The Points Game

Fair warning: I will try to keep this post as objective as possible, but I make no promises – it could get a little ranty.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Frankfurt, Germany and I’m supposed to be enjoying my spring break trip – but I can’t.

I can’t, because I have this feeling, I feel it several times a year – that feeling you get when your email floods (the night before grades are due) with student requests asking for extra credit, bumps in their grades because they “really want to get at least (insert grade here)”, or solicitations for more points on assignments completed long ago. This feeling is me fuming. I’m fuming because I have learned to hate, what I call, the points game.

When I was an idealistic undergrad in college, someone talked to our teacher preparation class about this school off in Seattle that decided to abolish grades. Students at this school either passed, or failed based on mastery of content objectives. My first thought – NO FREAKING WAY! I worked so hard for every point that I earned in my educational career, I don’t want my passing A to weigh the same as someone else’s passing C. Besides, if the classes are pass/fail, won’t kids do just enough work to hit the pass mark and then quit working? That’s what my classmates did in college. I was wholly against abolishing grades…until now.

Now, I want so badly to abolish grades because grades are no longer serving their intended purpose. Grades were intended to illustrate to what degree students had mastered the learning skills and objectives, but now they have just turned into a chess game of points.

Here are some problems I see with this game:

  1. Students care about the points, not about the learning. If I ask students to complete an assignment or activity, the very first question is, “is this for a grade?” If I answer no, they immediately dismiss it; if I answer yes, the next question is, “formative or summative?” If I answer summative, they reply, “when’s the retest?” My take: it shouldn’t matter! If I’m asking you to do something, it probably has a purpose and will be beneficial to you in some way. On the other hand, I can’t take everything we do for a grade or we would have 800 grades a quarter, some things we do are strictly for practice.
  2. Students care about their grades when eligibility is on the line. I see this time and time again – a student will fail all grading periods, except the one their sport falls under. Why not care about your grades all the time?
  3. Students love point mongering. A 95 vs. a 97 doesn’t make a difference in the big picture, but they have to squeeze out every. last. point.
  4. Students care when grades are due for the report card. I routinely see students failing all grading period – I know this because I send home progress reports to parents every Friday afternoon for the entire school year, yet students don’t make up work until the day grades are due. Doesn’t matter how many times I remind them, or how far in advance I remind them, I can guarantee that I will have a million missing assignments magically appear at 9:55am the day grades are due at 10am.

All these things have pushed me to my limits and I hate to say it, but I’m boiling over. The way grades work right now, is not working for me. Some teachers can push it aside and say “so sad, that’s the kid’s fault” but that’s just not me.

I hate grades because grades make these kids crazy. My students are so pleasant and I love them to death, until the week grades are due. This week, especially, I wanted to tear my hair out with all the grading chess kids were trying to play.  I try very hard to give my students every opportunity to be successful because I don’t want to be the gatekeeper for my kids. I don’t want their grades or my class to be the thing that holds them back from their dreams because they weren’t strong in my content area. I do understand that students have to be held accountable, so all I can do, is try to be fair.

I would love to abolish grades for my students so that school becomes about the learning and not about points. Points are not only frustrating for me, but they are emotionally detrimental to my students. Too often I see students value their own worth in accordance with their grades, and they assume their parents do the same. I just want to shake them and tell them YOU ARE NOT YOUR GRADE!

Take it from me, I remember calling my mom crying in college because I had earned my first B on a test. I remember thinking I was a failure when I earned my first 3.0. How many people in my life care about those marks? One…me.

Grades do not define who you are as a person. What you learn cannot always be quantified by a number, and that number doesn’t always accurately represent you as a learner. Unfortunately, we as a society have taught students that those numbers are valuable and the only one that matters is 100 because that means you’re perfect. We are not perfect, getting 100 all the time is not realistic, so why set our kids up for that? I break many hearts in my class, especially with my 9th grade students because they are so used to getting 100s for being compliant, or creative, or making things look pretty – but those are not my objectives. This does not mean any of my students aren’t smart, it just means they haven’t shown me their understanding yet.

Why not let kids show us what they know in whatever way they know it? Why not tell students they are qualified to move on instead of 85% qualified to move on? Why not make school about learning and not about grades?

I know there is no perfect solution, and the solution will have to come from the top down, but there has to be something better than this nightmare I experience every 9 weeks. I know my rant won’t changing anything, and quite frankly that’s okay.

In the end, it will all work out as it should, but for now I must go back to grading.

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