Grades are the bane of my existence

When I was in university, I liked A’s. I was shaken by A-‘s and a smart person knew better than to come near me if I got a B+ on anything.  I liked A’s.  Funny thing is, I’m not sure why I liked A’s.  I knew they epitomized a standard of achievement that students desired. I pushed myself to get that standard of achievement. I worked hard and I mean hard!  I spent long hours writing essays and rehearsing speeches. Why? Because I liked A’s.

I thought I had a mindset for learning, but what I really had was a grades mindset.  The first indication that I really didn’t have a learning mindset back then, came in the years following university. I didn’t pick up a single book to read for pleasure for over two years.  The university grind of being force fed literature and my unreasonable desire to get a flippin’ A put me in the position of plowing through reading without acknowledging the pleasure of reading itself. As a result, I had bruised my hunger to read.  I, like many other students, also allowed myself to get trapped in the web of pleasing my professor instead of finding, at the very least, a happy medium of entertaining and appreciating my role as student.  For some reason, I could not find that balance, and so, sacrificed my vision for A’s.

It’s not like I didn’t learn anything. I had some amazing professors who shared their passions with me, and that, in itself, at times, was infectious.  But those moments were few and far between. It’s too bad I couldn’t see that learning should have been my focus not the letter grade. Maybe I would have spent more time enjoying my journey, savouring the literature I read and discussions I had with other students, instead of letting myself get caught up in the push-pull dilemma that letter grades wrought on my brain. But as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

Now, as a 21st century teacher with a firm, gradeless mindset, I can share my personal journey with my students in order to explain why I’m so bent on them developing a learning mindset and why grades create a fixed mindset. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I have to battle with both ministry requirements that insist that report cards need letter grades and standardized tests (or literacy and numeracy assessments, as they are cleverly disguised as now) which ultimately categorize students into four insufferable categories once processed: triumphant (aced it!), relieved (ok, not perfect, but ok), deflated (%$&$! My overall mark just dropped a letter grade!), and completely discouraged (I failed it…why do I even bother?).

Why don’t I like report card marks?  They put up walls.  They slam on the proverbial brakes of learning.  There is this fixed mindset of what is good enough, and, as such, once a letter grade is tattooed on a report card, learning has the ability to cease altogether.  That can be catastrophic at the half-way point of a semester when there are ten more weeks of teaching to go.  Letter grades don’t really tell us anything so why use them?  What does 80% mean?  What does 80% represent?  There are so many flaws in this system.  80% is only accurate if we are all using common selected response assessments and that means common one-word answer-type and multiple choice tests.  Ew. It gets worse. If we delve into performance based or even constructed response assessments that involve a variety of assessment strategies, then what is 80% in the eyes of one teacher could very well be 70% in the eyes of another.  This is not an exaggeration. Tom Schimmer spoke about this in the webinar, Assessment and the New BC Curriculum: An Exploration (April 11, 2019).   However, if we all used a four- or five-point learning scale that assessed the skill, we would all be much closer to assessing more homogeneously. But that involves two important changes: teachers must jump aboard the gradeless bandwagon and teachers must collaborate on learning scales, or at the very least, discuss what learning scales will look like across the course for all.  So letter grades irritate me, but I’m whistling Dixie if I think that teachers will just flip their grades mindset overnight.

Letter grades irritate me, but I detest standardized tests even more.  How absolutely idiotic it is to think that we can narrow down an entire semester of learning into a sweaty, smelly, stressful three hours. It’s absurd. Even more absurd is the very notion that we must do this to “prepare students for university.”  What?! Sure, test-taking and the study habits, and the stressful feelings that go along with both are an unavoidable, major aspect of university life.  As I watch my son attempt to cram three months of learning into his little brain this weekend, I am fully cognizant that study habits are, indeed, important to survive university.  But even he will tell you that his exam scores don’t signify his learning for the semester; they are just a hoop he has to jump through. 

Ask a handful of students who finished high school exams and they will also tell you that the mental taxing of their high school exams haven’t helped them prepare for university or college; they have, in fact, motivated them to pursue post-secondary fields that do not require such expectations. That’s right. Standardized tests might actually be deterring students from seeking out higher education specialties for more hands on, portfolio based post-secondary institutions. This, too, should send a strong message to post-secondary institutions that still require the rigor of exams instead of going the portfolio or project-based assessment routes. Many have made the switch. Let’s see if high schools will follow suit. Maybe then, teachers will let go of standardized tests as the means to an end and jump on the project-based or skills-based learning bandwagon.

For those students who do go on to college and university, who have to write exam after exam, they will tell you that at least in college and university, there is some kind of relationship that builds between student and professor (or even the TA), which allows for dialogue and moderate support at exam time.  Many a post-secondary student, including myself, have wandered into a professor’s office with their tail between their legs, begging for extensions on papers, an alternate setting for exams because the pressure of a 125 seat theater is too much, or in tears because writer’s block has wormed its way into their brains.  Profs, for the most part, can be sympathetic to the plight of students.  In addition, many professors know, through class discussions and other assignments, a bit about what their students know. As such, even when a high pressure exam is written, they can personally determine (even tweak) the final mark for each student. 

Come back to those standardized tests.  These suckers usually get sent away for marking by a group of teachers who don’t know these students.  In typical standardized fashion, students are reduced to a student number.  Students wait anxiously for several weeks hoping that a fair marker graded their exam. Oh, and let’s not forget the variation in assessing these standardized tests can be a 10% variation.  So, a student who received a 70, could have been easily given an 80 by a different marker.  This is considered fair and normal, and we’re all supposed to sleep soundly at night with this information. Yeesh. And this is supposed to support our kiddos preparing for university if that’s their route in life?! I think not!


Thank you, Monte Syrie for allowing me to include your amazing room message in my blog. By the way, if you are not following Monte…start….now! @MonteSyrie #MyRoomMessage

Learning should be the focus in classrooms, not letter grades. Like Monte, I provide “opportunity and support” so students can “earn [their] learn.” When we are committed to learning and not letter grades, magic happens. When we teach kids skills that will last them a life time and throw letter grades out, just think of the wonderful human beings they will become. Learners.  I don’t know about you, but I want my students, the future, to never stop learning.  Learning should be the carrot, not an A.

So, I plunk away at my keyboard with the hope that some day, in some way, letter grades will be gone forever and standardized tests will be a thing of the past. Until then, I plunk away, worried about the impact that these two things will have on my gradeless classroom and students, but I am strong enough to persevere.

Letter grades make my job more challenging than it needs to be.  If I could wave a magic wand, I would eliminate letter grades from report cards and all standardized tests or assessments. I would replace both with portfolio-based learning, learning scales, and learning mindsets. As for teachers who still feel that letter grades are fuel for growth, I haven’t a remedy for that except to just keep pushing onward and upward, preaching my assessment religion.  #mygrowthmindset

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