The closure of schools across the country has had educators grappling with the issue of grades. While classes continue online, schools acknowledge that student comprehension and achievement may decline, especially in areas where access to the internet is not a given. Many colleges have decided to offer a pass/fail option in lieu of a letter grade. And in Illinois, the State Board of Education has declared, “Student work completed during the mandated statewide school closure must not negatively impact a student’s grades or otherwise impact a student’s academic standing.” Maybe it is time to find alternatives to the standard ABCDF system of evaluating students.
Young children have an intrinsic thirst for knowledge. The world is one gigantic learning lab, and kids can spend hours in it, studying nature, manipulating their environment, and asking why almost endlessly. Good early education programs realize that play is children’s work, and the learning that takes place during the preschool years is filled with wonder and joy. Once kids enter more formalized educational environments, though, the demands of “book learning” and competition with other students come into play. The emphasis shifts from the joy of learning to the necessity of getting the A.
As a high school teacher, I had many inspiring moments with my students in which we explored major ideas, developed communication skills, and learned respect and tolerance for one another. More often than not, however, my students focused on their grades and what they needed to know to pass the test rather than any intrinsic interest in the material or their own development. I often wished I could create a portfolio for each student and give a narrative account of their intellectual growth over the course of a semester instead of assigning letter grades.
If teachers had the time to offer a more holistic picture of student growth and achievement, I believe students would retain their childlike fascination with learning. Lessons could be tailored to students’ individual interests and needs. And colleges would gain a much more complete and nuanced picture of the young people pursuing admission to their institutions.
Such a change in evaluating students would entail a huge investment in education. Only with smaller classes and greater flexibility could teachers create this individualized learning environment and perform a more time-consuming yet meaningful method of evaluating student progress. There is also the problem of bias on the part of teachers. After all, a 100% on a math test is indisputable while Johnny’s temperament and level of engagement are a matter of perception. But bias is already an issue in many aspects of grading students. Assigning a letter grade to a paper, for instance, is a somewhat subjective exercise. With some training and a different mindset, teachers would come to see the benefits of meeting each child where they are and nurturing their educational development.
The new reality of a locked-down world might be the perfect situation for rethinking our system of evaluating students. I for one would love to see children and teenagers eager for learning rather than letter grades.