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Breaking the Rules

November 25, 2013

It’s so great when you can end the week on a high note!  After an exhausting week that included a NEASC visit, I wrapped up a Friday with an awesome conversation with a teacher and our curriculum director that had me feeling great heading into the weekend.  The conversation centered around the issue of what we could (or should) do if our students don’t learn what we wanted them to learn.  It seems  like a very simple situation, but it can become very tricky.  Let me provide a scenario:

You’re a high school teacher.  You plan a unit of instruction.  The unit includes various lessons, classroom assignments, assessments, and a culminating unit test.  You collect and grade the unit test and a majority of your students receive failing grades.  You feel defeated.  You did everything you could to prepare the students.  On the day you pass back the test you ask students the following question: “How many of you studied for this test?”  Out of twenty students, five hands go up.

Teachers know that this scenario is all too common, especially in high school.  Scenarios like this cause exasperation among teachers.  Why wouldn’t it?  The teacher worked hard to prepare lessons, provide feedback and give students every opportunity to succeed.  But in the end the majority of students failed to hold up their end of the bargain.  They failed to complete the homework and/or they failed to adequately prepare for the test.  So what is to be done?  First, let’s consider the conventional approach.

The conventional approach would be something like this: the teacher hands back the test, gives the students a talk about the importance of studying and hard work, tells them they will be able to overcome the poor grade if they work harder in the future, and then move on to the next topic.  After all, students need to learn to be responsible.  If they gave students another opportunity on the test, wouldn’t that be unfair to the five kids who studied and were successful?  Being a student means completing your work outside of class and if you fail to do so, your poor grade will hopefully teach you not to make the same mistake in the future.  What’s lost in this whole approach, however, is that the subject matter that the teacher just spent the past several weeks teaching was not learned by the majority of students.  What’s more, those same students are now moving on to different, presumably more complex material, without the requisite knowledge and skills.  In short, things could get ugly very quickly.

So back to my conversation.  The teacher asked a simple question: “What should I do if most of my students fail an important summative test?”  Our answer: “Make them take it again.”  The rationale behind this lies directly in the mindset we as educators need to possess, and that is there is nothing more important than knowing that the students have learned what it is they need to know.  What about the few students who did well?  Give them extra credit, or allow them to earn an even higher grade.  It won’t hurt them.  It will, however, hurt the many students who failed to learn the material if the teacher simply moves on to the next topic.

This sounds so simple- but in reality so many things get in the way.  I have spoken to a number of teachers who have felt that they can’t accept late work, or give re-takes on assessments, or employ reward systems for students, because it does not fit with the “rules” that are set up.  The “rules” I am referring to are the grading systems used by most traditional high schools.  These systems are characterized by identifying categories (i.e. homework, classwork, quizzes, tests) and assigning them weighted percentages.  In this system, the final grade represents an average of what students have completed based on the categories and weights.  Under this system, a student can fail a quiz, get extra help on the material from the quiz, learn the material, improve her grade on the test, but still get punished for not knowing the material on the quiz.  This system is broken.  The rules are not fair.

So what are teachers to do?  The simple answer: break the rules!  The rules we have established reflect what we value.  The current rules in most traditional high school value teacher convenience and student compliance over fairness and learning.  Good teachers consider student learning to be the ultimate “non-negotiable” in their classroom.  They treat each student as an individual, and they adjust their practices accordingly to maximize the possibilities for all students to reach the high standards that are set for them.  It is universally believed that confidence begets learning, and that confidence grows from the establishment of respect, fairness, trust and kindness.  While most teachers possess all of these wonderful qualities, the rules they employ to grade and rank students do not.  I recommend that teachers approach their job with the following mindset: “Above everything else, the most important aspect of my job is to maximize the number of students who can independently demonstrate the essential knowledge and skills that I am teaching.”  This mindset ought to be the foundation for every decision a teacher makes, and this should be especially true in regards to how they report student progress and assign grades.  Because all students care a great deal about the grades they receive, the actions we take as educators has a direct effect on student attitude, confidence and likelihood of future success.

It is my contention that teachers consider student growth when it comes to grading, and that school and district leaders consider reporting systems that are tied to proficiency standards, rather than just percentages.  At the very least, school leaders need to communicate to teachers that they are encouraged to employ best practices and exercise sound professional judgment when it comes to assessing and grading students.  It is patently foolish to allow an outdated, antiquated system of grading stand in the way of personalizing and maximizing the learning in the classroom.  I sincerely hope the current reforms shaping public education result in a reporting process that is more personalized, informative and fair.  It will require a creative approach, one in which student progress is reported in a way that reflects the mindset held by outstanding educators.  That is one change I have no doubt will be for the better.

Have a great week, everyone!  Happy Thanksgiving!



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