What does our grading system prove?

I’ve been an educator for many years. I’ve thought long and hard about how to best assess students. How to be fair but tough. How to expect a lot out of my students. How it was all right for them to fail. After all, failure is necessary so kids can learn how to persevere and strive to do better. If a student fails a test, oh well, better luck next time.

Here’s a situation to think about. A common one. Many teacher’s use something like this. A student fails a test and the teacher allows the student to re-test. However, the maximum score that the student can receive on the retest is 69% – a “D+” in the American system. You might think that that seems fair. Why should students who get a second chance be able to achieve the same status as students who did well the first time on a test? It seems like a valid point.

But as you think about this scenario, the underlying philosophy behind it starts to come through loud and clear: students who learn more quickly are more valued.

For argument’s sake, let’s say someone who failed a test the first time around really starts to understand the material and, by the re-take, aces the test with a 95%. However, under this system, he or she is then assigned a 69%.

The reason? The person who was able to excel in the shortest amount of time is rewarded. The student who required additional time to master the material is penalized because, for whatever reason, he or she didn’t understand the material on the day of the test.

So in essence, we are not rewarding the mastery of the content; we are rewarding how quickly someone can master the content. If the student can master the material according to a teacher’s timeline, then they are considered good and successful student.

Actually, the whole grading process seems really bizarre to me know. We expect everyone to master the material by an arbitrary deadline and if they don’t they are penalized. And here are some takeaways to chew on that must be true based on this philosophy:

  • Quick learners are the best students.
  • Quick learners are model students. Everyone should strive to be like them.
  • Slow learners should to be penalized.
  • Slow learners just need to do what it takes to catch up with the quick learners.
  • It’s not fair to have different standards for different learners.
  • It’s not fair to have different deadlines for different users.
  • All learners, regardless of learning difficulties, must reach the same standard.

And by extension: Does this mean that quick learners are “smarter”?  Does it mean that slow learners will be less productive in their lives?

Is this really the best way to grade our students: one and done on test day? I don’t think so, because I would certainly question every one of those above assertions.

Isn’t it time that we stop comparing student achievement? When kids are tested arbitrarily based on teacher deadlines, it only proves if a student has learned the material by the teacher’s deadline. It does not take into account any learning disabilities that a student might have. It does not take into account the fact that students learn at different rates, in different ways. I’ve witnessed lots of really smart kids who just happened to struggle with concepts and needed more time to process them before being assessed on their proficiency. Should a kid like that be penalized because he or show doesn’t pick up the content as quickly as a classmate?

What does our grading system prove? It proves that we have a one-size-fits all system in a world where every single student is different. I think we can do better.

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