What is our purpose?

I believe this to be an overlooked question as it relates to our actions in public schools across this nation. I feel lost sometimes with no idea where to begin the discussion with fellow educators about initiatives that are going to change the system. A system that for the most part has been working the same way for well over one-hundred years. A system, that in my opinion, is very broken.

So, I ask again – what is our purpose?

I write this post as I am filled with emotion about this issue (which may not be a good idea). Now I am not a Joe Bowerite, of the abolish grading movement (yet). I am also not of the “sit back and do nothing because it will never change” movement either. So, for the moment I will put myself somewhere in the middle. So, let me explain.

I believe that as educators we need to always reflect on what we do in our classrooms. This translates to self-assessment in most cases of our curriculum (each year if not more often). When we self-assess we need to ask ourselves, “what is the purpose?” And really we need to break this down into two categories – how we assess, and then how those assessments translate to a grade. The assessment piece I addressed in my last post about making our curriculum relevant. Bottom line: if you look at what you have your students “do” in your classroom and you can not answer the question about purpose – stop assessing with that tool and find another assessment that holds purpose.

DISCLAIMER: In the following portion of the post I will discuss mathematics. I have never been, nor pretended to be a mathematics teacher, so if you see holes in my math I both apologize and welcome you to discuss those holes in the comments section. Thank you mathematicians.

As for the grading piece, I have attempted to convince many colleagues that the 50 minimum grade scale was where it was at. Mathematically we have been screwing over students for generations, and shame on us. You see the 100 point grade scale is skewed – and the zero holds six times more weight that any other number grade that can be given. That is a fact. Now, it doesn’t mean that educators will not complain… “How can a I give a 50 to a student that does no work?” I have already met you… my answer is how can you (ethically) grade students with a number grade lower than zero when that will mathematically skew the students grade in the F grade scale? I know – I used to be that teacher that handed out a zero without reflection.

I mean, look at how we calculate GPAs. We assign a four point scale to the letter grades student receive. A 4 for an A, 3 for a B, 2 for a C, 1 for a D, and 0 for an F. I can hear you already – but we assign a 0 for an F… and I know that. However, when a 0 is factored on the 4 point scale its weight it the same as the other letter grades. When we move the 0 to the 100 point scale it packs a punch that many students can not recover from – mathematically.

The F in our GPA calculation is always the same whether that student failed the course with a 59% or a 7%. So, a student that scores a 59, and a student that scores a 0 – should they be given the same weight when we calculate their GPA? I would argue that the student with the 59% did a lot more work than the student with the 7%. You? But when we calculate GPA no one complains that we should penalize the student with the 7% with a -5 in his GPA calculation. I wonder why?

Now, I am not going to just complain – I will offer a solution. The 4 point system is where it is at with regard to grading reform. That is a fact – that it why we calculate GPAs with that system. I have heard @robertjmarzano and his people talk a lot about proficiency scales in grading, and that may be one answer to the grading debacle. I also believe that we grade too much and often forget to see if our grades match student learning. (To be honest, I think some just don’t care.) If we are not questioning the purpose of all that we do – grading, assessment, curriculum, discipline – then what is our purpose?

Tough conversations need to happen. As I was writing this piece I read a comment over at the Cooperative Catalyst by @wmchamberlain in response to what is the difference between “schooling” and learning:

It means thinking critically about all aspects of school from the curriculum to teaching methods to discipline policies. It means making classroom level decisions based on what works best for the student learning, not what is easy or because that is the way things have been done.

I could not agree more – educators need to make classroom level decisions about grading and assessment based on what will work for their students. So, what is our purpose? The answers will not come easy.

More to come…

Mike Meechin, M.Ed.

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