional.   

The relationship between teachers and students is the most important thing we can nurture in our classrooms. If we all commit to being reflective and growing as professionals, we can strengthen those relationships and ensure our students succeed in school and in life.  

Lori Soskil is a high school anatomy and biology teacher in northeastern Pennsylvania and a member of the Pennsylvania Teachers Advisory Committee. You can follow her on Twitter at @lsoskil.

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