Can Johnny Still Fail? Grading Reform Isn’t Education Reform
By Jennifer Cummings, M.Ed. – Over the past few years education reform has been a hot-button topic in political circles around the country.
From local school boards to the President of the United States, every political group and committee has developed new plans and rules to make American schools better. In education, as with most other parts of American life, different issues are in the spotlight at different times. Teaching methods that were abandoned in the 1970’s suddenly are repackaged and reborn as the new and improved methods of the millennia. School designs vary from rigid and industrial to open and conceptual. No facet of the educational system is immune.
Grading is one part of the educational system that has consistently been examined, changed, and reexamined, since grading presents the physical data often used to evaluate overall school success. Questions about what makes a student successful, how to evaluate students, and how grades reflect a student’s actual learning are constant questions to be researched and evaluated. With the use of high-stakes testing and increasing demand for students to complete high school and enter higher education, many school districts have resorted to making grading a flexible reporting system. Unfortunately, these changes are inhibiting our ability to clearly see how, or if, schools are improving.
In response to the demands and fears surrounding No Child Left Behind, as well as other federal and state laws and mandates, school systems, and especially high schools, are now actively working to avoid giving students failing grades. This allows the schools to report increased numbers of graduates and overall improvements on testing scores and graduation rates. But many times, grading scales have been changed to make passing grades lower, computerized grading programs automatically give students passing marks if they don’t fail ‘enough’, and teachers are under increasing pressure to modify assignments or offer several make-up assignments to make students pass, even when they haven’t accomplished their education goals as expected. In short, the schools aren’t necessarily getting better when their students’ grades improve.
In order to truly be able to evaluate the improvement of a school, grading standards must be kept stable and consistent. By simply changing the definitions of ‘passing’ and ‘failing’, schools and school districts are not sure they are truly making progress toward improving the quality of education for students. If students are considered to be passing, but have barely (or not) met the high standards set for them, is that truly improvement? Over-indulgent grading systems allow underprepared students to pass and continue to contribute to the educational system’s production of some underperforming graduates. This benefits no one, including the students.
Without a doubt, the recent national focus on education has resulted in some improvements in the quality of education in schools. However, if the United States is serious about creating and measuring lasting, relevant educational reform, schools must stop inaccurately reflecting the educational achievement of students due to fear of reprisal. Rather, there must be systems in place to evaluate students according to the high standards we expect of our graduates, meaningful plans to address shortcomings for all students, and support for methods that expand on true academic successes. Schools should be required to meet high standards and hold teachers, staff, and students accountable for learning, but not continue to solely focus on avoiding sanctions when they cannot meet politically, not educationally, motivated initiatives.
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