30 June 2017

Grades Are Not the Devil

I teach language: high school English and lower level Spanish. Communication is my business.

And grades are communication.

It is my goal to help students understand and be understood, but for that to happen, they have to understand me, right? They have to understand my expectations. It's the very driving principle behind comprehensible input!

Well, to ensure that the young ones understand what I will be looking for, what I will be assessing, I absolutely HAVE to put it in terms that make sense to them. Performance assessments are a whole new animal from what they see in any other class, and you can't just count how many answers they got right or wrong to produce a magic number for them. And really AAPPL rubrics and performance/ proficiency standards are almost a whole curriculum unto themselves. It is absolutely worth exposing students to this new "content" as well, but where content is new, language must be familiar.

Grades are familiar language.

Students come to us with a concept of what "A" means, what "C" means, and what "F" means. Now, there are connotations that are definitely influenced by their environments--both school culture and home culture. Our interpretations are influenced by our backgrounds as well, of course, including experiences we had with teachers who said no one can get 100, and teachers who gave 100s for showing up. Nevertheless, these terms are familiar and have prior to experiences that we all can connect to. Even parents have context for understanding grades! Seeing familiar indicators like A, B, C, 100%, 60%, 9/10 helps them get a foothold on new strategies and standards that are necessarily different from what they experienced.

There is no doubt that language instruction has come a long way, that what I do looks very little like what my students' parents sat through.So I have to provide some sort of Rosetta Stone to translate what I'm expecting students to do into what they expect their students to bring home. They are not going to get to see how many questions their students "missed," and if they insist on counting the errors that are highlighted to draw their students' attention for revision, they will be WAY more upset than they need to be--with their students, me, or both!

HOWEVER, if I use grades to communicate how students are doing compared to what is reasonable for their stage in the language development process, then students, parents, administrators, they will all have something to grasp onto for reassurance in most cases, and for goal setting in others.

Now do I advocate for sticking a number or letter on an assessment and moving on with our lives? Oh heck no! In fact, my goal is to get better at closing the feedback loop and taking more time out for observing problem patterns and revising and improving. My report card comments typically refer students and/or parents to the proficiency scale, with exclamations like
Jerome has reached Intermediate Low in reading, listening, and writing, and Novice High in Speaking! Intermediate Low is the goal for the end of Spanish I!
Imagine if that was all of the feedback that I had given Jerome or Dad or Grandma at the end of the six-week grading period. At the end of six weeks, Jerome would surely feel comfortable in his own understanding of where he was. He might even be able to whip out the proficiency cone in his notebook to break it down for Dad and/or Grandma if they asked. But I get the feeling that before that happened, Dad and/or Grandma would have a minor jargon-induced shutdown.

And I don't blame them.

Our job is to make our students and stakeholders calm and comfortable with what we require of them. We want to remove any barriers we can to a sense of confidence in their ability to perform to our expectations--and in our expectations themselves!

Yes, grades can get in the way if they take the place of more meaningful communication, but when used properly, they can be the bridge to interpreting feedback and standards that continue evolving. They can be a link to make all of the newfangled projects and objectives sound less alien.

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