A Lesson From My Fifteen Year-Old Self

When I was in ninth grade, I got a C on my report card. I did it on purpose, mainly out of rebellion. My father had taken a job in a different state, and I knew that I would soon be moving away from all of my friends, so in my teenage angst, I decided to protest by not completing or turning in a major project in health class. (Two random thoughts occur to me now: First, even in my rebellion, I knew better than to mess around in the “core” subjects. Second, how I managed to get a C without completing the major–and if memory serves, actually, the only–project for the term is beyond me.)

When the report card came, I snagged it from the mailbox and hid it. I was certain that my parents would ground me for getting a C, and my days in town were already numbered. My brilliant plan (Phase 2) was to spring the report card on them on Moving Day and hope that they grounded me in my new hometown. That would spare me the trouble of having to make friends. Of course, this didn’t work. My mother, it turned out, was not the imbecile I mistook her for, and about a week after the report card, she said simply, “Where is it?”

Why this trip down memory lane? Well, I’ve been thinking a lot about report cards lately. And feeling sorry for some of my students–many of whom have worked harder than I did but, even though they’re still learning, are still likely to disappoint someone when the report card arrives.

A few weeks ago, just before midquarter progress reports went out, I asked all of my students to reflect on their participation in class. Because I emphasize it so heavily in using the Harkness method, participation represents a significant portion of the class grade. Over the last couple of years, though, I’ve dramatically changed the way that I assign participation grades.

Because I believe that my students need to develop the ability to assess their own performance, I ask them to complete a self-assessment in which they compare their overall contributions in class to a standard rubric. (I’ll be the first to admit that it’s not a perfect system, but it has worked fairly well for my purposes.) Generally speaking, the students do a pretty good job of assessing themselves fairly, even when the appropriate grade is lower than they would like.

As I read through (and responded to) my students’ self-assessment journals, I found myself emphasizing the opportunity for long-term improvement, especially for those quieter, less confident students who have struggled to get involved in discussions so far. I assured them that I wasn’t expecting them to become chatterboxes overnight and that, if they made an effort, there was plenty of time to improve.

The more variations on this theme that I wrote, though, the more I started to feel guilty about it. For a while, I couldn’t figure out why–and then it dawned on me. Although I genuinely believe in helping my students develop a “growth mindset” and seek steady improvement over the long term, the reality was that in just a few short weeks, I would have to put a “grade of record” into the system. One that can’t really be changed, no matter how well a student does in the weeks or months to come. Time and tide and report card wait for no man, you know.

That time has arrived; the quarter ends on Thursday. I wasn’t lying to my students when I responded to their journal entries–they really do have plenty of time to improve–but given the emphasis that the “outside world” places on grades, they would be somewhat justified in thinking that I was. So I was stuck: should I “lie” and tell them that they had time even though their quarter grades were likely to be relatively low, or should I give in to the short-term focus that grades promote and abandon the goal of promoting a growth mindset? I chose the former, but I wasn’t (I’m still not) entirely comfortable with the choice. I wish I didn’t have to choose.

In just a few weeks, I’ll be giving a presentation on assessment at a teachers’ conference sponsored by NCAIS (the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools). The premise is that while plenty of educators have acknowledged the importance of teaching “21st century” skills, many still rely on “old-school” assessment techniques, typically centered around the practice of assigning grades.

My presentation will raise questions around the issue of whether grades–at least grades as they’re typically done–help or hinder our “21st century” approach to education. I’ll make a short presentation, offer a few modest proposals of my own, and hopefully stimulate a conversation among the attendees about ways to rethink grades. If we can’t get rid of them, then we can at least try to make sure that they serve us and our students instead of the other way around.

After this experience, one recommendation is clear to me: If we’re serious about promoting a growth mindset and implementing formative assessment in our classrooms, we have to do summative assessment less frequently. If we must have grades, let’s make them “official” less often–I’d say only at the end of the course. Until then, let’s focus on feedback that will help students improve. Put another way, let’s help the kids out and hide the report cards until summer. If we’ve done formative assessment well, there will be little to hide at that point.

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