I’ve got a student this year — let’s call her Aliyana* — who just plain makes me smile. She’s unique times ten — comfortable being different and always ready to think creatively. She’s also super funny and super kind — which means she’s super well-liked by her peers. In a lot of ways, she’s the kind of kid that I hope my own daughter will become.
But at times, I think she doubts herself as a learner.
She not the first to raise her hand in classroom conversations — and when she does, there’s a hesitance in her voice that hints at an intellectual insecurity that surprises me. It’s almost like school hasn’t been kind to her over the years and so she’s just not sure that being a thought leader is a role that she’s supposed to fill in our classroom. In her own mind, she’s the funny kid — not the smart kid. She makes us laugh. Other kids help us learn.
Today was different — and it all started with a unit test on the Lithosphere.
It was a big, fat, hairy deal — the first real TEST that my students have taken all year. You could feel the tension in the room when Aliyana’s class rolled through the door — and you could see the tension inside of Aliyana, who was quiet for probably the first time in a month.
As the kids worked, I watched — wrapped up in my own thoughts about the role that years worth of grades have played in defining each of the students in my class. Some tackled their tests brimming with self-assurance after years of high marks and perfect scores. Most — including Aliyana — were noticeably anxious. Concentration was high, but confidence was low. Answers were circled, erased and replaced time and again. It was a startling lesson in the impact that testing and grading has on kids.
What was most interesting, though, were the reactions that my students had to their final scores — which they got instantly after entering their answers into a digital program that we use for tracking progress by student and standard. Few — if any — students showed ANY signs of surprise. There was no jumping for joy or breaking into tears or giving high fives or whispering “Yessss” under middle school breaths.
In fact, it was almost as if every kid got exactly the score that he expected to get — and that broke my heart.
That single score meant SO much to my students and yet it told them SO little about who they are as learners. It did nothing more than reinforce the notions that my students had already built about themselves as learners. It was almost like they were resigned to some false sense of academic predetermination, convinced that they’d ALWAYS earn the same grades on task after task in class after class.
So I made a simple instructional decision: I called every student up one at a time to show them their pretest scores for the same unit right next to the scores that they earned on today’s tests — and it was the best instructional decision that I made all day. You see, EVERY kid on my team grew from the pretest to the post-test. In fact, MOST kids saw their scores rise somewhere between 20 and 30 points. The shifts were obvious and impressive. More importantly, they left every kid — regardless of final score — convinced that they WERE a learner. Some still had work to do, but it was work they knew they could tackle simply because they had proof that learning was possible.
Aliyana darn near made me cry, though.
Her score from pretest to post-test rose from a 45 to a 97. When she saw the two numbers side-by-side, she was caught off guard, convinced she was looking at the wrong numbers. When she realized that those numbers really were hers, she let out the longest “oooooooooohhhhhhhhhhhhh” that I’ve ever heard during the middle of my annual Lithosphere test. The class laughed, we both smiled — and then she spent the rest of the period part-beaming/part-bragging about how many points she’d gained over the course of the unit.
Her spontaneous joy was an awesome reminder for me, y’all: Grades shouldn’t define learners. Growth should. EVERY assessment should end with opportunities for students to reflect on the progress that they’ve made instead of the scores that they’ve earned.
*Note: Aliyana is NOT this student’s real name. But she is a real kid. And she’s real proud tonight — convinced for perhaps the first time that she is just as capable of every other student in her classes. THAT’s an instructional win.
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