August 18, 2015 by

Grades Should Reward Students at Their Best

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Miller Grades Should Reward Students 300x300By Andrew Miller

Grading is hotly contested issue. Should we grade students? When should we grade students? How do we work through the culture of grading? What about students who only care about grades? There are no easy answers, even though there are many opinions, players, and deeply held beliefs. Personally, I would like to see education move completely away from grading, but I know this will take time and require deep reflection on our educational experiences and the educational experiences we want for our students.

So how can we move forward on this journey to a place where grading is a thing of the past? I think it really comes down to this tenet of learning: reward students at their best, and don’t punish them in the learning process.

Whether you call this standards-based grading, mastery-based grading, or even competency-based grading, it really doesn’t matter. It all comes down to a honoring the belief that our students can and will learn. The pacing may be different, the path may be different, and the role of the teacher may be different for each student. Through clear and transparent frameworks for grading (mastery-based, standards0based, etc.), our students know what excellence looks, sounds, and feels like. Our role as educators is to move our students to a place of educational achievement. Shouldn’t a grade reflect that? A grade is an indication of what a student learned, not how he/she tried and failed. We need to ensure that our grading systems reflect this. If we grade students when they try and fail, rather than when they succeed, our grading practices do not match our mission as educators to help our students succeed. The same is true for averaging grades. These send mixed messages to students. On the one hand, we say we believe in student achievement, but in practice the grade does not reward that.

When we started moving more toward this model at a school I was teaching, we had to have critical conversations about this, where all stakeholders were involved. Our continued message to all was this: “We will only reward students are their best, and not punish them at their worst.” Many found that hard to argue with. Who doesn’t want to be rewarded at their best? Who doesn’t want a chance to try again? Who doesn’t want to be rewarded for learning rather than punished for mistakes and failure in the learning process? We continued to document and monitor our students in all assessments, but grades were rewarded when students showed mastery. Here failure and mistakes were honored as steps in the learning process, not used as punishments to force students to do work through antiquated grading practices.

The journey of learning is full of failures. In my ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail, I write about how grading systems prevent failure from being a wonderful opportunity to learn and grow. Our students deserve the chance to solve problems, take risks, and, yes, sometimes fail—but always in safe ways. If we grade everything, we are not honoring this. In fact, we are doing the opposite. We are punishing students. We are not meeting the needs of the whole child. Grading can determine whether or not a student feels safe, engaged, supported, and challenged. We can also reduce students’ anxiety and make them healthier if we don’t grade everything. A grade should reflect what a student learned, so it should never be set in stone. Grades must be flexible to allow students to have the opportunity to learn again. Grading policies that reward students at their best create students who are healthy, safe, engaged, supported, and challenged!

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Andrew Miller is the author of the ASCD Arias publication Freedom to Fail: How do I foster risk-taking and innovation in my classroom? He is on the national faculty for the Buck Institute for Education, an organization specializing in 21st century project-based learning. Miller is also an ASCD Faculty member, providing expertise in a variety of professional development needs, and a regular blogger for Edutopia. Connect with Miller on Twitter @betamiller.