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Making an “A” – One Size Does Not Fit All
“A child’s mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a lamp to be lighted.” Plutarch
As the school year nears its end, final report cards will soon be sent home. The teachers will have labored over the difficulty of grading the students with the “ABC’s” of traditional evaluation. Many students will proudly share their report card with their parents and received praise and rewards, while others may hope the mailman forgets where they live.
As I think about the 240 children who put in their day’s work on our campus, one of the most powerful realizations is that there are 240 distinct individuals who have unique talents, needs, learning styles, and motivations. What they have learned over this school year includes an extensive list of facts, skills, attitudes, and behaviors. Yet, our process of grading requires us to break the curriculum into distinct subject areas and reduce the sum total of each child’s learning in the various subject areas into a single mark – a number or symbol which serves as a measure of success, or a shortcoming.
Grades are clearly a motivating factor for many students, but not for all. I encourage parents to de-emphasize grades as the only measure of success. Often, too much pressure about grades is placed on younger children. The most important goal is to maintain a high level of motivation for all students to do their best.
The grading process is filled with inequalities. Children whose personality traits and learning styles fit well in the traditional classroom will usually make good grades. Other children whose information processing abilities, attention spans, or emotional conditions make learning basic facts and skills more difficult will usually not make good grades.
The level of effort between two students may be very similar, with the results (grades) very different.
- Does the grade given accurately assess the knowledge acquired, or rather, the innate ability of the learner?
- Does the grade reflect the individual’s progress, or arbitrarily compare all children to a single standard?
- Is an “A” in one class the same measure as it is in another class or grade level?
- To what extent are grades influenced by teacher sympathy, parental pressure, and personality conflict?
- How much should effort or participation influence grades? Teachers view this issue differently one from another.
- Can we grade creative thinking and the development of intellectual curiosity?
Each child’s stages of development are unique; however, students whose intellectual development is slightly delayed can come to believe that they are not intelligent or capable. Older students sometimes choose to not take a challenging course for fear of not making an “A.” These detrimental situations can and should be avoided when possible. I do not advocate abandoning grading. Grades are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. They help us identify students who are not mastering basic skills, so that we can address the problem. The response to failing grades is typically to require students to pursue some additional study over the summer in the belief that additional effort will help to overcome the deficiency. This is probably a good thing to do, but I prefer a solution whereby students don’t end up failing at the end of a year. It is more effective to provide ongoing support and extra help throughout the academic year rather than waiting until summer school. Of course, there are situations where students’ failure is due to refusal to do the necessary work, in which case summer school may be a logical and seemingly justifiable consequence.
The more extreme remedy of repeating a grade level has been nearly abandoned due to the detrimental social and emotional consequences. Additionally, the majority of students who repeat a grade don’t improve academically as a result. A good early childhood program will focus on “readiness,” identifying students before kindergarten or first grade who are not ready to master academic skills. Those students need to be given the gift of more time in prekindergarten as an alternative to setting them up for possible failure later on.
Education needs to be seen as a process which should be a lifelong endeavor, not the product called a report card. Assigning grades is problematic, but alternatives seem quite limited. Making an “A” should be less important that the desire to make an “A.” Our challenge is to help students maintain their best efforts even when the work is difficult and their internal motivation lags.
The vessel will never be full, so let’s make sure we keep the lamp lighted.