Why students (and their parents) are so grade obsessed? In a previous post: What Happened to the E?, I noted my lack of surprise when students petition for an extra point or two on an assignment or request extra credit opportunities. Some readers responded with notes of similar experience and frustration. One reader asked the question “how do students become so grade-obsessed but learning indifferent?” A most worthy question to examine as Christian educators.
First, we need to remember that students are not born this way. They do not enter school being grade-obsessed, it is a learned condition. The sad fact is that they were taught this behavior by us (parents, teachers, awarders of college scholarships). It should not surprise us that students turn out this way. As parents, we push our students to get straight A’s. As teachers we put all or at least most of our feedback in service to the grade. As institutions of higher ed, we provide scholarships based on grade point averages and ACT/SAT scores. The grading system shows up in our student handbooks, on our school websites, and in our course syllabi. I laugh a little bit thinking about how many conversations I have been a part of where we have debated whether an “A-“ should be 90-94% or 90-93% or whether we should use S+ and S- in primary schools. Through such discussions and grade distribution venues, we are sending a clear message to our students – the point of their education is the grade.
Second, let’s recognize that there is another way we instill this grade obsession in our students. We preserve their errors. We average test scores and homework scores throughout the semester or year. Students quickly realize that every grade gets carried forward into their final grade. Those two matching questions that they switched around on the last exam will haunt them throughout the entire semester. Better yet, consider what happens when a student receives a zero on a test or major assignment. This was the topic of one of the discussion forums in a recent graduate course. There were some good arguments on both sides of this debate, but the one that I found most interesting was a post that painted this scenario: a high school student had earned a 4.0 grade point average until her senior year English course. She missed handing in a major research paper by the due date and was given a zero for this assignment (because it was late and the school had a zero tolerance policy for late work). The paper was worth 15% of the semester grade. She received an 85% for the semester and a B for the course, dropping her overall GPA to a 3.96. While there are a few issues to debate in this scenario, the grade was what mattered to the student (and the loss of the perfect 4.0 GPA).
As we consider all the grading practices and policies in our schools, let’s ask ourselves the question – do our practices and policies point to learning or to the grade? This might be a difficult question to discover the answer to, at least it has been in my own experience. I have tried to shift my thinking about this toward an end of the learning curve evaluation, not an average. John Orlando, a professor who writes often about educational assessment issues, encourages teachers to stop thinking like a grader and more like a coach. He provides the analogy of a rookie wide receiver who starts training camp without knowing any of the pass routes on the first day of camp but is running perfect routes by Week 12 of the NFL season. The coach does not say “I start him because his understanding of the passing routes is an average of what he knew at the beginning of camp to what he knows now.” Players, teachers, employees of all kinds, are evaluated at the end points of the learning curve, not the average.
As we wrap up another school year, maybe we can take some time to brainstorm some ways to think about how our schools can become places where students can fail safely, knowing missing the mark on that test or quiz does not mean they have dug themselves a hole they cannot get out of. A place where we can actually make some mistakes since we know that is a powerful way to learn. It will be hard to create such an environment if we continue to have a system that preserves and punishes students for their mistakes. I think our students will appreciate the effort.
Dr. Tim Van Soelen serves as the Director of CACE. Tim is also a professor of education at Dordt University. He has served as a principal, assistant principal, and middle school math and computer teacher at schools in South Dakota and California. Tim has his undergraduate degree from Dordt and advanced degrees from Azusa Pacific University and the University of South Dakota.