The Dangerous Grade

Nov 2, 2016 | Smyrna

C:The Dangerous Grade


By Nicholas Mele – Owner, Mathnasium of GreenValley, Henderson, NV

As a teacher, I often ask parents how school is going for their child. The typical response is a shrug and a letter: “Meh, last quarter.” If pressed for more detail, I will often get a quick rundown of the teacher’s personality followed by another letter: “His teacher is nice, on the last quiz.” What do these letters mean?

Usually, letter grades are attached to percent scores. While percent scores may seem to provide additional detail, in truth they tell little more of the story. Percent of what? If a child scores a 99% on a test, does this indicate that the child retained 99% of the material with which he or she was presented? If the child scored a 0%, did he or she literally learn nothing? Why is 90% considered excellent while 89% is only considered good? Why is 60% enough while 59% is too little?

While I would love a little more detail in the response, I understand how difficult it is for parents to be involved enough in the child’s schooling to be able to provide it. Unfortunately, letter grades have become a ubiquitous surrogate for real progress reports. They function poorly in this regard.

In a perfect world, teachers would have time to create comprehensive reports detailing much more about a student’s performance in class; how the student has grown, skills and concepts he or she has mastered, attitudes towards the subject matter and learning, ability to complete specific tasks, efficiency in completing those tasks… the list goes on. Unfortunately, teachers seldom have the time to compile such reports and rarely do they have the resources.

While some schools have adopted non-traditional grading systems which are designed to provide a clearer picture of each child’s progress, such as standards-based grades or competency-based grades, it seems for the time being, most parents, especially those of students in middle or high school, will need to make do with the letter grade system with which so many of us are familiar

The practical flaws in this system are far too numerous to detail here, however, it is important for parents to understand some of its shortcomings. While most grade reports equate a grade of Awith excellence, this can be very misleading. Excellence in what? That may very well indicate that the child has mastered a preponderance of the material, or it could mean the child was well behaved, submitted assignments in a timely manner and demonstrated at least a mediocre level of mastery of the material. What that grade almost always indicates is that the child knows how to earn good grades, regardless of what he or she is learning in the class.

The manner in which letter grades are assigned can be largely dependent on the state, district, school and even the individual teacher. The Common Core State Standards attempts to normalize this a bit, but has not been complete.

When a child earns or grades in a consistent manner, parents can be reasonably confident that the child is doing well in class and retaining a fair amount of material. Likewise, when a child brings home a stream of grades, parents can be reasonably sure the child is retaining little of the material. However, as the grades move towards the middle of the scale, confidence in precisely how much the child is learning drops precipitously.

grades will usually cause the school or individual teacher to put in place some corrective plan for the student. This plan may include extra help at school, mandating the student retake the course or even grade retention in severe cases. grades often trigger a “red flag” for parents. This is when parents will often seek extra help from teachers or tutors or try to intervene in some other way. In short, and grades force parents and students to take notice and take steps to improve the learning.

This leaves the grades. All too often, parents allow grades to slide by with little scrutiny, assuming their child is doing average work and learning enough in class. In actuality, Cgrades are often failing grades inflated by extra credit, completed homework and good behavior. While extra work, responsibility and good behavior definitely deserve recognition, inflation of grades can send a dangerously misleading message to students and parents when requisite mastery of topics is not developed.

Students with these kind of grades can seamlessly matriculate to the next math course with an inadequate foundation necessary for mastering the upcoming concepts. This can easily begin or perpetuate a “cycle of Cs” where a student practices excellent studentship but continues to lack development of requisite mastery of concepts over the course of time. This cycle will inevitably reach a point when the student simply cannot compete in the class in which he or she is placed. Suddenly, the student is faced with failing grades which he or she cannot overcome. By this time, the aggregate amount of unmastered content may be sizable and require a long term, intensive intervention.

There are a few steps parents can follow in order to avoid this pitfall. First: understand that no grade report can supplant the vigilance of a parent when it comes to recognizing the growth and learning of a child. Stay involved in your child’s education. Communicate with teachers. Ask to see homework and graded tests. Talk with and listen to your child about school. Be sensitive to your child’s attitudes about school and each individual subject or class. Recognize when there is a marked shift in those attitudes.

Second: Know and understand the grading policies of the district, school and individual teachers. If a heavy emphasis is placed on homework completion, recognize that this can inflate grades, even when test scores are quite low. Extra credit and “test corrections” will also contribute to grade inflation; know when this is likely occurring. Understand that passing grades don’t always indicate mastery of content.

Third: When you suspect your child has not mastered a preponderance of their given material, despite receipt of passing grades, take steps to rectify it. Find your child extra help. Stop the cycle before it gets started. Studies show that earlyintervention is imperative for getting students on track for learning, especially in math.

Remember that the goal in any class is to learn and grow, and that grades are intended to be a reflection of that. It is very easy to confuse these two things, placing great emphasis on grades while paying little attention to learning and growth. Often times the schools, including teachers, counselors and administrators, are complicit in creating this confusion and focus students’ energies on acquisition of high grades rather than on growth; we have all heard stories of “teaching to the test.” Awareness is the first step in eliminating this confusion and understanding your child’s academic progress.