Who is failing?

It’s that time of year again.  Its happening in schools all across America.  Students are coming home with the dreaded report card.   The report card is supposed to inform parents of student progress in school.  Students get rewarded for “As” and punished for “Fs.” Do letter grades on report cards really tell us how students are progressing or are they  teacher progress reports? Are the ways students are assessed relevant to the kinds of learning that needs to be happening in schools today?  Do letter grades actually impede student learning? Are there better ways to report progress to parents -and to students, for that matter- than letter grades?

Let’s face it, a grade from one teacher is not equivalent to the same grade from another.  So in essence student “progress” many times depends on teacher philosophy rather than student growth.  Some teachers see the report card as a time to finally exact revenge on students who have not sat quietly and absorbed everything they “taught,”  as if giving  an “F” will suddenly cause the student to pay more attention and learn.  Doesn’t the “F” really mean that the teacher failed to find a way to teach the concept or motivate the child to learn?  Obviously if the teacher was monitoring student progress he/she would have intervened much earlier than report card time and made necessary instructional changes  to ensure student learning.  On the other end of the spectrum, doesn’t an “A” mean that the student was not challenged to his/her fullest potential?  Why would a student take a chance on pursuing challenging material when doing so may result in a “B?” On both sides of the grading spectrum, grades keep students from taking risks and making mistakes– the very thing that leads to learning.

Why are we using a 19th century reporting system for 21st century learners? Shouldn’t progress reports be individualized?   I would love to hear how forward thinking schools have tackled the issue of reporting student progress.


6 Responses to “Who is failing?”

  1. Meghan Horbal Says:

    One thing I like about the report card system in the school division where I work is how the standards-based report card has been taken to the next level. The Curriculum and Instruction department imported all the Everyday Math assessments into Pinnacle, the online reporting system. Every lesson has a standard listed so teachers either have to report on that particular standard, either using the Everyday Math assessment or a comparable assessment that measures the same skill. The grades are then reported by standard on the report card, so parents view particular skills rather than an overall grade. This virtually eliminates teacher bias. The problem, however, is that Language Arts is still as subjective as ever. Teachers have absolute autonomy and still use the grades as “punishment” because they are unable to do so for math. Skills are not so easily measured and teaching is not quite as cut and dry.

  2. You raise some excellent points. In the future I would like to see grades in elementary schools eliminated. Ideally all children would be evaluated on their achievement and efforts based on sets of clear expectations/standards, intense work from teachers to help students achieve their personalized goals, with timely, constructive feedback on student work samples and projects.

  3. The first problem is grades.
    Then – once that are eradicated as the obstacle to learning that they are schools can begin to focus on how to engage student, home and school in the ongoing “essential conversation” (S.L.Lightfoot) about intentions, aspirations, growth, direction,pathways, allies, skills, goals, and accomplishment.
    Some points:

    The learner needs to be at the center of the activity.
    The report is one snapshot in an evolving album recording the journey.
    And writing effective narrative reports is time consuming and complex.


  4. “Doesn’t the “F” really mean that the teacher failed to find a way to teach the concept or motivate the child to learn?”
    Where is the student’s motivation to learn? The teacher may exercise many instructional strategies to address the varied learning styles, but to say that the teacher has failed may not be the case. Perhaps students are not motivated because we tell them what they are required to learn, when to learn it, how to learn it, and the length of time they have to learn it. If they do not learn what we tell them to, we punish their lack of motivation with an ‘F’. Where is the natural desire to learn? Where is the opportunity to explore and imagine? Where is the student choice? Where is the relevance in what they are being taught? As long as we try to control the natural desire to learn, we will have students that will naturally resist. Learning for learning’s sake has been lost in standards, testing, grades, proficiency, and required courses. We move all students in the same manner towards the same goal at the same pace; and for whose benefit? All students are different, and as teachers we acknowledge this. We recognize individual differences and adjust accordingly in our classrooms. However, there is a significant contradiction between the diverse needs of our students and the competitive needs of our politicians. Holding these diverse students to the same set of standards and the same standardized testing is doing a disservice to our kids. They are different! They are not in a competition to be the best student in your school, your state, or your nation. They learn differently. They have different desires and interests. They learn at different rates. Yet as teachers we are told to teach specific material, at specific rates, to specific standards, so students can take a specific test in order to get a specific diploma. Not until we untie the hands of our teachers and students, will we see genuine learning for the benefit of all.

    • Cabela,
      Thank you for your reply. I think we are mostly in agreement. It is true that government mandates and standardized testing is a movement that is going in the opposite direction of authentic learning. I think most educators are in agreement with that. It is true that many students are not motivated because they are told what to learn, when to learn it and how long they stay on a topic. They are even told that they can’t use 21st century tools to learn it. I think that’s what I was getting at in my post. This doesn’t mean that teachers should say “sorry, we have standards, you didn’t study now you get an F.” It is up to the teacher to make learning relevant, embed student choice and help students find their passions. We all know that we invest more and are more self-motivated when we can choose the subject that interests us. However, too many teachers do not consider student choice in their planning. They don’t look for authentic learning opportunities. They do what they plan and never deviate from their script. It is a lot more work for a teacher to plan for varied interests and passions. But giving a student an F because they didn’t do their homework or didn’t complete the work you required of them without digging deeper to understand underlying issue or providing alternate ways to “learn” is educational malpractice. Yes it is true that teachers are given curriculum that they must teach but relevance and student choice can be be a part of whatever curriculum is mandated. Teachers should take a stand against the standardized curriculum and tests that are being mandated but too many use it an excuse for poor teaching. It is the teacher’s responsibility to examine their teaching, adjust it to student needs and build relationships. If they don’t help students find their passions then who will?

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