Relearning how to learn

“Will this be graded?” 

Whenever a teacher distributes an assignment, there’s inevitably one student who will ask. Don’t deny it; even if you aren’t usually the one asking, you’ve totally been that kid who not-so-subtly paused their work to catch the answer. After all, it is a matter of grave importance — depending on the response, you will determine exactly how much (or how little) effort you will put into this latest task.

The real question should be: “Why does it matter if it’s graded?” Why do we determine the amount of effort “appropriate” for a specific assignment according to whether or not it’s entered in the grade-book? 

It’s because we’ve grown accustomed to going about school in a strictly transactional manner thanks to the points-based system we’re immersed in. Rather than treat the class as a means to learn, we spend class time trying to calculate the minimal cost of “effort” we must “pay” in return for the grade we desire. 

The GPA has become the focal point of school life for many a Dougherty student, much to the dismay of our teachers. As students, we’ve become fixated on grades, the “carrot on a stick” dangled under our noses as we stumble through high school. But that isn’t what school is supposed to look like — a building full of zombified teenagers making grabby hands for a transcript. 

“Grades are a byproduct of your learning. You’re not here for the grade; you’re here to learn,” Ms. Hancock, an Algebra 2 teacher, stated matter-of-factly.

On a fundamental level, grades are supposed to reflect how well you’ve learned the content in a course. 

Our daily actions, however, tell a different story. We sloppily answer or even throw away assignments that we know won’t be graded. Some even cheat; the number of times a test had to be retaken because of such incidents can attest to that uncomfortable truth. School is reduced to an activity we tolerate, rather than enjoy.

This departure from core academic values is a product of growing academic competition as well as the inherent flaws of the modern education system. Academic competition and our acute awareness of it feeds our thirst for A’s and our desire to “stay in the running,” Alone, this doesn’t appear to be a problem. Healthy competition drives us, feeds our dreams and motivates us to pursue our goals. Points-based grading — the predominant grading system — however, has perverted this honest competition and turned it into a scramble for points. 

“The negative mindset is a consequence of a points-based system,” Mrs. Wilson, an AP English Language and Composition and English 9 teacher, articulated. “[The system is] training students to learn by giving rewards. When you’re little kids, those rewards come in the form of a gold star. When you’re older, it comes in the form of points.” 

The points-based grading system pins the focus on acquiring a prize in the form of a grade and neglects everything else. The entire system is riddled with issues, a major one of which is using points, which lends itself to averages. This means your final grade is the average of your performance during the semester — a fact that students have, naturally, found ways to take advantage of. The averaging system becomes a playable game. Students can choose to allot their time and energy as they find convenient so long as their grade can cushion the fallout. The mindset encouraged by this system manifests during finals week when the student body collectively turns to RogerHub to calculate what they need on the final to get a desirable grade. This can lead to gaps in developing certain skills throughout the year.

“‘I do really well on the Unit One test, and that tells me if I have to do well on Unit Two.’ If Unit Two is a different skill, why aren’t you motivated to do well on Unit Two to show that you can do both of those skills equally? The reason you’re not motivated is that even if they’re two separate skills, the weighting of them is what’s going to affect whether you try or not, not the skill itself,” Wilson explained.

Finally, a fixation on points and grades reduces the value of teachers. Often, they are considered “good” or “bad” based on how easily one can earn an “A” in their class rather than on their teaching ability or the course content.

The solution is simple: remove grades as a whole. The elimination of grades can help schools and education to return to their most fundamental purpose, which is to convey knowledge and understanding. Removing grades as a motivator would allow passion and ingenuity to return to our classrooms. Unfortunately, however, this is clearly not a practical course of action; under the current education system, which has many students but limited resources, standardized grades are a necessary measure of student ability. 

Standards-based grading introduces a compromise between conflicting interests. In contrast to the rewards-focused mentality and punitive pedagogy that points-based grading inadvertently promotes, standards-based grading puts value in student growth and the learning experience itself.

Standards-based grading accomplishes this by dividing the final grade into several standards which are then subdivided into learning targets, on which students are evaluated on a scale from one to four (or some analogous system). In doing so, grades immediately become more meaningful and holistic in nature: there’s a clear rubric that details the differences between each score and standard.

“The way that my students are discussing their own skills and exploring the texts we are reading and analyzing is a night and day difference,” Mrs. Hernandez, an AP English Language and Composition and English 9 teacher stated, “Students have a much clearer understanding of what is expected of them and the tangible ways they can improve with each skill.”

Furthermore, standards-based grading utilizes vastly more progressive grading and weighting mechanisms. 

Rather than simply averaging every score across the semester, teachers can choose from decaying averages, power laws or averages of highest/most recent scores, which emphasizes student progress over the semester rather than their initial performance. 

Even in content-based classes such as math and science, students are given opportunities to demonstrate their mastery on a later assessment.

This reduces the pressure on students because early assessments are less significant, but also promotes consistent effort throughout the course, promoting a positive outlook toward learning and reducing the incentive for academic dishonesty.

In practice, however, standards-based grading has often been poorly received.

“Students are very much used to a particular system [points-based grading] that they are able to manipulate to their favor. [Standards-based grading] doesn’t allow that same skill set; it causes some anxiety and some fear that you don’t have control over it,” Wilson described.

In particular, students introduced to the system later in high school seemed especially resistant to the change. The root of the problem lies in the conflicting interests of students and teachers. Teachers who use standards-based grading wish to prioritize learning and mastery of content over GPAs. On the other hand, students whose academic careers have revolved around the points-based system consider the new system as an obstacle to their grades, resulting in adverse responses.

The answer lies in switching to standards-based grading. Ideally, all schools would adopt it. Furthermore, it would eliminate confusing grade conversions and awkward transitions between the two grading systems. Realistically, such a broad and radical change cannot happen overnight or with zero complications, but by acknowledging the flaws of the contemporary education system and working to address them, we can achieve a system that joins student and teacher interests.

Ultimately, a shift to standards-based grading has broad benefits for both students and teachers, promoting a form of learning that is both philosophically and practically productive. Basically, points-based education discourages students from truly mastering the content and developing their understanding. Philosophically, it instills a lasting sense of dissatisfaction in its followers, who view work and effort as a necessary burden to achieve some far-off goal. Grading ought to reflect the fundamental purpose of education, which is to encourage learning. Grading must adapt to the ever-shifting atmosphere around education.

“Education goes through different philosophies all the time. But what I’m sensing right now, is that standards-based grading is this new thing that isn’t going to go away,” Wilson concluded.