David Rice, Teacher at Perspectives Preparatory Academy, shares his thoughts on measuring academic progress in a non-traditional school setting.
The Failing of Grades
Grades? What is their purpose? Historically, we have used grades to determine which students are successful and which students are not. Grades communicate to the adults, but they don't communicate to the students in a way which is constructive or even useful.
For successful students, grades teach them to avoid risks and follow the rules. For unsuccessful students, grades teach them to avoid risks and rules are unfair. In many ways, grades hamper growth while encouraging students to just fit in and go along.
In many cases, our smartest students have failing grades and are rarely the valedictorians in their class. Instead these students, whose potential lies in thinking outside the box and challenging rules, find themselves at odds with a system designed to fit in and get along and take risks only within carefully defined and limited parameters by curriculum.
For our students who are most vulnerable, we demand success in much the same way. If you meet these standards, if you work harder, if you are less disabled, you would be able to be included in the regular curriculum. Instead, we lock them out and don't let them build new strengths and new skills with their peers because their grades would be too low. We can't allow students to fail.
And for the kids who work hard and are successful in school, we do them no favors. Their next challenge is to work within the system, to never challenge this system so that they grow up and continue the monolithic non-risk taking structures around their lives.
The Proper Framework
I don't think grades are terrible. I do think we fail to give them a proper framework. Grades should assist the learner and not the teacher in assessing their progress. Grades aren't about failure, but about progressing in developing a new skill. Grades should speak directly to the student and not speak to the adults.
For example, if I took a brand new cyclist on the road with me and graded them based on the performance of a professional cyclist, rarely would any of these new cyclists return to riding with me or at all. They would feel like a failure. I would have communicated that they shouldn't even try unless they can reach a certain type of perfection. I would eliminate their desire to participate in the sport altogether. And the people who did stick around would have a natural talent for riding and would assume that the only type of cycling that one could do was riding on the road at the level of a professional racer. They would never learn about mountain biking or touring or endurance cycling or trail riding. I had limited with carefully defined parameters forever what their view of successful cycling looks liked.
We do the same with school and consequently careers. We take people and push them out when they don't meet certain standards of grading and then keep the people around who don't know there is a different way of looking at the world or their careers or school.
Measuring Meaningful Progress
Removing ways of measuring progress won't help anyone. We need to know what skills students are ready to develop and when they are ready to grow. Grades do have the potential to increase risk-taking behavior and challenge students if we change the framework and make it about communicating with them instead of communicating to adults who are seeking assurances their child is smart enough for Ivy League, or for political points, or for judging the efficacy of schools and teachers.
The real purpose of grades should not be about failure or success, but developing a growth mindset in students so they can continue to develop those same attributes as adults.