I thought teaching 7th graders would mean that they had a cool distance to school. That they knew that the grades we give reflect the work they do. That a report card is not meant as a slap in the face, but rather a tool to be used as they grow toward their goal. I thought that moving from letter grades to standards based meant students would get it better, would embrace the chance to see what they needed to focus on and then work harder to master their deficits. Yet again what I thought has proven to not be so, so when I asked my students their thoughts on grades so that I could add their voice to the re-publication of Passionate Learners, I had to take a moment to digest what they told me. It wasn’t what they said about whether teachers should grade or not, it was how they reacted to the grades they were given.
Once again, I am the mouthpiece for my students, they asked that I please share this with the world in the hope that it will inspire change. In the hope that it will inspire discussion, that we will take their thoughts and use them to push our own. So what my students wish teachers knew about grades is simple, yet significant. I hope it makes you think.
That they feel they have little to no control over what grade they get. Even in a standards-based grading district, where I ask them to show me mastery with deconstructed standards using rubrics we have created together, they still feel that they have little control over how they are assessed, and more importantly what that assessment means to them. Now imagine how students feel when they haven’t created the rubric, self-assessed, or deconstructed the standards. They don’t understand the rubrics we give, they don’t understand at times what they should know to be labeled proficient. They don’t understand the number they are given. They crave feedback and conversation, rather than a number or letter. They crave classrooms that relish growth, failure, and attempts at learning.
That grades means they are done. The minute we grade something, they are done with it. It is the signal they need to move on, no matter that I teach in a district that allows and encourages re-takes for everything. If we want them to continue working on something then we should give feedback but no scores.
That grades sometimes become the one thing that their parents look at, nothing else. The minute a grade is placed on something that is all their parents can focus on. Their parents don’t always care about the effort, they don’t always care about the growth, just what the final result is. The conversations then centers around reaching the “3” or the “4,” to get that A, rather than what they learned, how they liked it, and what they are working on next.
That a grade tells them whether they are smart or not. We may say that grades are in their control and that they don’t reflect how smart they are, but they are not listening. If you get good grades, you must be smart, if you don’t well then you are dumb. Grades are leading them to a fixed mindset, rather than the growth mindset we are all hoping for.
That publishing honor rolls or GPA’s mean that their private learning is now public. We may see releasing these names as a way to celebrate their learning, but many of my students says it just creates a divide. And it’s not the students who are not on honor roll that said this to me, no, over and over it was the students that made it. They didn’t see their accomplishments as anyone else’s business.
That grades are for the future, not for the now. So many of my students reported that grades mattered because they want to go to college, and while at first I found this to be great (they care about the future!) I soon realized that this is so far from the purpose of what school should be. Students should keep an eye on the future, yes, but they should also keep an e eye on the now. They should be focused on the learning journey they are currently on and be excited to see their own growth and how it will help them right now, not 6 years from now.
Once again, my students are pushing me to change the way I asses in the classroom. While I strive to give them meaningful feedback, I have slipped from my ways. That’s what happens when you teach more than 100 students. Yet, the numbers I am so carefully doling out are not helping them grow, so I am not doing my job as their teacher. My students are making me a better teacher, imagine if we asked all of our students what grades means to them?
I am a passionate teacher in Oregon, Wisconsin, USA but originally from Denmark, who has taught 4th, 5th, and 7th grade. Proud techy geek, and mass consumer of incredible books. Creator of the Global Read Aloud Project, Co-founder of EdCamp MadWI, and believer in all children. I have no awards or accolades except for the lightbulbs that go off in my students’ heads every day. The second edition of my first book “Passionate Learners – Giving Our Classrooms Back to Our Students” will be published by Routledge in the fall. Second book“Empowered Schools, Empowered Students – Creating Connected and Invested Learners” is out now from Corwin Press. Join our Passionate Learners community on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @PernilleRipp.